In the last diary I did, there was a bit of fun looking at some of the more Godawful cliches, tropes and conventions in movies & TV shows. So I thought it might be interesting to go just a bit further; Where do all of these things come from & what did they originally want to say?
To paraphrase Sir Terry Pratchett, a thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand knights have started a journey facing impossible odds, a thousand princesses have waited for their true love to come, and a thousand heroes have charged into "where Angels fear to tread." The strongest elements of the stories survive & get retold, taking on a life of their own as fairy tale, epic, myth and legend. As well as being sprinkled here & there in every movie & TV show as familiar tropes of the story.
Once upon a time, in a land beyond the farthest star.....
"Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion. For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen...
We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three “primary” colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and “pretty” colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.
In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish."
-J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"
It's been my observation that humans need to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. Because if it isn't, then what's the point? Even at the darkest of times, in the most horrible of places, one of our species' greatest strengths is the ability of some to find the strength to find hope where there is none, and somehow persevere where other would fall.
Out of that is the stuff from which "big damn heroes" are born. Out of the many comes the few, or one, who with great danger to themselves & all they care about will strive with their last ounce of courage "to reach the unreachable star." Within that is everything we hope & wish we could be.
In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell pulled together similar themes & patterns in thousands of years of myth, legend, and history to find similar patterns across different cultures for what he called "Monomyth" (or "The Hero's Journey"). "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Arguably almost every story with heroic elements has one of the 17 Stages derived from Campbell's work.
Some common attributes of "The Hero":
- Divine, Special or Chosen - In the Epic of Gilgamesh (one of the earliest known works of literature), Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god and one-third man. A common theme in a lot of stories is the hero is more than human, and thus this is the reason they can do what others can't. Both Perseus and Hercules are the sons of Zeus. In Comic-Books, a similar situation exists. The hero is usually special for some reason or another (mutant gene, radioactive spider bite, alien DNA, etc.). Often the hero is "chosen" by fate, prophecy, time, God, the universe, etc., as the only one who can make the quest, defeat the threat, and save the day. Harry Potter is prophesied to be "the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord." In 'Star Wars,' it's implied both by Yoda & Darth Vader that only Luke & Leia have the power to either stop or sustain the Empire.
- Tragic Or Flawed - In direct opposition to the above, the bravery & victory of this kind of hero is accentuated, since not only does he/she choose to fight but they do so while carrying the 40 lb sack of their flaws & frailties on their back. This type of hero may be fighting a battle he's doomed to lose, but does so because maybe in defeat it helps the greater good, maybe some others will know a peace & paradise that he/she can't, or maybe they're doing it out of principle. Why does Sisyphus continue to push the rock up the hill? Because sometimes the struggle itself is enough to "fill a man's heart."
- Sidekick(s) - Robin to Batman, Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, Enkidu to Gilgamesh, etc. Sometimes the hero is the leader of a group (see "Five Man Band"), with he or she being the glue that holds the group together.
- Scorned - While the hero might have his friends & be loved by the helpless he or she helps, a common trope is the hero is misunderstood, taken for granted, or outright hated by a large chunk of the public.
- Sacrifice - The Doctor: "Sometimes winning is no fun at all." A character does something incredibly brave, and gives up something of great importance or gets killed/seriously injured in the process. There's something tragic, romantic, and triumphant about a Heroic Sacrifice. One of the most famous examples in history is the story of a certain Jewish Carpenter.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
The hero can be the main character & the protagonist of the story, but this isn't always true. The difference between a hero and a protagonist is that a hero is (some of the stuff mentioned above plus) the character who you hope to see “win,” while the protagonist is the character around whom the events of the plot revolve & usually undergoes a change as the story progresses. The main character is not always the hero, since it's always possible for a story to be centered on a villain, anti-hero, anti-villain, or antagonist. It could be argued that in a good many action films, the "hero" is actually the antagonist, since more often than not he/she is just reacting to the plan of the villain & attempting to stop their goal.
