HEROISM AND HUBRIS (ON HEROES AND HEROICS)

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CHAPTER THREE: FROM POTENTIALITY TO POTENCY

The hero in fantasy must inevitably set forth upon a quest in order to realise his full potential and fulfil his own destiny. Often, a fantasy series extends well over three books. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (beginning with The Eye of the World (1991)) series consists of fourteen books, with authors like David E. Eddings and Raymond E. Feist extending their works to well over twenty books, making fantasy epic not only in content, but length as well (once again, these narrative epics share a common element with their ancient predecessors in terms of the fact that sheer length is a noted criterion of the epic genre). Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series consists of ten published books, and a few books on the sidelines that deal with the Malazan world and characters, but are not considered a part of the series. The focus of these mammoth tomes is predominantly on the heroic journey or quest, although, as I shall demonstrate, Erikson’s technique of representing the hero is significantly different from the other authors I have mentioned in the previous chapter.
Harris and Platzner argue that the successful completion of a journey is an intrinsic part of heroic status:
The hero […] often demonstrates prodigious powers, even in childhood. On reaching adulthood, he craves adventure and, seeking to test his own powers, embarks on a quest or series of quests: a journey of discovery during which he will learn about himself, his society, and his universe.
(Harris & Platzner, 2008: 312)
While most fantasy does not traditionally have the hero set forth upon a quest or journey without some sort of external stimulus, the journey does teach the hero about “himself, his society, and his universe” (the latter being particularly true of Pug in Raymond E. Feist’s The Magician) and self-discovery is, in most cases, the main focus of the quest.
The way in which fantasy writers represent their characters is closely related to the locale and setting from which the heroic figure emerges. Locale becomes, for the fantasy writer, the site of the ‘zero to hero’ theme. The setting denotes the hero’s ability to rise above his humble origins and become great in spite of them (a Christian allusion is found, for example, to the stories of David and Christ). The setting of many contemporary fantasy works is important in terms not only of establishing the general tone of the novel, but also in positioning the hero with regard to the world in which he finds himself.
The works of Tolkien, Feist and Donaldson begin with a world currently at peace, and then an interruption to this peace occurs. The interruption and unsettlement of the ‘natural order’ of things constitutes the hero’s call, and the beginning of the heroic quest. The largest threat to Crydee (the place at which Feist’s series starts), for instance, is the occasional skirmish or encounter with dark elves and goblins (the peace, here, is disrupted by the discovery of Tsurani on Midkemia). The Shire, in Tolkien’s work, is pastoral, and seems to have remained unchanged for an unspecified, yet lengthy, amount of time (in fact, Hobbits – by their very nature – are resistant to any form of change which may threaten their current mode of being). Admittedly, there are areas in Middle-earth that seem to suffer from a relative amount of unrest (such as Gondor), but these are small in comparison with previous wars upon the continent. It is only when Bilbo’s ring is positively identified as the One Ring of power that the threat posed by the re-emergence of Sauron comes within range of the races of Hobbits, Men, Dwarves and Elves, and counter-measures must be devised, inaugurating the entire quest. Likewise, it is largely due to the arrival of Thomas Covenant in Donaldson’s fantasy that an upheaval of the natural order occurs.
Thomas Covenant is taken from the ‘real’ world, in which he is a leper, and is transported to a strange and magical land where he is claimed by Lord Foul the Despiser. The great evil, which previously threatened the Land, has returned once more, and Covenant’s arrival seems to be symbolically linked to this return. Foul refers to Covenant as his “prize” (Donaldson, 1993: 39) and says to Covenant:
“I have a task for you. You will bear a message for me to Revelstone – to the Council of Lords.
“Say to the Council of Lords, and to High Lord Prothall son of Dwillian, that the uttermost limit of their span of days upon the Land is seven time [sic] seven years from the present time. Before the end of those days are numbered, I will have the command of life and death in my hand. And as a token that what I say is the one word of truth, tell them this: Drool Rockworm, Cavewight of Mount Thunder, has found the Staff of Law … Say to them that the task appointed to their generation is to regain the Staff. Without it, they will not be able to resist me for seven years, and my complete victory will be achieved six times seven years earlier than it would be else.
[…]
“One word more,” Foul said, “a final caution. Do not forget whom to fear at the last. I have had to be content with killing and torment. But now my plans are laid, and I have begun. I shall not rest until I have eradicated hope from the Earth. Think on that, and be dismayed!”
