Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Not Just Along for the Ride: The Role of the Sidekick in Fantasy Literature

Shrek: The Whole StoryRemember Donkey from the Shrek movies? Of course you do—who could forget his love affair with the dragon, his body-swapping with Puss, or his “tiny mutant babies”? Sure, Shrek is the hero of these movies, and it is his actions (and those of the various villians, including Lord Farquaad and Prince Charming) that move the plot along. But Donkey serves another function in these movies; he is the perfect example of the sidekick as comic relief. His primary purpose is to relieve the tension created between the hero and villain. Although he may stray into the occasional thoughtful or insightful conversation, his reason to exist is to brighten up the tone of the narrative.

Sidekicks do, however, serve in other positions than comic relief. They are partnered with their hero, providing many needed services. Throughout fiction there are hundreds, if not thousands of famous hero/sidekick pairings: Donkey and Shrek, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and Batman and Robin are just a few examples. In each of these pairings, the sidekick helps out the hero. As Bronwyn Williams explains, “The sidekick tends to be the more passive, literate character who fulfills the groundwork in order to free his or her hero to perform the action.” Sidekicks vary in power and in abilities, but they share many common characteristics and are always beneath the hero.

I would like to propose that the role of the sidekick is not, however, the only role that the friend of the hero may play. There is something more than comic relief with sporadic insight available to characters who support the hero and develop the plot. The sidekick has its place, but in most fantasy literature this role should more truly be called the second, as this character is often a hero in his or her own right.

History of the Second

The IlliadThe role of the second has a long, rich history, going as far back as ancient Greece and the story of Troy. When Helen, the wife of King Menelaus, ran away with the Trojan prince, Paris, Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon to help him build a great army to destroy the city of Troy and regain his queen. For the sake of one man’s honor, thousands of soldiers traveled to Troy to risk their lives. Once the army of Agamemnon and Menelaus had arrived in Troy, they did not immediately destroy the castle. It was proposed that champions, one from each side, would fight for Helen and the city. The winner would take all and the loser would die. But when a warrior went to fight one on one with his rival, he did not go alone. Rather he brought with him a close friend to serve as his second. This friend provided support, boosted morale, and, should the warrior fall, would take up his debts and avenge the honor of the fallen man.

The companion of the hero in fantasy literature is much more of this nature than that of the sidekick. Rather than just being there for comic relief, or even for doing the grunt work for the hero, the companion is there to shoulder responsibility in case things go wrong. The companion fulfills the duties of a second throughout the entire novel in which they are placed—not only to help further the plot line and to enable to the hero to fulfill his quest, but also to be there to step into the shoes of the hero if that becomes necessary.

Tolkien and Samwise Gamgee

The Lord of the Rings trilogyThe figure of the second plays a key role in what is perhaps the best-known work of fantasy literature--J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Susan Cooper describes the appeal of this work, noting, “The basic story of The Lord of the Rings is a clash of absolutes: Evil, once driven out, has returned to Middle-earth, and is finally driven out by Good.…Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and other species join in a series of battles to vanquish the evil lord Sauron, but his final defeat can be made possible only by the destruction of the Ring of Power which would give him dominion over all.” This most classic of stories created many of the archetypes that heavily influence much of modern fantasy literature. Not only do his images of Elves and hobbits and his epic quests to overcome evil continue to shape the fantasy genre, but Tolkien’s portrayal of Samwise Gamgee as a second continues to have an impact as well.

While the hero of The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly Frodo Baggins, the little hobbit who risked everything for the good of Middle-Earth, without his friend Samwise Gamgee, Frodo would never have succeeded in destroying the ring. Sam did not begin the journey because he wanted to or was even required to go. Rather, he began the quest to accompany Frodo. At the start of the quest, the journey is fairly pleasant, at least in comparison to future adventures, but it soon develops into the darkest and most tortuous path for the hobbits. But throughout it all, Sam supports Frodo, provides him with guidance, and heals him in spirit and body. Sam carries the burdens of Frodo, even going so far as to physically carry the ring for a time. In Sam, Tolkien creates a companion who is there for more than just comic relief—he is an integral part of the hero’s journey.

The Second in Who Fears Death and Sabriel

In their novels Sabriel and Who Fears Death, Garth Nix and Nnedi Okorafor challenge some of the established conventions of fantasy literature. The heroes in both works, for example, are independent females, rather than the traditional male hero. Sabriel and Onyesonwu both function as a catalyst to social change, and in the process, challenge expected social norms, particularly those relating to race and gender. But within these two novels, the role of the second remains the same. The characters of Touchstone and Mwita fit the mold of a second, as modeled by Sam in Tolkien’s work. They both provide support, knowledge, and healing to Sabriel and Onyesonwu, respectively.

In Sabriel, Touchstone is the heir to the throne of the Old Kingdom, where he was imprisoned in death for several hundred years, but during the novel, he serves as sworn swordsman to Sabriel. In Who Fears Death, Mwita is Onyesonwu’s close friend and lover—in addition to both being students of the sorcerer Aro and sharing mixed-race, or Ewu, heritage. Both Touchstone and Mwita share in many of the key attributes of Sam, including support, teaching, and healing, making them more than just sidekicks, but instead, integral parts of the quest itself.

