Just finished reading “The Eye of the World” by Robert Jordan, published in 1990 as the first of a 14-novel 23-year epic – “The Wheel of Time.” Oddly enough, it tied in with some recent thoughts about undead stories, how they pander to self-importance.
A lot of the early sci-fi movies are supposedly about the fear of communism – “they’ve secretly taken over!” – or nuclear bombs – “they’re unstoppable!” Likewise there are lots of theories about the “meaning” of zombies and vampires. A good one I read was that the burst of vampire movies in the 90s was in response to AIDS, where the ultimate risky transgression would be to drink blood. The accepted wisdom about zombies movies is that they’re some sort of response to the collapse of society or community, seemingly always in connection with consumerism and rampant capitalism, whether in the 60s or now. Whatever the reason, there’s a drought of vampires but a horde of zombies in the new millenium. Pun vaguely intended.
More than any metaphor, I find it interesting how undead stories tend towards exaggerated individualism, a teenage need to be unique and powerful. I am a vampire, I function outside the rules of society and know things normal humans can’t even guess at. I am a normal human, the rules of society have broken down and I function above the sub-human majority who are clueless zombies. The difference seems to be that vampires tend to be the bad guy (or at least anti-heroes) because they have to kill “normal” people to live. The zombie apocalypse seems to give you free reign to attack any individual or social group, to destroy any institution.
So what does this have to do with a high fantasy novel?!
“The Eye of the World” seems to me like the quintessential post-Tolkien Dungeons & Dragons plot, enjoyable but pre-digested. A boy living in a village who is secretly the heir to a long lost something and is the key to everything, living in a lesser modern era after a nostalgic long lost age where everything was better. A girl who he fights with initially, but secretly loves, who turns out to be a princess or a sorceress or something other than a damsel in distress. A dark and evil god who is awakening / escaping his prison / returning, generally from the frozen north or the volcanic south. With or without a white bearded mentor, elves and dragons.
The thing that annoys me now, but I used to buy into wholeheartedly in my youthful readings, is the idea of the preordained hero. A young man who doesn’t really have to do anything but accept who is he to excel and save the day, like all of the TV talent shows where the intrinsic skills of the contestant allow them to skip all those boring years of practice and hard work.
Now I like the hard-bitten warders and rangers in the stories, who have survived the pain of losing their kingdoms and families, who have worked selflessly and anonymously for the greater good, and then end up wiping the arse of the self-indulgent teen hero.
Give me self-determination over fate any day.