Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Stuff that Makes the Man: Examining Alternatives to the Warrior Hero in Fantasy

In this essay, Kate Meyers examines the limitations of the warrior-hero ideal in fantasy literature, and argues that works such as Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle not only create heroic opportunities for both male and female protagonists, but also provide a way of expanding how we think of the hero in classic works such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

King Arthur. Superman. Achilles. Hercules. When we think of heroes, we think of men like these who fight for what they believe in. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell studies the stories of heroes such as these, arguing that they can provide the symbols “that carry the human spirit forward” (11). Campbell treats the hero as a universal, symbolic manifestation of the rite of passage, wherein a person undergoes a transformative ritual that is vital to their full integration into society (40, 10). As such, the hero can also function as a symbol of what his or her culture values. The hero as warrior has become a particularly common motif in modern fantasy literature—often to the exclusion of other types of heroism. This is problematic, as it excludes protagonists with traits such as communication and compassion from the role of hero. Consistently coding the hero as warrior, when the warrior archetype embodies traits that are highly exclusionary to a significant portion of the readership, sends the message that only men, or at least only people possessing stereotypically “masculine” traits, are capable of heroism and the rite of Howl's Moving Castlepassage it symbolizes. This essay seeks to reevaluate the situation of the hero in fantasy by using Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle as representative of an alternative type of hero, one who has both “masculine” and “feminine” qualities and is still able to complete the hero’s journey. Then, by taking Jones's characterization of the hero and using it to look at older works seemingly dominated by the warrior hero archetype, such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we can synthesize different criteria for fantasy heroism that makes it possible for people of both genders to complete their rite of passage.

The hero, as Campbell notes, has been found in many incarnations in many cultures. The universal theme of all of these variations, and what Campbell determines is their ultimate purpose, is the symbolic form of the rite of passage. Rites of passage are important, because they

[…] serve to translate the individual's life-crises and life-deeds into classic, impersonal forms. They disclose him to himself, not as this personality or that, but as the warrior, the bride, the widow, the priest, the chieftain; […] All participate in the ceremonial according to rank and function. The whole society becomes visible to itself as an imperishable living unit. (383)

The hero's journey, insofar as it represents the rite of passage, is about finding both one's self and one's place in society. The shape of the hero's journey—separation - initiation - return—magnifies the pivotal parts of the rite of passage and is malleable enough to fit into a variety of different stories. The hero symbol has been ascribed to stories of quite disparate content, from Greek mythology and religious texts (Campbell) to the works of Austen, the Bront√ęs and Woolf (Edwards). However, the image most often associated with the hero in fantasy literature, particularly fantasy of the medieval persuasion, is the warrior.

An excellent example of the warrior-hero trope surfaces in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Peter, and to a lesser extent Edmund, is positioned as a warrior—the type of hero who surmounts his obstacles largely through martial prowess and logistical leadership. Father Christmas ordains him as such when he gives Peter his gifts of shield and sword, “because the time [for Peter] to use them is perhaps near at hand” (118). This prediction proves true, both for when Peter saves Susan from the wolf—a deed which Aslan lets him accomplish alone in order to “win his spurs”(142)—and when Peter leads the Narnians in the onslaught against the Witch's army, during which he holds his own against the Witch herself (193). Edmund shows similar prowess by fighting his way past three ogres in order to smash the Witch's wand, which she was using to turn the Narnians to stone (196). After Aslan comes in and defeats the Witch, the battle ends and the Pevensie children are crowned as the kings and queens of Narnia, with Peter as the High King because he is the eldest.

Lucy and Susan are notably excluded from participating in these battles. Father Christmas gives them their weapon gifts (a dagger for Lucy and bow and arrows for Susan) with the caveat that they only use them for self-defense, because “battles are ugly when women fight” (119). Rather, their other gifts place them on the periphery of the battle: Susan's horn calls Peter to battle when the wolf is attacking her (143), and Lucy's cordial heals Edmund's wound after the battle (196). If we assume that the major action of the story involves defeating the White Witch and thereby saving Narnia, it then becomes apparent that the girls, by virtue of being female, are supposed to play the part of helpmeet to their male siblings, who by virtue of their maleness are enabled and expected to directly confront the forces opposing them. By placing Susan and Lucy into support roles with regards to the main action of the novel, and coding that main action as necessarily warfare, Lewis denies them the ability to become warriors and, by extension, heroes.