(Donaldson, 1993: 41-42)
Foul informs Covenant that the “war” that will erupt as a result of Drool’s possession of the Staff “is not the worst peril” (Donaldson, 1993: 42). Drool’s search for and mastery over the Illearth Stone, should he find it, would result in “woe for low and high alike until Time itself falls”, and yet he is ultimately the one to be feared, since he shall be the one to “[eradicate] hope from the Earth” (Donaldson, 1993: 42).
This upheaval and disturbance to the relative peacefulness of the Land signals Covenant’s materialisation on the path to fulfilling his destiny. Tolkien is far less subtle in his approach. The symbolism of his journey or quest is the “Road” (Tolkien, 2001: 72; original emphasis). The fact that the word “Road” is capitalised in the text is significant in that it is symbolic of the heroic journey as well as indicative of the specific road the Hobbits must take. The proper noun “Road” becomes a metaphor for spiritual introspection, and the path the aspiring hero must take in order to achieve self-knowledge and realise his full potential, while also signifying the actual, physical path the Fellowship of the Ring must travel in order to complete its task of destroying the Ring (a path that leads its members from the safety of their homes in the Shire into the dangerous heart of Mordor, Mount Doom or Orodruin). Elrond the Elf says:
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard.2 And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” (Tolkien, 2001: 262)
Elrond’s words imply that the events that might change the course of history are executed by those who are small in stature – both literally and metaphorically, since a seemingly Christian allusion to “faith the size of a mustard seed” (Matthew 17: 20) capable of moving mountains is evident here. Frodo also acknowledges the road’s symbolic and literal significance when he recites a poem he recalls as he and Samwise begin their journey:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say. (Tolkien 2001: 72; original emphasis)
When Samwise asks whether the poem is one taught to him by Bilbo, Frodo explains that “It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away [Bilbo, too, had followed an unspecified road]. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’”
(Tolkien, 2001: 72)
These words seem particularly significant, since Frodo must always “keep [his] feet” (Tolkien, 2001: 72) and engage in a constant, conscious battle in order to fully resist sublimation by the power of the One Ring. Like the Hobbits, Aragorn (“by some called Strider” (Tolkien, 2001: 166; original emphasis) – a name that implies an action of walking at a steady and regular pace) also has a road to self-fulfilment, which he must travel.
The crux of Tolkien’s tale is neatly summarised by Elrond’s reference to “small hands” (Tolkien, 2001: 262): a hero born from divine, or even quasi-divine, parentage and possessing supernatural powers and/or abilities accomplishes the mammoth tasks he is given with relative ease, and yet the Hobbits are neither descended from gods nor in possession of outstanding abilities. The deeds of the Hobbits, then, are made more extraordinary and marvellous through sheer dint of the fact that they neither possess remarkable strength nor wisdom (in fact, their intellect and wisdom, in so far as it applies to the world, is centred largely upon the domestic concerns of the Shire). Elrond’s mention of the “small hands” is a pointer to someone who originates from relatively humble origin, inauspicious beginnings, and is dialectically opposed to the “eyes of the great” – “great”, here, denoting stature as well as status (within the context of Tolkien’s world, the “eyes of the great” may also be interpreted as a reference to the disembodied Eye of Sauron, which watches over his gathering armies) (Tolkien, 2001: 262).
At the Council of Elrond, Boromir recites a prophecy he had dreamt, which reveals the role of the Hobbits in the events that will unfold:
Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall be woken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand. (Tolkien, 2001: 240; original emphasis)
The dream guides him to the council of Elrond, and the role of the Hobbits (or Halflings, as they are familiarly known) is thus revealed, and established as predestined. Aragorn is chosen (both by the Council and by his predestined birthright) to lead the Hobbits to Rivendell where, it is hoped, a solution to the problem presented by the Ring will present itself. At the culmination of the ordeal, the implication exists that Aragorn returns to Gondor enriched and fit to assume the royal mantle and take up his position as rightful king. Frodo’s metaphoric and literal journey is measured by the great distance he travels in order to destroy the Ring and liberate Middle-earth. In keeping with this quest motif, Covenant travels across the Land in order to gain knowledge of his enemies and gather support for his cause.
The metaphorical significance of physical distance travelled is inherently tied to the psychological development of the hero figure. The same is true of Pug. His journey takes him across two worlds, and he must find his way home. “Home”, here, is symbolic of the place of inner peace and the site of reconciliation, and represents his rapprochement of two disparate forms of magic. His counterpart, Tomas, however, does not undergo a physical quest, but experiences a mental struggle and serves as an example of the fact that the heroic figure is an initiator of change (in his world) as a culmination of the journey he undergoes.
