Whence the Heroic “Other”?

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about Othering and its operation in literature, in various ways.

Currently, “other” as a verb has a universally negative connotation.  “Benevolent Othering” sounds cozy but gets its “sting” from its implication that Othering even with the best intentions is ultimately bad for the person being Othered.  The modern message is clear: Othering is bad, mmkay?

In the various medieval sagas and romances I’ve been reading this semester, though, Othering appears in a third, curiously “good” category.  I’ve been calling it the “heroic Other.”

Heroic Others are marked/othered by the same folklore motifs that carry out “bad-othering”: they’re often youngest or only children, with noteworthy physical features (ranging from “most beautiful” to impressively long hair to physical deformities), unusual circumstances of parentage (orphans, fosterlings, and changelings figure big here), and/or some connection to animals (e.g. raised by wolves), the supernatural (e.g. raised by wizards/giants/fairies), or both.

A character Othered by these characteristics, in medieval saga and romance, might be a villain.  Or s/he might be the hero.  The characteristics themselves don’t tell us which it’s going to be; we’re left to figure that out largely by how the character is treated by others and what life circumstances befall him or her.

Two things stand out to me:

1.  The medieval stories don’t differentiate between Othered hero and Othered villain on the basis of personal choice. That is, the hero is the hero by the circumstances of his/her birth, and we are meant to understand this is a “heroic” birth by the presence of the marks of Otherness.  The villain is the villain, presumably, by the circumstances of birth as well, since the same marks of Otherness are present.  The primary difference, if there is one, is that we are told about the hero’s birth and so we know the marks of Otherness are present from the beginning, whereas we are left to speculate as how the villain got so “marked.”

2.  By contrast, modern “folklore” – movies, novels, etc. – is obsessed with the idea that personal choice is what makes one a hero or a villain.  Here, both the hero and villain may be marked at Other and even marked with the same indicators of Otherness, but we are made to understand in the story that we should side with the hero because s/he chose “good”, and that we should ally against the villain because s/he chose “evil.”

The Harry Potter series fits the mold of point 2 perfectly.  Throughout, we’re reminded of how similar Harry and Voldemort really are – and that their fundamental differences are the result of “good” choices on Harry’s part (choosing Gryffindor over Slytherin, defending his friends, etc.) and “bad” choices on Voldemort’s (murdering people, targeting infant Harry over infant Neville, etc.).

The medieval writers don’t seem to have a problem with heroes who don’t choose heroism.  In fact, the medieval texts don’t even seem to expect heroes to make particularly heroic choices.* These characters are Other-marked from birth so that we know they are heroes; no moment of choice or particular attention to character development, short of describing the circumstances of birth, is needed.  Likewise, villains are villainous primarily because they aren’t the hero, and they appear in the narrative just long enough to oppose the hero before dropping out of sight again.

Today, though, our stories make that need to choose absolutely essential to the plot.  The Othering circumstances of a hero’s birth do not mark him or her as the hero, but as the character who is going to have to make a choice.  The choice is going to be “hero or villain?”.  It might be a series of choices (e.g. Luke Skywalker).  It might be a choice presented more than once (e.g. Loki).  When the “hero’s” choice is utterly predictable, character development becomes more difficult – a problem most often solved by relegating predictable characters to secondary roles (e.g. Melinda May) or by the presence of ironic self-consciousness (e.g., Adventure Time’s multiple references to Finn’s “alignment”).  When highly-predictable heroes are given primary roles, we are never allowed to forget how very like the villain they are and how very important their continued, consistent choice-to-be-the-hero is (e.g. Steve Rogers).

Which leads me to ask, like you do:  How are medieval and modern hero-adventures dealing with cognitive and/or developmental Otherness?

In the medieval tales, this kind of Otherness comes up in heroes far more often than you’d think.  In fact, it’s most often wrapped up in the very markings that signal “hey, this is the hero!”  Youngest sons are often portrayed as “simple,” and their very “simplicity” is what makes them able to solve problems their “normal” siblings cannot.  Changeling children (here I  mean either the fairy replacement or the human abductee), when their characters are developed (not often), are likewise understood to be the heroes because of their fairy-touched births, not in spite of the “oddness” that resulted.  Just as the stories don’t need “choice” to find the hero, they also don’t care whether said hero is mentally different or not.

Modern stories, however, care very much.  When the locus of heroism or villainy is in the capacity to choose, suddenly cognitive or developmental difference becomes the question regarding whether one can be a hero or a villain at all.  Intellectually or mentally “different” people never become true heroes or villains.  If they stumble into heroism, it’s because they’re too “out of it” to choose to be really bad (e.g. Luna Lovegood), and if they become villains, it’s because they’re too “out of it” not to realize they’re being used by “real” criminal mastermind (e.g. the Winter Soldier).

…Which points to an odd irony in modern crime reporting: the vast majority of Most Reproached Criminals (school shooters, child molesters, etc.) are written off by the commenting public as “psychotic,” a term which is used clinically to mean “experiencing a break with reality” but colloquially to mean “making choices no being-we-recognize-as-human would make.”  The colloquial use centers villainy-as-choice while simultaneously Othering the villain right out of the capacity for choice-making.

*EDITED TO ADD: On reread, I realize this isn’t strictly true – the Icelandic sagas, for instance, do deal with questions of right and wrong conduct and seem to realize that many eponymous heroes either could act badly but don’t (e.g Hrolf Gautreksson), or do act badly and need to be rehabilitated (e.g. Viglund and Trausti’s lesser outlawry in Viglund’s Saga).  This, in turn, raises questions for me about whether the degree of emphasis of “choice” in adventure literature corresponds in any way to how legal-happy the culture is (since the Icelandic sagas are also keenly interested in the operation of law in a way that many other medieval romances simply aren’t).  Which is, of course, another blog post.

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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