The hero-warrior archetype is problematic, as it reflects and informs our culture in several ways. At its heart, the warrior archetype privileges the supposedly “masculine” qualities of strength, courage, and independence over more “feminine” qualities like nurturing, community, and empathy. The tendency of stories to portray the hero character, the one who represents the rite of passage and eventual transformation into an integral facet of society, as almost exclusively the warrior suggests that martial strength and masculinity are necessary ingredients for heroism and what it ultimately symbolizes: complete humanity and integration into society. This is further complicated by Campbell's comments in The Power of Myth, where he states that while the male rite of passage must be undergone intentionally in order to become a man, girls become women at their first menstruation whether or not they want to, and their heroic feats often enough manifest through childbirth (138, 125). Terri Frongia argues that this view implicitly denies women heroism, because they have reached their maturity through the “advent of normal reproductive functions […] there is no real identity quest either: biology has already provided the ready-made answer to a woman's identity” (16). The implications for the would-be female heroes of fantasy are dire: in order to emulate the heroic pattern set up by previous fantasy novels and Campbell, they must eschew both their biological and characteristic “feminine” qualities and take on masculine ones.

The dilemma of these female heroes reflects the dilemma of men and women reading this literature who lack the supposedly necessary characteristics of becoming a hero, because such characteristics then assumed to be necessary for the emotional maturation and social integration that heroism symbolizes. Historically, there has often been a preference for traits considered “masculine” over those that were “feminine”; even today there is much controversy about the subjective worth of “women's” work, like childcare. When such ideas are reinforced through cultural means, as in stories of heroes, these preferences become ingrained in our minds as common knowledge. In “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula LeGuin discusses just such a feeling as she encountered stories about heroes with only the warrior mindset:

Wanting to be human, too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that's what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then, evidently, I was either extremely defective as a human being or not human at all […] For it is the story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero. (5-6)

She goes on to formulate an expression of humanity that is an alternative to the “killing” story of the hero, which she appropriately refers to as the “life” story (6). This alternative story, while not new, is also not as easy to devise as the linear “killing” story, but serves the important function of balancing what can be seen as “masculine” and “feminine” qualities and simply “describe[s] what is going on, how people relate to everything else,” killing, heroes and all (9). LeGuin seems to be saying that there is more use in stories that have characters who are human before they are men or women, possessing a harmony of different characteristics regardless of their gender.

While not as numerous as the warrior-hero, however, there are examples of other fantasy heroes who fit LeGuin's desire for characters who act like real people. According to Edwards, this type of hero is most easily personified as a female, who is “permitted, like others of her sex, to love and nurture, to comfort, to solace, and to please, [specifying] these impulses as human, not just female, and endows them with a value that counters their usual debasement” (5). While not always a woman, this type of hero uses more than just martial strength and courage in order to complete his or her quest; she or he may also use intelligence, compassion, and ability to communicate, for example. Just such a hero is presented in Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. In this 1986 fantasy novel, Jones presents an alternative to the traditional hero, one whose “feminine” qualities are the key to what Campbell calls “com[ing] to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life” (388). By looking at her formulation of the “feminine” hero in Sophie as the new kind of hero LeGuin and Edwards are looking for, we are enabled to go back and reexamine the heroes of older fantasy novels like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which have an ambivalent past of criticism concerning heroism and femininity.

Like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the main action of Howl's Moving Castle also concerns dealing with a witch and the negative consequences of her magic. However, the witch and her partner in crime, a fire demon she gave her heart to in exchange for immortality and power, are defeated in this novel through the protagonists’ maturation, which culminates in their recognition of their love for one another. Sophie and Howl's individual journeys toward maturity rely upon their acceptance that they need one another, a position that is emotionally vulnerable and “feminine”, which is developed in conjunction with the “masculine” method of direct confrontation to defeat the witch and her fire demon. Both characters exhibit a mix of traits traditionally considered “masculine” and “feminine” throughout the novel, but it is only when these traits are combined in such a way that the story becomes a “life story” that their obstacles can be overcome.

As the protagonist, Sophie at first seems rather un-heroic, yet her story is very much about discovering her own identity and place in the world. The eldest of three girls, she is resigned to the fairy-tale tradition of being the “one who will fail first, and worst” if the three of them should seek their fortunes (Jones 1). Used to filling in as surrogate mother while her stepmother was occupied in the hat shop, Sophie is cut adrift from her previous identity when her father dies suddenly and her sisters leave to begin their apprenticeships. Convinced that her position as the eldest dooms her to failure (31), Sophie shirks from her role as a young woman—she is overwhelmed by the festivities on May day and hides in a doorway when a young man tries to talk to her (19). She resigns herself to living and working in the hat shop she is to inherit because it is familiar, even though she feels discontented (31). So it is unsurprising that Sophie feels right at home when the Witch of the Waste strolls into the shop and turns her into an old woman; looking in the mirror at her transformed, elderly face, she tells herself, “this is much more like you really are” (36). By transforming Sophie into what she apparently feels she is – a timid, unattractive crone – the Witch provides her with the impetus to change her unsatisfactory position in the world.

