I really do love the Ron Howard’s Willow. I mean, yeah, it’s not a perfect movie, but in the relatively spare canon of “decent fantasy films,” it rates rather high. It rates in my top five, at any rate.
What do I like about it? Now, see, that’s something I’ve spent years trying to put my finger on. I mean, obviously Mad Martigan is awesome and everybody played a ranger in AD&D because they wanted to be him (admit it – you know I’m right). General Kael is pretty badass, Nokmar castle is a wonderful piece of scenery, the soundtrack is glorious, the Nelwyns are charming. None of that, though, is really it. It took me until yesterday, when I was watching the movie with my 5-year-old daughter for the first time, that I figured it out:
Willow Ufgood is an excellent, excellent male role model.
I mean, Martigan gets all the press, sure, and is a pretty decent guy in the end, but Willow is the shining moral center of that film and, honestly, I do love him for it. Part of the reason it took me a long time to realize his importance to me is because Willow does not conform to the typical male tropes that I, and every other guy, was raised to believe in. He isn’t strong. He isn’t powerful. He isn’t brash or clever or hard or any of that macho, chest-thumping crap. You know what Willow is? A good person. A good, competent father. A regular guy who goes out and does what’s right because, dammit, it’s what’s right.
I think what hit me most strongly this time around was his role as father figure. Fathers, as we men are informed from a young age, are not involved in childcare. They are not supposed to be accustomed to domestic duties and are, we are told, pretty clueless and stupid about children, women, and everything else that isn’t drinking, fighting, screwing, and making money. Remember Three Men and a Baby? Remember all the “hilarity” surrounding them changing a diaper or giving her a bottle and so on? You know what that told me, as a boy: taking care of babies is not your place, man-child. See how foolish and stupid these men are? That could be you!
Willow is none of that, though. Willow knows how to change a diaper. He understands when Elora Danan feels sick, knows why she’s crying, and cares that she gets fed. He even gives very explicit instructions to Mad Martigan when handing her over. The best part? The movie doesn’t even treat this as a thing. It’s like, “well obviously this guy knows how to handle a baby – he’s got kids!”
It’s possible I’m giving the movie a bit too much credit, here. Perhaps, from my 21st century perspective, I fail to realize that the movie is holding up these qualities of Willow’s as things to be mocked, but I don’t think so. Elora Danan could have selected anybody as her guardian, but you know who she picks? Not Mad Martigan, not Airk, not even Fin Razel – she picks Willow, the good dad. The farmer and bad sorcerer. The good and honest man who leaves his home and family (who he misses desperately) to take care of and protect an innocent baby from forces waaay beyond his power to contest.
The movie is actually full of subversive gender stuff, too. While I’m not calling it a feminist masterpiece, it’s worth noting that all the most powerful characters in the film are women (Bavmorda, Sherlyndria, Fin Razel). The primary male protagonist (Willow) learns from and takes advice from women constantly and is correct in doing so. The film passes the Bechdel test, too (though, you know, that’s a really low bar, admittedly). Even Mad Martigan is portrayed as a decent person with the baby – he knows how to hold her, he shows affection towards her – and this is never seen as degrading to his masculinity or anything of the kind. In this film, everybody cares for the baby. It’s a thing that humans do. Weird that such would seem somehow revolutionary, right? And yet…
Now, when I watch this movie, I realize that this is part of the thing I appreciated about it all along, but didn’t actually vocalize. I mean, as a guy, you’re not supposed to admire the parenting skills of another man. You’re supposed to love Mad Martigan’s swordplay (and I do) and be impressed by General Kael’s skull mask (and I am). For all that, though, the real hero here is a man who is a competent, caring dad. In the end, all those swords and armies and magic acorns and powerful wands don’t really matter for much. The coup-de-grace is basically delivered because Willow could get a baby in an eldritch sacrificial garment to stop crying long enough for him to perform a disappearing pig trick.
That, fellow dads, takes a special kind of magic, does it not?
Tomorrow is release day for Blood and Iron, book 2 of the Saga of the Redeemed! Get it wherever fine e-books are sold!
I’m in the middle of reading The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Not quite done with it yet, but I will be soon, and I’d like to talk about it.
It’s a beautiful book for many reasons, but primary among these is that Maia is a beautiful person, and I think we need to pause and appreciate that for a moment. How often is it, these days, that we get to read a story about a main character who is, at their deepest level, a good, kind, wise, and wonderful individual? I can tell you that it isn’t often. Not often enough, anyway. In particular, so much of fantasy is grim, dark, or grimdark. This isn’t even a recent thing, necessarily – Tolkien was pretty dismal himself, as of course was Howard, and that legacy has remained to the present day, more or less. Even in our more heroic tales, fantasy protagonists often find themselves doing cruel things (even if they regret it) or compromising on some keenly held value or other. They’re still good people, ultimately, but they aren’t wonderful people anymore.
Maia, though, is the genuine article. He is kind without effort. He is good without thinking. He is the kind of person we wish more people were like – that we wish we were like. When you watch Maia, unsure of himself and concerned for others, thwart his enemies by simply being nice when they do not expect it, you find yourself smiling from ear-to-ear. A warm feeling fills your guts – here is one of the good ones, and by God may he not be the only one. Not a warrior, certainly, not a talented thief or a clever schemer, no wielder of great magic – just a kind and genuine person. No less a hero, though. No less a leader. No less a person to aspire to be.
