Sidekicks do, however, serve in other positions than comic relief. They are partnered with their hero, providing many needed services. Throughout fiction there are hundreds, if not thousands of famous hero/sidekick pairings: Donkey and Shrek, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and Batman and Robin are just a few examples. In each of these pairings, the sidekick helps out the hero. As Bronwyn Williams explains, “The sidekick tends to be the more passive, literate character who fulfills the groundwork in order to free his or her hero to perform the action.” Sidekicks vary in power and in abilities, but they share many common characteristics and are always beneath the hero.
I would like to propose that the role of the sidekick is not, however, the only role that the friend of the hero may play. There is something more than comic relief with sporadic insight available to characters who support the hero and develop the plot. The sidekick has its place, but in most fantasy literature this role should more truly be called the second, as this character is often a hero in his or her own right.
History of the Second
The companion of the hero in fantasy literature is much more of this nature than that of the sidekick. Rather than just being there for comic relief, or even for doing the grunt work for the hero, the companion is there to shoulder responsibility in case things go wrong. The companion fulfills the duties of a second throughout the entire novel in which they are placed—not only to help further the plot line and to enable to the hero to fulfill his quest, but also to be there to step into the shoes of the hero if that becomes necessary.
Tolkien and Samwise Gamgee
While the hero of The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly Frodo Baggins, the little hobbit who risked everything for the good of Middle-Earth, without his friend Samwise Gamgee, Frodo would never have succeeded in destroying the ring. Sam did not begin the journey because he wanted to or was even required to go. Rather, he began the quest to accompany Frodo. At the start of the quest, the journey is fairly pleasant, at least in comparison to future adventures, but it soon develops into the darkest and most tortuous path for the hobbits. But throughout it all, Sam supports Frodo, provides him with guidance, and heals him in spirit and body. Sam carries the burdens of Frodo, even going so far as to physically carry the ring for a time. In Sam, Tolkien creates a companion who is there for more than just comic relief—he is an integral part of the hero’s journey.
The Second in Who Fears Death and Sabriel
In Sabriel, Touchstone is the heir to the throne of the Old Kingdom, where he was imprisoned in death for several hundred years, but during the novel, he serves as sworn swordsman to Sabriel. In Who Fears Death, Mwita is Onyesonwu’s close friend and lover—in addition to both being students of the sorcerer Aro and sharing mixed-race, or Ewu, heritage. Both Touchstone and Mwita share in many of the key attributes of Sam, including support, teaching, and healing, making them more than just sidekicks, but instead, integral parts of the quest itself.
The Role of the Second: Support
Touchstone offers magical support to Sabriel in several ways over the course of the novel. For example, in the village of Nestowe, Sabriel must cleanse the remains of the local charter mage whose blood had been used to crack the charter stone. Due to the broken stone, she was having difficulty in casting the spell. But “then she felt assistance come, strength flowing through her, reinforcing the marks, steadying her hands, clearing her voice....The extra strength came through Touchstone's hand, his open palm lightly resting on her shoulder” (Nix 255). Touchstone gave of his own energy freely, ensuring that Sabriel would successfully complete the spell.
Likewise, Mwita is a powerful supporter of Onyesonwu. Without him, she would not have been able to fulfill her quest to rewrite the Great Book. A clear example of his support is found while they are with the Vah people in Ssolu, and the Masquerade appears. It wishes to speak with her, and it gives her a rather unusual “gift.” When it requests that Onyesonwu hold out her hand, Mwita grasps her shoulder and whispers, “I will go with whatever you wish to do” (Okorafor 276). He promised his support to Onyesonwu no matter what path she chose to take, much like Sam did with Frodo. She chose to extend her hand and she was immediately covered in needles from the Masquerade. The space that Mwita's hand covered was the only place on her body that was protected from the needles. After this encounter, Onyesonwu is changed so that she cannot be touched by anyone, except, thanks to his bravery in supporting her with the Masquerade, Mwita.
This is arguably the most defining characteristic of the second—to support the hero. And it is necessary for the plot as well. The second provides support to the hero when he or she needs it most and is often the only thing that keeps him or her going. Difficult times and trials are a trademark of all good stories, but it is the power of the second that helps the hero get through them. Touchstone and Mwita, like Sam, both provide this support to the heroes in their respective stories.
The Role of the Second: Teaching and Providing Knowledge
Touchstone is like Sam in that he provides information to counterbalance the knowledge that Sabriel is missing. Sabriel had been raised across the wall in Ancelstierre, the more modern, practically magic-free of the two kingdoms, where she attended an all-girls boarding school. While she was extremely prepared for the situations that proper young ladies would encounter, even “coming in fourth in etiquette” (Nix 16), she was still lacking in her understanding of the Old Kingdom where her destiny would be found. She was missing knowledge about the social structure of the Old Kingdom, the Charters that govern the use of magic in the land, and the rich history that made up her ancestry. Touchstone helped her come to terms with and understand all of these things. He explained to her the past of the royal family and the way the kingdom was ruled in his time. He also provided her with information about the social norms of the kingdom. An example of this is when he introduces himself as her sworn swordsman to the remaining villagers of Nestowe. When she angrily questions his right to speak for her, he points out, “It is traditional for someone of high rank, such as yourself, to be announced by their sworn swordsman […] and the only acceptable way for me to travel with you is as your sworn swordsman” (Nix 265). He saves her reputation with the people of the Old Kingdom and provides her with the knowledge to avoid future blunders.