Being free from her youthful form and all of the social expectations (including male interest) that accompany it, Sophie grows bold and considerably more cheerful, because now she has an excuse not to confront her uncertainty about the future and her own sexual desires. Immediately leaving the hat shop after her transformation, she ventures up to the nearby castle of the feared Wizard Howl, who is rumored to have a penchant for sucking the souls out of young girls (5), and demands she be let in, figuring that since she is no longer young he won't want her (45). After striking up a deal with Howl's fire demon Calcifer to remove the curse binding him to the wizard if he removes hers, Sophie establishes herself in the household as Howl's cleaning lady. Although comfortable in the grandmotherly role she eventually fills for Howl, his apprentice Michael, and Calcifer, her disguise becomes a hindrance when she realizes she's in love with Howl. Meanwhile, Sophie also learns that, all along, she has had her own kind of magic that manifests whenever she talks to objects and people: talking to the hats in the shop had imbued their wearers with special qualities (238), and talking a scarecrow had brought it to life (396). Her ability to “talk life into things”(422) proves vital for breaking the contract between Howl and Calcifer, saving Howl's life in the process, and removing the spell from herself. It turns out that she had doubled the Witch's original spell with her own assertions of how much of an old maid she was so that the spell was impossible for Howl and Calcifer to remove on their own (369). Once she stopped needing to hide behind a matronly facade, when she admitted to herself she could love Howl, her own layer of the spell was removed. So when she breaks the contract between the fire demon and the wizard by telling Calcifer to “have another thousand years” to live (422) and giving Howl his heart back, Calcifer is able to transform her back into a young woman. Sophie's main impediment all along was more herself than the Witch's curse, and all along she had the power to tell herself what she was: whatever she wants to be.

Howl's heroic journey is similarly fraught with confrontations between who he is and who he thinks he is. Because the story is told from Sophie's viewpoint, the reader spends most of the time perceiving Howl only as he wants to appear to others, and it is only at the end of the novel that we truly get to know him. To the casual observer, however, Howl has flaws that have often been considered “feminine”: he is vain, spending hours every morning applying cosmetics and paying close attention to his dress, and he avoids direct confrontation at all costs (99).1 Howl's undesirable qualities are balanced by his other “feminine” quality: compassion. Compassion prompts him to give a dying star (Calcifer) his heart so it can stay alive (322), take on the orphan Michael as his apprentice, and (we find out) let Sophie stay as his cleaning lady so he can try to remove the spell from her. The removal of his heart, however, has also made him fickle regarding young women, being “only interested until the girl falls in love with him. Then he can't be bothered with her,” according to Calcifer (112). The positioning of “feminine” traits in the titular male character, regardless of whether they are subjectively good or bad, is a marked departure from the more common tendency of fantasy works to depict male heroes as unabashedly “masculine”. Giving Howl these qualities challenges the assumption that they are even “feminine” traits rather than just human ones.

Howl's vanity, flakiness, and fickleness, as symbols of his immaturity, are all challenged when he falls in love with Sophie. When he rushes to the Witch's castle to save Sophie without spending a moment on his appearance, Howl fulfills Michael’s one requirement for ever believing Howl had fallen in love – that he could forget about his looks in favor of the lady (170). While transporting Sophie back from the Witch's castle, Howl confesses that all of his attempts to avoid confronting the Witch were in facts tricks to get himself to do it because, “the only way I can do something this frightening is to tell myself I'm not doing it!” (415). His feelings for Sophie give him a reason to be honest with both himself and her, and give him the courage to confront the Witch and her demon directly. His being honest in this context is also the final requirement for the Witch's curse upon him to be fulfilled, so Howl's confessions to Sophie both leave him emotionally vulnerable—he’s not as fickle and unkind as she thought—and physically in danger from the fire demon. His decision to be truthful, while dangerous, puts him and Sophie in a position where they both have full knowledge about the obstacles that face them, and in the end this facilitates their victory. Their cooperation is key: Sophie fights off the fire demon, gives Howl his heart back, and then he destroys the Witch's heart, thereby nullifying all of her curses.