Look at a cult film like John Carpenter's 'Big Trouble in Little China.' From everything in the movie poster & the trailer, Kurt Russel's Jack Burton is presented as the hero & protagonist of the story. However, he's not. Dennis Dun's Wang Chi is the hero & protagonist of the story, while Burton is really the sidekick, comic relief, and possibly only by virtue of being the loudest (and being played by the most recognizable star) is the main character. If you listen to the DVD commentary for the film, Carpenter & Russel talk about how they specifically intended this.
Then you can add a psychological aspect to all of this. For example, a good bit of fiction (and non-fiction as well) uses aspects of Sigmund Freud's structural model for human psyche, which shares similarities with the "tripartite soul" in Plato's Republic. To grossly oversimplify things, the Id is emotion & instinctual drive, the Superego is reason & rationality, while Ego balances the two. Within a good number of stories, a "trinity" is created from characters who represent these attributes.
Think of a television show, movie, or book and apply the "Power Trio" designations:
- The Brothers Karamazov - Alyosha (Ego), Ivan (Superego), and Dmitri (Id)
- Lord Of The Flies - Ralph (Ego), Piggy (Superego), and Jack (Id)
- Arthurian Legend - Arthur (Ego), Lancelot (Superego), and Gawain (Id)
- "Top Gear" - Richard Hammond (Ego), James May (Superego), and Jeremy Clarkson (Id)
- "Star Trek" - Kirk (Ego), Spock (Superego), and McCoy (Id)
"Star Trek has similarities with a lot of different genres, which can give an idea of how elements are shared. Roddenberry originally sold "Trek" to NBC by describing it as a western in space ("a wagon-train to the stars").
- And the stranger & his friends strolled into the saloon. For Kirk was the only gunfighter who could help drive off the Klingon gang that had besieged the town.
While the "Trek" franchise itself has a secular humanist philosophy, some of the story elements could be rearranged into religious myth & legend.
- And unto you the Kirk & his apostles (Spock, McCoy & the rest of Starfleet) have descended from the heavens to save thee (the planet of the week) and deliver you from evil. For the Kirk so loved the universe, that he will give up all personal connections and romance he's made during the episode to return to the heavens by "ascending" back to whence he came.
And "Star Trek" could also be read as a modern folk tale or fairy tale. There have been various books and academic papers on the sociological impact of the show as a collective myth. This is a TV show that will probably outlive everyone reading this sentence, and the best explanation for why it has endured is the appeal of its rose-colored depiction of the future. It's been argued the staying power of "Star Trek" is that it serves as a pop-culture shared myth of the future which expresses everyone's hopes for everything that will be.
- Once upon a time, in a far away land, there was a Knight in shining armor. For when he heard of the terrible loss of life on Janus VI, Kirk & his men went boldly with haste to stop the devil that lie in the dark. But upon battle with the monstrous & terrible "Horta," they realized that it was neither. For the great & wise Kirk found a way for everyone to live happily ever after.
"As you know, one of the joys of Star Trek, for me, has been the variety of our fans. When I go to conventions and I see people of all sizes and shapes and abilities, and when I see people with nerve disorders that can’t really sit properly and so on, I still know what’s in their mind. They are saying, "In a better world, I can do anything. I’ll be there in a better world. In a better world, they will not laugh at me or look down their nose at me."
Most people think of fairy tales as stories for children. However, that hasn't always been so. Most of the modern fairy tales have a much darker, more violent origin story.
The fairy tale we know as Little Red Riding Hood is derived from two sources; Charles Perrault ("Mother Goose") and The Brothers Grimm. However, the story is much older than either of them, and, like a lot of well known fairy tales, in Little Red Riding Hood's original incarnations it's quite gruesome. In some of 'em, the Big Bad Wolf actually feeds the grandmother to a naive Little Red Riding Hood, and then gets her to disrobe & get in bed with him in some variants.