Another factor that contributes to the hero realising his full potential is isolation, which results in the hero taking full and sole responsibility for both his quest and the consequences of it, as illustrated by Harris and Platzner:
In the course of that quest, [the hero] is eventually isolated from his fellow humans and, all alone, must do battle with nightmarish creatures or monsters, usually including some in serpent or dragon form […]. (Harris & Platzner, 2008: 312)
While this is particularly true of Tolkien’s Hobbits, in that Frodo and Samwise will be separated from their companions (as will Peregrin and Meriadoc), and will do battle against “nightmarish creatures or monsters”, most notably the gargantuan spider Shelob (and, ultimately, Sauron himself, albeit indirectly), Tomas is also isolated from (and thought lost by) his travel companions. Interestingly, Tomas does not do battle with the dragon, but benefits from its power. If, as Harris and Platzner suggest, “the guardian serpent […] was once associated with the worship of a prehistoric goddess, before she was dethroned by male sky gods” (Harris & Platzner, 2008: 85-86), then Feist seems more sympathetic to the feminine divine than Tolkien – since Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit, is able to overcome the dragon Smaug through perceiving and then exploiting its Achilles’ heel and slaying it. In The Magician, however, the entity with which the young hero, Tomas, will do battle (not at the exact time at which he acquires the suit of armour, but for an unspecified amount of time in the future as he battles to exert his own persona and will) is the alien entity of Ashen-Shugar.
In order to keep himself focused while travelling lost and alone through the dwarven mines after being separated from his party, Tomas [f]ighting down what he recognised as budding panic […] continued to walk. He kept his mind on pleasant memories of home, and dreams of the future. He would find a way out, and he would become a great hero in the coming war. And most cherished dream of all, he would journey to Elvandar and see the beautiful lady of the elves again. (Feist, 2009: 168)
Inside these mines, Tomas comes upon a dying dragon, and since the boy elects to stay with the dragon until its final moments have passed, the dragon gifts him with a suit of armour which – unbeknown to any at the time – once belonged to the dragon-rider Ashen-Shugar, a member of a race known as the Valheru, rulers of Midkemia’s elder races. This gift results in Tomas inheriting much of Ashen-Shugar’s memories, physical traits and powers, and his inner struggle involves reconciling the Valheru’s natural instinct to dominate with his own personality.
Since donning the dragon’s gift armor [sic], Tomas had become a fighter of legendary capabilities. And the boy … no, the young man, was taking on weight, even though food was often scarce. It was as if something were acting to bring him to a growth sufficient to fit the cut of the armor [sic]. And his features were gaining a strange cast. His nose had taken on a slightly more angular shape, more finely chiselled than before. His brows had become more arched, his eyes deeper set. He was still Tomas, but Tomas with a slight change in appearance, as if wearing someone else’s expression.
Dolgan [a dwarven chieftain] pulled long on his pipe and looked at the white tabard Tomas wore. Seven times in battle, and free from stain. Dirt, blood, and all other manner of contamination were refused purchase in its fabric. And the device of the golden dragon gleamed as brightly as when they had first found it. So it was also with the shield he wore in battle. Many times struck, still it was free of any scar. The dwarves were circumspect in this matter, for their race had long ago used magic in the fashioning of weapons of power. But this was something else. They would wait and see what it brought before they would judge. (Feist, 2009: 257)
Tomas, then, is representative of the return of the ancient power of the Valheru, but – significantly – not their dominance. Pug, on the other hand, will change the nature of magic on the face of two worlds and will be instrumental in ending many of the wars that disrupt Midkemia subsequent to (and including) the Riftwar and the invasion of the Tsurani. At long last, after being abducted by the Tsurani invaders into Midkemia, and being taken to their home world, where his potential as a Great One (a Tsurani magician) is discovered, Pug (now known as Milamber, and a member of the council of Great Ones) sets foot on the path that will see him become one of the greatest magicians the two worlds have ever seen. He does this by standing up to the injustices he perceives on the Tsurani world, and asserting his right to don the mantle of power:
Milamber tensed, suffused with anger. Twice before in his life, when attacked by the trolls and when fighting with Roland, he had reached into hidden reservoirs of power and drawn upon them. Now he tore aside the last barriers between his conscious mind and those hidden reserves. They were no longer a mystery to him but the wellspring from which all his power stemmed. For the first time in his experience, Milamber came to understand fully what he was, who he was: not a Black Robe [a Tsurani magician], limited by the ancient teachings of one world, but an adept of the Greater Art, a master in full possession of all the energy provided by two worlds.
The Warlord’s magician regarded him in fear. Here was more than a curiosity, a barbarian magician. Here stood a figure to awe, arms stretched upward, body trembling with rage, eyes seemingly aglow with strength.