Sophie and Howl are both heroes in Howl's Moving Castle, because they come to full maturity through self-awareness and self-acceptance. Sophie realizes that she was using her maternal facade to hide from the fear of rejection that interactions with young men, and later her love for Howl, inspired within her. Howl overcomes his cowardice by finally directly confronting the Witch and her fire demon and telling Sophie the truth about his own kind nature. Yet while both characters exhibit martial prowess, with Sophie attacking the fire demon with her magic stick and Howl both the Witch and the demon with magic (424), Jones tempers the importance of this “masculine” quality with the “feminine” ones of compassion and communication. Sophie's magical ability to talk life into things serves the plot by freeing Calcifer without killing him and saving Howl's life by returning his heart, while symbolizing her ability to create whatever identity she chooses for herself, regardless of birth order. The return of Howl's heart, which Calcifer notes is “really quite soft” (419), symbolizes his unification with his true, kinder self—he no longer has to hide behind rumors of his heartlessness and unreliability. And, finally, with their discoveries of self comes the maturity required to truly love another human. The implication that Howl and Sophie intend to pursue a relationship at the end of the novel marks a notable change in their characters, and seems indicative of the positive influence their respective self-discoveries will have upon their future.

Jones's positioning of Sophie and Howl as heroes by virtue of both their “masculine” and “feminine” qualities gives us the tools to reexamine the roles Lucy and Susan play in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While the girls are limited in their ability to participate in the battle that reclaims Narnia like their brothers, the importance of qualities such as kindness, communication, and intuition leaves their characterizations open to the possibility of heroism as well. Indeed, it is Lucy's curiosity that leads her to Narnia in the first place (Lewis, 6), and without this prior experience and her compassion for the captured Mr. Tumnus (65), it seems unlikely the Pevensies would have had much of an experience in Narnia, if at all. Susan and Lucy's attuned sensitivity to the emotions of others enables them to sense the sadness in Aslan (141, 160), which prompts them to follow him on his journey to the Stone Table. They are the ones to give Aslan comfort before his sacrifice, to tend and spend the night with his body, and then witness him as resurrected—an intimate and nurturing position for the girls. Finally, Susan's horn enables Peter to save her before the wolf can kill her (144) and Lucy's cordial completely heals Edmund's wounds (196), both skills facilitating the brief but necessary acts of violence performed by the boys.

Viewed from this perspective, Lucy and Susan play a vital role in the children’s journey toward maturation and social acceptance, represented in this novel by their crowning as kings and queens of Narnia. Lewis emphasizes the importance of kindness, nurturance and communication through the girls just as he highlights the importance of bravery and might in the boys. While these traits are largely divided along gender lines, with the girls having “feminine” traits and the boys possessing “masculine” ones, there are some notable exceptions. Peter cries along with Susan after they have the close call with the wolf, and Lewis notes that “in Narnia no one thinks any the worse of you for that” (145), encouraging the open expression of emotion in boys as well as girls. Aslan himself displays both martial prowess by taking down the Witch (194) and great compassion in his willingness to sacrifice himself to save Edmund's life. In the end Lewis seems to be telling his readers that without the “feminine” qualities, the kindness and domesticity and the parts that make up the “life” story, there is no use for the “masculine,” often destructive ones. Perhaps “war is ugly when women fight” (119) because women traditionally have represented the ideals of home and love that are, usually, what the warrior is fighting to defend or regain. Converting love into war defeats the only good reason to fight in the first place.

The ideal hero envisioned by LeGuin and Edwards is not necessarily one without the ability to fight—LeGuin notes that conflict and aggression “may be seen as necessary elements of a whole” (7). The problem comes about when fighting and warfare are interpreted to be the only means through which the fantasy character may be heroic, rather than through means like guile, intellect, compassion, or simply being themselves. If the rite of passage, as envisioned by Campell, enables the individual to “come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life” (388), then it follows logically that this maturation process would be as varied in character as the humans who take part in it. Ultimately, the worthwhile fantasy hero accurately reflects our culture by illustrating the humanity of the rites of passage we all go through.

1This passage points to another challenge to creating a more gender-inclusive form of the hero.  Not only are heroes in fantasy literature portrayed primarily in terms of “masculine” qualities, making it difficult to think of a female filling that role, but “feminine” qualities are often cast in a negative light, such as they are here, making it doubly difficult for women to be thought of as heroic.  While the traits of vanity and confrontation avoidance can be perceived negatively regardless of their gendered connotations, these qualities are also often considered negatively because they are “feminine” qualities.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

---. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Edwards, Lee R. Psyche as Hero. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

Frongia, Terri. “Archetypes, Stereotypes, and The Female Hero: Transformations in Contemporary Perspectives.” Mythlore 18.1 (1991): 15-18.

Jones, Diana Wynne. Howl's Moving Castle. 1986. New York: Eos-HarperCollins, 2008.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction.” Women of Vision. Ed. Denise Du Pont. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. 1-12.

Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950. New York: HarperTrophy- HarperCollins, 1994.