Yes, Tolkien did both at once, and yes, he did a good job with it.
Let’s examine the problems with these plots, shall we? Sometimes together, sometimes apart. I really don’t care. And I’m not talking here about the authors who do these plots well, except when I throw in some of them as counterexamples. I’m talking about the draggy fantasies on the market—Jordan, Goodkind, Haydon, Lackey. All of them have problems.
1) Quite often, the threat is not a Level Red Threat. A lot of bad fantasy books start off with the hero or heroine in danger, and being swept out of town, usually a backwater village, by mysterious rescuers just as the bad guys pound in on
Ever notice that’s as close as the bad guys get for the rest of the book, or even the series?
This is not a threat. This is a shadow-puppet. The heroes can go merrily on their way, questing if they want, but also raising armies against the Dark Lord, talking openly about him, swearing oaths of defiance against him, confronting his minor henchmen, sometimes battling his armies near the end, but not actually being captured and dragged in front of him, or even in serious danger of it. Their party is never cornered and slaughtered. If someone does die, it’s only one at a time, usually heroically defending the other members of the party, and often with enough time to make a dramatic death speech. And, of course, fantasy authors love to play the “But he wasn’t really dead!” game, and bring back heroes who seem to have sacrificed their lives. So the Dark Lord, in effect, does nothing.
It’s the same way with the usurper. Everyone fears him, and yet he sits helpless on his throne after that first attempt to grab the heir. While he might have spies, they are never effective. Tales of his cruelties get bandied about, but they never make sense; either they are never confirmed, making him a shadow-puppet once more, or they’re so bad that it’s impossible to see why anyone would remain loyal to the guy. (Terry Goodkind, I’m looking right at you, with your Darken Rahl disemboweling children). And sometimes it seems as if the usurper is actually doing a pretty good job of ruling the country. Why unseat him in favor of some buck-toothed kid raised by peasants, with infinitely less experience in the ways of ruling, whose only qualification happens to be that he came out of the right womb or from the right sperm?
I don’t know. Ask the stupid fantasy authors. Or look at the next point.
2) The symbols of royalty are treated as more important than the actual personality of the royal. The buck-toothed kid again. Somehow he becomes a good person if he wears the crown. Or holds the scepter. Or has the magical royal power. Or has the royal birthmark. Or his facial features match one particular statue. *cue particularly bitter brooding about the end of one fantasy series I had been enjoying* This isn’t a person who has the qualities necessary for ruling. He just has the trappings.
And it happens in book after book after book. I might at least be more interested if more fantasy authors treated whatever their royal symbol is as equal to other claims. One reason I am so fascinated by George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is because he has several claimants who all, in their eyes and the eyes of other people, have good claims, including the relatives of the present King and the heirs of the line that got usurped. There is no immense, massive force cheering for just one claimant, and no stupid fucking mystical “sign” that just one person is right. If that happened more often in fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire wouldn’t be so isolated. We would also have a lot more political fantasies and historical fantasies, and I would be much happier.
Show me why this person is so all-fire important, why it would be a real tragedy if he dies. And don’t fall back on claims of blood and age, as tends to happen all too often. “Well, his family has ruled this kingdom for a thousand years, blah blah blah…” Yes, blah indeed. Guess what? Every person alive on Earth right now has a bloodline that goes back at least two million years. Knowing the name of your fourteen-times-great-grandfather might be a plus, but it doesn’t make that family automatically better than any other.
3) Everyone in these moronic plots always knows that they’re saving the world. I never know how. After all, look at all the competing religions that exist on Earth, or even just the over 33,000 Christian denominations. If they can’t agree on what to do to save the world, how does everyone in a medieval fantasy world, with most likely conceivably less experience in knowledge and philosophy and less freedom of speech and thought, just “know?”
They shouldn’t. They really shouldn’t. Even in something only the size of a kingdom, there should be dissent and disagreement (especially if you have a usurper, because how could he gain support if everything was fine and dandy?) In a world, there should be more struggle. Having the same prophecy appear across religions and point unmistakably to one savior, as a lot of fantasy authors have it doing, is lazy, lazy, lazy plotting.
Another great thing about Martin: He has what could conceivably be a threat to the world, but is everyone preparing to fight it? Of course not, because this is much better fantasy than “Morons Save the World, Take #837464.” Everyone in the south is fighting a civil war instead, and the people who know about the threat are running away from it. The one priestess that possibly anticipates this war stands a very good chance of having chosen the wrong savior and anointed him with fake trappings to get the point across, which won’t fulfill the necessary prophecies. There’s real excitement and real tension, which there isn’t when you have just one single answer and everyone knows what it is. I cheer for Martin’s heroes; I go to sleep when the adolescent heroine hears, wide-eyed, that only she has the strength to wield the Diamond of Zirkos against the Dark Lord.