- In The Brothers Grimm version, the girl and her grandmother were rescued by a passing hunter, and then proceed to fill the Wolf's belly with stones.
- Perrault's version is noted for adding the "Red Hood," which takes on some symbolic significance since there is no happy ending for his Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood... The End. Perrault intended the story to be a moral to young women about "all wolves" who deceive. The redness of the hood has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of sin, sexual awakening, and lust.
Variations of almost every element of Little Red Riding Hood appears in modern horror movies. The Big Bad Wolf is the archetypal "slasher" villain; a predator who shows almost supernatural abilities to deceive & manipulate his victims, which are almost always women. Throw in Perrault's sexual symbolism, and you have the virginal "Final Girl" of many horror films.
"Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.
The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon."
How about the progenitors of Romantic Comedies?
The tale of Cinderella is particularly interesting since there are thousands of variants of the story, some occurring independent of each other in disparate cultures. Most of the elements of the modern story come from Charles Perrault's 17th century version. However, the story itself is much, much older.
The first known occurrence of the Cinderella story is in the 1st century B.C. by the historian Strabo. In this version, Rhodopis (Cinderella) is a Greek slave in Egypt. It's believed Strabo's version of the story may have been based on a real person from five centuries before that Herodotus speaks of in his' Histories. She may also have been a fellow slave with one Aesop, of Aesop's Fables.
Another version of the Cinderella story occurs in 9th century China in the Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang by Tuan Ch'eng-Shih, which was written during the Tang Dynasty, with Ye Xian being helped by a magical fish (instead of a fairy Godmother). In The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), the slipper is an anklet & a fairy found inside a magic jug bought at a market is the aid. In the German Brothers Grimm version, the slipper is made of gold & Aschenputtel's (Cinderella) dead mother is helping her.
Most of the elements of modern romantic comedies can be found in Cinderella.
- The Unnoticed Girl - The beautiful girl who no one recognizes as beautiful until someone gives her a makeover (see also "Beauty = Goodness").
- In Love After Just A Few Minutes - It takes only a brief encounter for the characters to know fate wants them to be together, and they should devote every bit of their life (and the state's as well in going house to house making women try on a slipper) to making the relationship happen.
- Forces Attempting To Keep True Love Apart - The Evil Stepmother (aka Lady Tremaine) & her two brats play this role for Cinderella, but in modern stories this could be a jealous ex, parents, etc.
- "Love Hurts" - This is usually toned down (a lot) in most modern romantic comedies, but a common element in a lot of fairy tales is the female character undergoing abuse because of her beauty or love for a prince. Most modern stories achieve this by showing the female character's life at the beginning as either miserable because of her job, her social position, or (like Cinderella) the way she's treated by her family. The love story then either serves to break the character from the cycle or exacerbates it, and the abuse gets worse before it gets better.
Another theme that has seeped into the collective cultural consciousness: "Love Conquers All"
And not only does it conquer all, it makes everything around it better.
Common to all romance stories is the idea that no matter what barrier is put up to stop love, it will ultimately fail. The characters will either trek to the place the villain thought they would dare not go, the Knight will fight the dragon that no one thought could be beaten, or some happenstance of chance, luck, fate, etc. will provide a path for love to win out. Along the way, people, animals, societies, and whatever the characters may encounter is changed for the better. And in the end, it will all be sealed with True Love's Kiss.
Compare Sleeping Beauty and Snow White to Pixar's 'WALL-E.' I believe Andrew Stanton has acknowledged the film is partially based on Charlie Chaplin's 'City Lights,' but it also follows the basic narrative of a good many fairy tale. A hero goes above & beyond the normal to strange & dangerous places in search of the one he's fallen in love with, along the way his journey makes those around him better (the robots & the human race). The only difference is that WALL-E functions as "The Prince" during the first half of the film, and "The Princess" in the latter half of the film, especially the ending.
He must be "awoken" with a kiss that signifies true love.
.....And they lived happily ever after. The End.