Initiation: Fantasy’s Hidden Theme

by Seth Mullins

“Transformation of the
Fantasy Protagonist”
appeared in issue 174.

It’s dark within the teepee; outside, all is quiet. A boy of the tribe, in the flower of youth at sixteen years of age, lies sleeping. Suddenly, rough arms pull him from his bed of thick pelts. A hand clamps over his mouth, stifling his cries. His mother, now awakened, watches and does nothing to intervene. His father is mysteriously absent.

His abductors take him deep into the woods. They tell him that Father Serpent has smelt his foreskin and soon will be coming for it. Following this ordeal, the boy is succored by these males with ancestral songs and stories. He learns of the origin of his people, their relationship with the Great Spirit, and of the otherworld that awaits them all after death. He begins to trust his mentors, for they will serve as his bridge back to the world. His face is painted with ashes, the dust of his old life — and a reminder of his mortality. Then he is brought back to the tribal grounds, where none recognize him — not even his own mother. As a stranger, he must be given a new name. The tribe makes his acquaintance as if for the first time, and the boy-turned-man learns of his new responsibilities and rights among them.

Such events as this, once commonplace in pre-civilized cultures, seem oftentimes senseless and brutal to modern western minds. The methods used by “savage” peoples to indoctrinate their young into the adult world of the tribe offend our civilized sensibilities because we’re ignorant of the belief systems operating. For the boy having passed through trial and initiation, the initial pain and fear was a small price to pay for the strength, knowledge and wisdom that was gained. For he knows, now, his place in his community and his special destiny; he’s recognized by the fruits of his experience. The struggle for identity is over.

Sadly, in our culture such a moment never comes. Our pseudo-rituals — like commercialized holidays and birthdays, graduations, attainment of degrees, and coming of drinking- and driving-age — fail to engage our souls and evoke hidden resources of character to the same degree that primitive initiations did for Native Americans, Inuit, Australian Aborigines and so many others. And unfortunately, the need remains within the human psyche for sharp lines to be drawn between childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Pubescent boys who resort to drugs, crime and/or the violent rites of gang life are, in a sense, crying out for the elders to come and carry them into the dark soul-forest where the real significance of life will be revealed to them. Others may seek initiation in the often humiliating rituals of fraternity houses or the military.

The absence of a spiritually-grounded ritual life in our culture has created a void that our artists, especially, have endeavored to fill (whether consciously or unconsciously). For the ancient Greeks, Normans, Celts, Saxons and Hebrews, among others, mythology served as a compass by which to orient oneself in the world with an awareness of the larger entities of life. This characteristic trait has, in the modern day, been inherited by myth’s prodigal son: fantasy literature.

Within the great fantasy tales we find the same themes that resonated so strongly within the hearts and minds of pre-civilized peoples, such as the death of childhood (and its illusions), guilt and redemption, the danger of hubris (pride), and the existence of realms and forces beyond the grasp of our five senses. On the one hand we are reading an adventure story set within an alternate time and/or place. But we are also holding up a mirror to our own inner world and seeing, reflected back at us, the disillusionment and triumph, pain and bliss, the vitality of our ideals and the reality of our dark side that we encounter along our journey to maturity. The real victories in fantasy stories occur when the protagonists are transformed by their journey and find the inner resources to meet their destiny. This is what distinguishes Frodo Baggins from the average film character portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. Fantasy captures the initiatory moments well. Remember our frightened tribal boy? Consider Rand Al’Thor fleeing Emond’s Field as it is invaded by trollocs, or Luke Skywalker speeding back to his homestead to find his foster parents killed. There is no turning back; we must move forward. Luckily, we have our tribal elders and shamans: Merlin, Gandalf, Allanon, Obi-wan... did someone say “Hero with a Thousand Faces”? The same qualities — hard-won from the journey — that raised our tribal youth to manhood serve also to ennoble our own lives: courage, loyalty, integrity, humility and self-sacrifice. And just as a gifted boy of the Sioux returned from his spiritual communion in the plains to serve his tribe as Medicine Man, so the fantasy hero returns to his community, after confronting the powers of darkness, to give the gift of his newfound knowledge.

He is not the same person who was dragged from his comfortable abode by the initiatory hands of fate; and we, the readers, who have followed his journey, will hopefully never look at the world in quite the same way again, either.


Copyright © 2005 by Seth Mullins

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