4) There are no truly crushing losses in a save-the-world plot. This is the part where I gleefully spoil and viciously trash Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage trilogy, so go away if you haven’t read the thing and actually intend to.
In the third book, Herald-Mages (people who are both telepaths and mages in Lackey’s world) start dying. Does this have anything to do with the plots in the other books of the trilogy? Of course not, but moving on. In the end, the most powerful Herald-Mage of all, Vanyel, faces the sorcerer who’s causing all the havoc, and dies—but takes the sorcerer and his mages [correction from youraugustine] out with him. This is after having cast a spell on Valdemar, his country, to insure that no magic can harm it again, and that every sorcerer who enters it will feel uncomfortable and want to leave. Then the Valdemaran Guard comes and slaughters the rest of the army.
How the hell was that sorcerer a real threat? He never even invaded, and any threat like him was prevented for centuries more. A handful of people died instead of the army that would have been necessary to stop him in any remotely realistic plot. Vanyel actually went into the mountains intending to die, having foreseen that he would a long time ago.
This is not saving the world. This is spraying Raid on the cockroaches and then stamping twice on their mangled bodies.
This relates somewhat back to the first point, about Dark Lords and such presenting no true threat, but differs because there is a possibility, in a world with magic like nuclear power, that a relatively inoffensive and unthreatening person could still endanger the world. But, I’ll tell you a secret that a lot of fantasy authors forgot: To give a sense of importance to the hero’s world-saving activities, you have to make it seem like the world is actually in danger.
Isn’t that amazing?
If the heroes lose any of the battles in world-saving fantasies, it’s usually early skirmishes. And that’s rare, anyway. Once they start gathering their armies, miracles pile up, characters who displayed no military talent at all suddenly turn into amazing generals (die, Robert Jordan, die die die!), and their magic gets almighty just in time to save them. It doesn’t matter how ugly, numerous, or baby-killing the Dark Lord’s armies are. They still won’t win.
And why should they, when they haven’t even succeeded in slaughtering the openly stupid hero before he gets that far?
Threaten the world. Show me not only what could die, something that some fantasy authors are good at, but that there’s a strong chance it might. Don’t make it an easy march to the throne.
5) The author often fails to give a sense of the world at all. In this, they are no imitators of Tolkien. We don’t see the world except in the rushed travelogue that the hero skitters through on the way to retrieve the crown or the scepter or the armies that will get him his throne back. There might be some sad-singing elves, one ancient and noble empire falling into ruins, one silly little goblin town, and the other staples from Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but that’s all they are, staples from Fantasyland. This is not a world, it’s a stage, and not the good kind.
What Tolkien did in this vein, as billradish mentioned to me the other day, was elegant and pretty damn simple. He chose characters from an isolated land, the hobbits from their Shire, and then set them free in the wider world. They’re witnesses to the wonders of fading Lothlórien, the grandeur of Gondor, the evil of Mordor, the rolling fields and bitter defiance of Rohan. They often imagine their own land in contrast to it, but they don’t constantly whine about wanting to go back home, and they serve as mediators for the reader, to appreciate this wonderful, beautiful world for what it is: something wider than just the immediate line of the Quest Frodo and his friends are walking.
We don’t get that in most fantasies. It’s a stage-scene for the Quest. One mountain would serve as well as another for the hiding place of the crown. One city is exactly like another in its markets and inns and shadows where the bad guys might be hiding. One ocean, for fuck’s sake, is exactly like another. Change the backdrop? You might as well. The hero isn’t saving the world, he’s saving the trappings of royalty and a few people who matter to the plot. This is a vicious cheat, when everything, not just the things that matter to the hero, is supposed to be in danger.
Now, I could forgive this if the author was writing about saving just one country, or just one village, or just one kingdom, and who gives a damn what happens outside it? Or perhaps the hero is selfish and acknowledges that he’s doing this for his friends, not the unborn generations that Terry Goodkind likes to guilt-trip his hero about. Yet that happens rarely-to-never. No, we get him saving everything from the (cardboard) villagers of every village to the (paper) trees. Even if the threat is real, what it’s threatening has to be, too.
Feel appropriately snarly now. I hate the “royal heirs raised as peasants” plotline more than anything in the world, but save-the-world plots in general make me want to bite them.