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Cover of "The Sword in the Stone (Disney ...

Cover via Amazon

A good portion of fantasy revolves around the idea that some people stand out from the rest.  In the Harry potter universe, normal humans stand on the sidelines while only the special “wizards” and “witches” get to take their place among the other “magic” creatures: goblins, dragons, centaurs, etc.  In Eragon, the dragon riders get to fly around and communicate telepathically with shining dragons, while other people kind of miss out on that opportunity.   In Lord of the Rings, the elves get to live pretty much forever if they’re careful and the humans… don’t.

A lot popular fantasy stories both now and throughout the ages also highlight one main character who learns he has been “chosen” by destiny to do something amazing.  Often this “choice of destiny” has something to do with who his parents were, like in the legends of King Arthur.  According to the myth, Arthur didn’t know during his younger years that he would be king.  Some of the older stories suggest he truly thought himself to be a member of the family who raised him, while more modern takes like Disney’s Sword in the Stone suggest he had a childhood similar to poor young Harry Potter, until he pulled what he thought was a random sword out of a stone, and then Merlin finally lets him know, “You’re a King, Wart.”

In fact, the the sentence, “You’re a [insert really cool sounding thing that most people aren’t here], [insert name of main character here] is a staple of popular fiction.  If Main Character is male, usually it’s some older, wiser male guide who shows up to bring him the news, but if Main Character is a she, then it’s usually some slightly older and extremely attractive male guide who shows up to bring her the news, becoming both her escort into the new world she now belongs to and her love interest all at the same time.  Wow.  There’s nothing medieval or sexist about that at all, is there?  A lot of girls must like it though, or I wouldn’t see any female writers using it.

So what is it that makes the tale of the “special” chosen one so appealing to readers? I think it’s because it has such a strong emotional resonance with our lives.  None of us really know for sure, unless we become scientists and perform DNA testing on ourselves, that we are the children of our actual parents and not of some royalty somewhere, so in a way, the “changeling” fantasy of an otherworldly person being dumped on a human doorstep as a baby really appeals to us all in a kind of, “It could have happened to you.  Well, not really, but then again you never KNOW, do you?” way.

On a deeper level, I think the idea that we could be something more that meets the eye to most people, or even to ourselves, resonates deeply with our emotions.  Maybe our life isn’t really so bad.  Maybe we don’t sleep in a closet every night and get beaten up by our overweight cousin.  But we’ve all dealt with people who looked down on us.  We’ve all had days when we wondered if the bullies might be right and we were worthless.  We’ve all felt like we were different in some way from people around us, and wondered if that was okay.  The fantasy of finding out you’re something special – whether it’s a changeling from the fairies, or the son of a king, or a wizard, or a princess – is that fantasy of having proof that the bullies were wrong, that we really are better than what we sometimes see in ourselves, that we CAN save the world if we try.  It’s the fantasy of having something to fix our confidence on beyond our own dreams or what our parents told us, the fantasy of being able to tell our selves, “I am worth it because I am this special thing, and nothing can take that away from me.”

However, the trouble with “special” races and “chosen ones” in fantasy is that they make being a normal human look pretty bad by comparison.  I know girls who fantasized around the time they were eleven years old that they’d get a letter from someplace called Hogwarts telling them to go off to boarding school and practice becoming a witch.  Since I didn’t read Harry Potter till later in life myself, I missed out on that particular childhood dream, and finding out that so many of my friends had had it disturbed me for a couple of different reasons, one of which was that, as anybody who reads the books would know, American witches DO NOT go to Hogwarts.  Probably most of them wind up in tacky American wizard schools that aren’t even boarding schools.  The other issue was that they were, after all, fantasizing about finding out they were witches, something that I don’t think their parents had in mind when they let them read the books.

But that’s a story for another day.  My main question here is this: Is it good for us to keep creating fantasy worlds in which some people have all the cool powers and everybody else just loses out?  This drastic inequality isn’t something we want to promote in real life, so should we be promoting it in fiction?  I plan to explore this problem further in future posts, but in the meantime, what do any of you think about “specialness” in fantasy?