Too often we forget the power of a person like this. What wouldn’t you do for them? Who couldn’t love them? We spend our days reading stories about tortured souls and twisted genius, and we kinda forget that sometimes, just sometimes the best person for the job is the one that gives you a hug when you need it. Even writing this makes it sound corny, but I suppose that says something about me and, probably, about all of us. What a pack of cynics we can be.
I’m a sucker for redemption stories, and here Addison gives us one that breaks the mold: Maia is redeemed not because he finds the good in himself, but because everybody else finally notices what has been there the whole time. That payoff is just as immense, let me tell you. You should read it.
For some reason, Maia’s struggle reminds me of this scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou, where Everett and his friends reminisce of what they might do with the treasure they seek. Pete’s story strikes me as particularly poignant each time I see it. Here is a man who is, deep down, a good person, but set upon by circumstance. He has every right to be bitter and angry, but even in his wildest dreams, all he wants is to be respected, to eat well, and to wear a bow tie. He wants to be seen as a man, not a creature – a humble and yet heartfelt goal. Just like Maia’s desire to have something so simple as a friend, the good person’s dreams are no less selfish, on some level, but they possess a kind of purity that is beautiful. I find it so, anyway. Maybe you do, too.
We need more stories like this, I think.
This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.
To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.
So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”
The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?
Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.
I just finished the fifth book of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I don’t remember the precise title (Death Masks?), but that hardly matters since the titles are the least interesting or memorable parts of the series. They are wonderful fun, each and every one of them, and while they lack in some areas (Butcher’s a bit predictable at times), I recommend them to anyone looking for some light reading in the Urban/Contemporary Fantasy genre.
Anyway, the reason I bring Butcher up is that his main character, Harry Dresden, is confronted by an otherworldly
spirit who, as payment for services rendered, asks him for an honest answer to a question: “Why do you do what you do?” In other words, why does Harry, powerful wizard, bother living his life as a protector of the mortal world, which puts him in harm’s way, hurts his finances, and ruins his personal relationships. In essence, the spirit asks Harry why he is a hero. The best part?
Harry doesn’t know the answer.
As most stories – and fantasy/scifi stories in particular – have a hero of some kind, this is a question that really needs to be pondered by any writer in the genre. We too often, I feel, simply accept the actions of the hero at face value. We shrug our shoulders and give the ol’ Uncle Ben speech about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Does it? Does it have to? I don’t think so. There’s no reason why Superman has to do the stuff he does – there are literally infinite excuses to be used to get out of helping strangers. The vast majority of humanity uses them every day, all the time; I’m no exception and neither, probably, are you. Even if we do help, it is in contained and focused ways – we give to this charity, but not to the poor directly; we’ll help people move, but we won’t care for their pets; we’ll make sure a drunk friend gets home okay, but we won’t confront him or her about their drinking problem.
I mean, ask yourself: if you could fly and stop bullets with your chest and do all the stuff superman does, would you spend all your time flying around stopping crime? If not, how much time would you spend? How long would you keep it up? Be honest with yourself.
A hero – by which I mean a real hero and not somebody we dub a hero due to some fluke of fortune – is something rare and special. I see no reason we should consider such people less rare and less special simply because they exist in another world. One of the reasons I like Harry Dresden as a character is that, for all the corniness to his person, he is a true hero but, at the same time, not an inhuman one or one that we simply accept at face value. Harry does what he does because, on some level, he can’t quite figure out what else he would do with himself. It’s a vocation, not something he shouldered because he figured he ought to. He doesn’t have a responsibility to help the helpless – this is constantly pointed out to him – yet he does it anyway. Why? He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s an idiot half the time.
I think folks with the ‘hero complex’ are people who don’t stop to think too hard about why they do what they do. They do it because they can’t imagine the alternative. That guy who runs into his neighbor’s burning house to save their dog is a hero not because he’s smart, but because he has to do that in order to feel normal. Most people wouldn’t. Nobody would blame him if he didn’t. He’s not showing off, he’s not doing it for the glory, he’s doing it because, dammit, if he let the dog die in the house it would bother him, like, forever. Yeah, it’s just a dog, but c’mon – you can hear it yelping, for Christ’s sake! You’re just going to stand there?
And another thing: you know what isn’t heroism? Revenge. Revenge is giving into your base impulses, demeaning yourself to a level of animal. We needn’t even talk of morals here or how it doesn’t solve anything – Revenge is allowing another to dictate your behavior; it is reactive, not proactive. It isn’t heroic, it’s animalistic. Frank Castle is not a hero when he kills the bad guys. If he is a hero, it is for other reasons entirely. Revenge makes for good stories and good drama, but it doesn’t make good heroes. I don’t admire such people, anyway – I understand them, yes, I even sympathize with them, but I don’t admire them.
The guy who jumps into the freezing river to save someone else’s kid? That guy is a hero. I admire him. Maybe he’s stupid, maybe he’s crazy, maybe he isn’t thinking things through, but he had to do it. He couldn’t stand there and watch. It isn’t his responsibility, true, but heroes don’t do heroic things because they’re supposed to. They do them because they can’t help themselves.