The most popular fantasy hero today is not Tarzan or John Carter. It’s not Superman or Batman. It’s not even Conan or Elric. No, the most popular fantasy hero of today is probably some video game character like Mario. That’s just how it is, really. And he may not be the most popular one of all right now. Maybe there are other properties that rake in more money, I don’t know. The only reason I even know who he is is because he’s everywhere. He was in the arcades. His cartridge came with that classic 8-bit Nintendo machine. He has a never-ending franchise of games. But even more than that, people just complain about him. A lot. All the time. He really is the last vestige of the bad old days when heroes expected to get the girl in the end, so he’s gradually morphed into some kind of weird Emmanuel Goldstein that people publicly flog in order to signal their bona fides. With slam poetry if need be.
Whatever impulse it is that underlies this hysteria is a major cause behind the near absence of heroism in the wider culture. What little bit that manages to creep past the commissars is decidedly dumbed down. It’s not Star Wars that is the root cause of this per se. It’s the incredible financial success of that franchise combined with George Lucas’s desire to be taken seriously that is the problem. People bought the idea that the original movie was some kind of middle brow exercise in recapitulating Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And then somehow the thing metastasized into the way that everybody assumed fantasy was meant to be done.
I don’t buy it. And maybe Joseph Campbell was onto something, I don’t know. But the way his model is expressed today, I have to say… it doesn’t really jive with the classic stories I’ve read. This is never more obvious than when older tales are updated for blockbuster movies and then have to be reconciled to the theory.
Just as one example of that, today’s storytellers are absolutely hung up on the “refusal of the call” segment. The plot The Lord of the Rings is very nearly devoid of that sort of thing. Even a casual reading of the work reveals that the key emotional beat for majority of characters is the moment that they choose to show mercy to Gollum even though the wretched creature does not deserve it. The filmmakers don’t seem to grasp this at all, however. And the characters of Aragorn and Faramir waste valuable screen time acting out some hack’s idea of how the story should go rather than having the sense to give us the characters as J. R. R. Tolkien conceived them.
Every time storytellers pull this stunt today, the results is either a flat incoherency or else merely uninspiring, unlikable characters. The latter is the most striking thing about A. Merritt’s handling of that particular beat within The Ship of Ishtar. He has this character that inadvertently bounces in and out of an “Elfland”, often an inopportune moments. The first time this really happens, it is “the honey musk” of the kisses an insanely beautiful immortal that lures the hero back into adventure and danger. The second time, it’s this:
And suddenly all Kenton’s mind awoke. Awoke and was filled with shame, with burning longing, despair.
What would Sigurd think of him when he awakened and found him gone–Sigurd with whom he had sworn blood brothership? What would Gigi think–Gigi, who had made vow for vow with him; and trusting him, had broken his chains?
A frenzy shook him. He must get back! Get back before Sigurd or Gigi knew that he was no longer on the ship.
A healthy desire for a beautiful woman makes the hero normal, human, and relatable. But it’s honor and a loyalty that make him likable as a character. And people following the Joseph Campbell script by rote are incapable of writing heroes like this one. Because he never actually refuses the call himself. No, guys like this would be mortified if the people that were close to them might even for a second think them capable of doing such a thing.
And do guys like this think that going on some big time adventure entitles them to time favors to the princess types they ostensibly do all this stuff for…? Surprisingly the answer is… not at all.
“Sharane!” he breathed. Her soft arms wreathed his neck. “My lord–I pray you forgiveness,” she sighed. “I pray you forgiveness! Yet how could I have known–when first you lay upon the deck and seemed afraid and fled? I loved you! Yet how could I have known how mighty a lord you are?”
Her fragrance shook him; the softness of her against his breath closed his throat.
“Sharane!” he murmured. “Sharane!”
His lips sought hers and clung; mad wine of life raced through his veins; in the sweet fire of her mouth memory of all save this moment was burned away.
“I–give myself–to you!” she sighed.
“You give nothing, Sharane,” he answered her. “I–take!” He lifted her in his arms; he strode through the rosy cabin’s door; shut it with thrust of foot and hurled down its bar.
Sigurd, Trygg’s son, came and sat at the threshold of the rosy cabin. He polished the black priest’s sword, chanting low some ancient bridal lay.
That’s how weddings were done by The Lord of Fantasy. And yes, it does get better:
One dove and then another fluttered down from the balcony of the little blossoming trees. The Viking watched them, still chanting. Quick after the first dropped others, twain upon twain. They cooed and bent inquisitive heads; they billed and murmured. They formed a half ring before the cabin’s closed door.
The white-breasted doves–red-beaked, vermilion-footed; the murmuring, the wooing, the caressing doves–they set their snowy seal upon the way to Kenton and Sharane.
The doves of Ishtar wedded them!
That’s right. This isn’t just some brutish hulk that’s going to storm off with a kicking, half-naked wench under his arm. This wedding is endorsed by the Goddess of Love from the Babylonian pantheon.
You know, I’d tell Mario that he really needs to step up his game. But I’m not sure he could even conceive that something like this might be on the table…!