The role of the second as an information provider is not just limited to the knowledge he himself knows. The role of the second often includes finding information, often in very creative ways. Touchstone displays this trait when they run into the need for Sabriel to understand the Great Charters. This is an unique situation because he does know the information but is unable to speak of it due to a powerful spell binding the knowledge. He does not become frustrated, though, and instead is struck by the brilliant idea of asking a child for information about the Charters. He knows that children who would grow into the powers of Charter Mages were given training long before they could act on it and thought that perhaps they would be able to repeat this information. His hunch was correct and Sabriel was able to find out what she needed to know about the great charters.
Mwita is also far more prepared for the adventures in Who Fears Death than Onyesonwu is. It is said over and over that he should have been the chosen one, and that he was better trained to fill her role as a sorcerer. Onyesonwu even says, “I was the sorceress but [Mwita] understood so much more than I” (Okorafor 231). Mwita, however, overcomes his jealousy and helps her come to terms with her powers and gain control over them. In many ways, Mwita is more of a teacher to Onyesonwu than her actual master, Aro. She constantly is learning from him and is more willing to learn from her second than her instructor. She finds the teaching of Aro to be very difficult and frustrating, and constantly returns to seek the advice and comfort of her second, Mwita.
The Role of the Second: Healing and Sacrifice
Mwita is clearly a healer by nature, and he constantly is providing for Onyesonwu, both physically and emotionally. Every time that she returns to consciousness after passing out from performing magic, he is the first thing she sees. He also provides her with the will to continue on, even when times are hard. Again, there is an example to be found when she was visited by the masquerade in Ssolu. After the needles fall out, Onyesonwu becomes very sick and needs to be cared for day and night. Mwita rarely leaves her bedside until she awakes. He also sacrifices his own health and wellbeing by refusing food until she ate as well. He knows that his own hunger will be the only way to force her to eat and does not hold back from using any means to help Onyesonwu, no matter how uncomfortable it was for him. Onyesonwu recognizes this skill in her second and says that every time “I would do something […] I'd always need Mwita to put me back in order” (Okorafor 231).
Touchstone is also a healer, although his first moment of healing is less conventional. When they go down to the Great Charter stones to free the body of the Abhorsen, Sabriel's father, not everything goes as planned. They are able to “rescue” him, but it is for a very short time and one that the Abhorsen uses to fulfill his duty of binding the dead by ringing the bell Astarael: “Astarael was the banisher, the final bell. Properly rung, it cast everyone who hear it far into Death [sic]. Everyone, including the ringer” (Nix 82). This everyone, of course, would include the living Sabriel and Touchstone. They are instructed to run as fast as they can in an attempt to escape the echoing sound of Astarael, but they are unable to outrun its song. In a passionate display of life, the young (soon-to-be) couple kiss. In this context, the kiss is a healing action. As death tries to claim them, they hold it back by their life and love.
One could argue that this action belonged to the hero rather than the second; after all, the kiss was initiated by Sabriel. But without Touchstone, she would have been lost. It was his returning of the lifesaving kiss that enabled them to cling to life, and if he had not responded in the correct way, he would not have been able to withstand death, no matter how hard she kissed him or any other.
There is also the traditional healing found at the very end of the novel. In typical second fashion, Touchstone casts a healing spell over Sabriel, entirely ignoring his own injuries (Nix 491). It was this spell that enabled her to return to her body when she was returned to life by the host of past Abhorsens.
Conclusion: The Second as a Shadow Hero
Furthermore, expanding our ideas of heroism to include the actions of the second enables us as readers of fantasy to define heroism in new and creative ways. While it’s easy to think of a hero as someone who wields a sword, it’s more unusual to think of the hero as the one cleaning out the stables or mopping up the floor. Recognizing the key role of the second in furthering the plot of several fantasy novels, however, demonstrates that such actions are often just as important to the quest and are inspired by motivations just as noble as any hero’s. The second has become such an integral part of the fantasy genre, often serving in such vital ways, that one must ask, “Who is the real hero? Is it the one who quests for the dragon and kills it? Or is it the one who makes such actions possible?”
Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Okorafor Nnedi. Who Fears Death. New York: Daw Books, Inc, 2010. Print.
Tolkien, J R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.
Tolkien, J R. R. The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.
Tolkien, J R. R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.
Williams, Bronwyn T. "Action Heroes and Literate Sidekicks: Literacy and Identity in Popular Culture." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50.8 (2007): 680-685. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.