A post by one of my LJ friends ( la_marquise_de_
, this time ), provides a lot of food for thought and sparks a post of mine. I count myself fortunate in my friends.
La marquise ponders on many things, one I feel strongly about is the matter of principles, rules, duty and sacrifice as portrayed in fantasy literature.
If one reads recent productions, by and at large it feels that we are in the age of the anti-hero, the sheer number of books with vampire main characters, for instance, seems indicative to me. Not considering the popularity of the ultimate predator as hero, though, even normal human 'heroes' seem to be mostly loners who live by their own rules, disregarding those of the society around them as arbitrary or just irrelevant, 'I do what I like and I don't give a ****' people.
I understand the idea of cycles in history and literature, I understand growing tired of 'clichèes' and going for something else (even though at times I think some people don't get the difference between a clichè and an archetype), but when I read over and over again on authors' and readers' forums that 'evil characters are more fun' or that 'goody-two-shoes are boring' I start to worry.
Let me say it loud: if a good character is boring it is because it is written badly.
I see this idea that being good is effortless and a good character is also perfect, we all should know enough, by simply living and dealing with people around us, to realise that it is an idiocy : being good, being decent,
takes effort. The tentation of shortcuts, the tentation of 'but no one is looking, no one will know' is always there, should be
always there. Rules chafe, even though one recognizes the need and embraces them willingly, doubts creep in, hard choices need to be made, the dark night of the soul
can threaten even the most devout and committed of paladins (or rather particularly the most devout).
One of my favorite characters (non-fantasy, but the reasononig is the same) is Brother Cadfael, the benedictine sleuth created by Ellis Peters. None who is aquainted with him can doubt that Cadfael is a good man, but he is also a complex character.
Cadfael is a Welsh monk living in an English abbey on the border between the two countries, he has taken the cowl in his fifties after a rather adventurous life, with both eyes well open and loves the life he has chosen, warts and all. With all that, he often comes in contact with different grades and shades of evil and at times has to choose, as he puts it, between obeying the rules or The Rule,
but in no case is this a travesty for 'do whatever I like' .
In the last book of the Chronicles,
Cadfael comes to know that his natural son is being held prisoner, and he leaves the abbey against the wishes of his abbot to do what he feels is his superior duty towards a son he didn't know he had, knowing fully well that he might have thrown away his chosen life
with that decision. The book closes with Cadfael prostrated in front of the altar of Saint Winifred, in the abbey's church. The reader is left hoping that the errant sheep will be welcomed back, but we don't know, and neither does Cadfael.
Here are the two themes that la_marquise_de_
(rightly, in my opinion), feels are lacking in most contemporary fantasy : duty and sacrifice, the idea that there are things worth doing, no matter the cost to oneself; the idea that my own convenience could and should take a distant second place to something else because that is the right thing, the idea that someone might choose to lay down their life, with no resurrection spell or last-minute rescue, because that is how it should be.
That is, I think, the main reason why I loved, and still love, The Wheel of Time
saga (I haven't read the latest books yet), because, no matter how derivative the first book might be, or what the holes in the world-building are, or how in need of a tighter editing that huge beast was, the themes of sacrifice, choice, lesser evil, and duty, embraced, freely chosen or shouldered from what appears to be chance ('why me?') are constant threads giving meaning to the whole, that, for this reader, covers a moltitude of literary sins.
It goes without saying that I highly recommend la_marquise_de_
's books to anyone wanting to read fantasy with brains and elegance, her most recent post mentions quite a few other writers of note.
Death is lighter than a feather, duty is heavier than a mountain.