(Feist, 2009: 578)
The moment of Pug’s action indicates the realisation of his magical potency and potentiality.
Finally, Pug fulfils the destiny Kulgan predicted so long ago, and thereby realises the latent potential that existed within him from the very beginning of Feist’s tale. This is the symbolic acceptance of his role as hero, and represents the hero’s sense of self-awareness realised.
Similarly, Covenant is able to settle the Land back into its happy and fertile status quo by defeating the threat. Campbell summarises the hero’s battle with his antagonist(s) as follows:
the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power […].
(Campbell, 1973: 337)
Campbell’s premise of the hero initiating a change to the status quo is particularly true of Tolkien’s Hobbits. Originally of humble origins, once their task is completed, the Hobbits are hailed by the people of Gondor and praised “with great praise!” (Tolkien, 2001: 933), and when they seek to return to the Shire, Aragorn says the following: “though your people have had little fame in the legends of the great, they will now have more renown than any wide realms that are no more” (Tolkien, 2001: 952). The Hobbits not only succeed in establishing their presence in the lands of Middle-earth, but the task they accomplish heralds a change in the status quo of the world. When addressing Aragorn towards the end of the novel, Gandalf says:
“This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.” (Tolkien, 2001: 949-950) Gandalf’s words serve as a fitting end to the stewardship of the Elder races (such as the Elves and Dwarves) over Middle-earth, and emphasise that the rule of Men has begun.
Significantly, at the head of this new dominion is Aragorn, who heralds the dawn of the Age of Men, which he will lead as their king.3 Aragorn’s narrative arc in Tolkien’s masterpiece is centred on his developing to realise his own potential, and Tolkien prepares him for precisely this role of leadership. Ford and Reid maintain that [b]efore being crowned, Aragorn must demonstrate that he is worthy of being king by showing not only that he has the favor [sic] of the gods through his possession of luck, especially through victory in battle, but also that his divine inheritance is active, a quality shown through supernatural abilities, such as the ability to heal. (Ford & Reid, 2009: 74-75)
The Hobbits, too, act as initiators of localized change; their role is to destroy the Ring and they thus enable the new Age of Men. The most significant change, however, is wrought in their very own Shire. After the Hobbits have returned from their wanderings, they come to a much-diminished Shire. Their fellow Hobbits are subservient to the will of the mysterious Sharkey (who is none other than a disgruntled and deposed Saruman seeking revenge) and his men. Upon discovering the source of the other Hobbits’ fear, the remaining four of the Fellowship (Pippin, Merry, Samwise and – of course – Frodo) set about rallying the Hobbits and marshalling troops in order to remove Sharkey from the Shire. This factor alone is perhaps the most telling when it comes to revealing the changes the journey to Mt Doom has wrought in the Hobbits. Samwise returns wearing what the Gaffer calls “ironmongery” (Tolkien, 2001: 991), but, like Merry and Pippin, he is able to reinsert himself smoothly back into the Hobbit way of life. Samwise will end the novel with the words “‘[w]ell, I’m back’” (Tolkien, 2001: 1008) and will return to his hobbit home where his wife Rosie is waiting with his dinner and child.4 He is also elected as mayor of the Shire seven times before riding out from Bag End, never to be seen again, sixty-one years after his initial return to it. Pippin “becomes the Took and Thain”, and “Meriadoc, called the Magnificent, becomes Master of Buckland” (Tolkien, 2001: 1071). The latter two young Hobbits are much changed after their encounters with the world outside the Shire and continue to wear their armour when they set out. In spite of this, however, their general acceptance by the Hobbits of the Shire is noteworthy:
The two young Travellers5 cut a great dash in the Shire with their songs and their tales and their finery, and their wonderful parties. ‘Lordly’ folk called them, meaning nothing but good; for it warmed all hearts to see them go riding by with their mail-shirts so bright and their shields so splendid, laughing and singing songs of far away; and if they were now large and magnificent, they were unchanged otherwise, unless they were indeed more fairspoken [sic] and more jovial and full of merriment than ever before.
(Tolkien, 2001: 1002; emphasis added)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE: STEPPING INTO SECONDARY WORLDS
CHAPTER TWO: HEROISM AND HUBRIS (ON HEROES AND HEROICS)
CHAPTER THREE: FROM POTENTIALITY TO POTENCY
CHAPTER FOUR: BARKING MAD: COLTAINE OF THE CROW CLAN
CHAPTER FIVE: “WE JUST REITERATE”: THE FALL
CHAPTER SIX: “REMEMBER US”
BIBLIOGRAPHY
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