The Role of the Second: Support

The role of support is the most important aspect of the second. Sam displays this time and time again throughout their entire journey to destroy the One Ring. He even goes so far as to physically carry Frodo up Mount Doom to fulfill their quest. He supports Frodo in his every decision, even if he doesn't necessarily agree, as with the treatment of Gollum. Both Touchstone and Mwita also fill this role in clear and distinct ways.

Touchstone offers magical support to Sabriel in several ways over the course of the novel. For example, in the village of Nestowe, Sabriel must cleanse the remains of the local charter mage whose blood had been used to crack the charter stone. Due to the broken stone, she was having difficulty in casting the spell. But “then she felt assistance come, strength flowing through her, reinforcing the marks, steadying her hands, clearing her voice....The extra strength came through Touchstone's hand, his open palm lightly resting on her shoulder” (Nix 255). Touchstone gave of his own energy freely, ensuring that Sabriel would successfully complete the spell.

Who Fears DeathLikewise, Mwita is a powerful supporter of Onyesonwu. Without him, she would not have been able to fulfill her quest to rewrite the Great Book. A clear example of his support is found while they are with the Vah people in Ssolu, and the Masquerade appears. It wishes to speak with her, and it gives her a rather unusual “gift.” When it requests that Onyesonwu hold out her hand, Mwita grasps her shoulder and whispers, “I will go with whatever you wish to do” (Okorafor 276). He promised his support to Onyesonwu no matter what path she chose to take, much like Sam did with Frodo. She chose to extend her hand and she was immediately covered in needles from the Masquerade. The space that Mwita's hand covered was the only place on her body that was protected from the needles. After this encounter, Onyesonwu is changed so that she cannot be touched by anyone, except, thanks to his bravery in supporting her with the Masquerade, Mwita.

This is arguably the most defining characteristic of the second—to support the hero. And it is necessary for the plot as well. The second provides support to the hero when he or she needs it most and is often the only thing that keeps him or her going. Difficult times and trials are a trademark of all good stories, but it is the power of the second that helps the hero get through them. Touchstone and Mwita, like Sam, both provide this support to the heroes in their respective stories.

The Role of the Second: Teaching and Providing Knowledge

Another key component of the second is providing knowledge to the hero. In nearly all cases, the second has something that the hero does not, be it a certain area of expertise or the skills to find out information. Those who fill the position of second in fantasy novels provide knowledge to the heroes. Sam displays this trait in his good common sense throughout the novel. By realizing the value of rope or by packing the entire contents of one's kitchen onto his back, Sam provides for the future and is prepared to teach Frodo what he needs to know to reach Mount Doom alive and in relatively good health.

SabrielTouchstone is like Sam in that he provides information to counterbalance the knowledge that Sabriel is missing. Sabriel had been raised across the wall in Ancelstierre, the more modern, practically magic-free of the two kingdoms, where she attended an all-girls boarding school. While she was extremely prepared for the situations that proper young ladies would encounter, even “coming in fourth in etiquette” (Nix 16), she was still lacking in her understanding of the Old Kingdom where her destiny would be found. She was missing knowledge about the social structure of the Old Kingdom, the Charters that govern the use of magic in the land, and the rich history that made up her ancestry. Touchstone helped her come to terms with and understand all of these things. He explained to her the past of the royal family and the way the kingdom was ruled in his time. He also provided her with information about the social norms of the kingdom. An example of this is when he introduces himself as her sworn swordsman to the remaining villagers of Nestowe. When she angrily questions his right to speak for her, he points out, “It is traditional for someone of high rank, such as yourself, to be announced by their sworn swordsman […] and the only acceptable way for me to travel with you is as your sworn swordsman” (Nix 265). He saves her reputation with the people of the Old Kingdom and provides her with the knowledge to avoid future blunders.

The role of the second as an information provider is not just limited to the knowledge he himself knows. The role of the second often includes finding information, often in very creative ways. Touchstone displays this trait when they run into the need for Sabriel to understand the Great Charters. This is an unique situation because he does know the information but is unable to speak of it due to a powerful spell binding the knowledge. He does not become frustrated, though, and instead is struck by the brilliant idea of asking a child for information about the Charters. He knows that children who would grow into the powers of Charter Mages were given training long before they could act on it and thought that perhaps they would be able to repeat this information.  His hunch was correct and Sabriel was able to find out what she needed to know about the great charters.

Mwita is also far more prepared for the adventures in Who Fears Death than Onyesonwu is. It is said over and over that he should have been the chosen one, and that he was better trained to fill her role as a sorcerer. Onyesonwu even says, “I was the sorceress but [Mwita] understood so much more than I” (Okorafor 231). Mwita, however, overcomes his jealousy and helps her come to terms with her powers and gain control over them. In many ways, Mwita is more of a teacher to Onyesonwu than her actual master, Aro. She constantly is learning from him and is more willing to learn from her second than her instructor. She finds the teaching of Aro to be very difficult and frustrating, and constantly returns to seek the advice and comfort of her second, Mwita.

The Role of the Second: Healing and Sacrifice

A less obvious trait of the second is the ability to heal. This encompasses physical healing, healing of spirit, and providing the strength to live. Sam shows these traits of healing when he cares for Frodo as he becomes more and more ill from the effects of the One Ring. He sacrifices his own health and comfort to provide for him, even giving up his own portions of food and water. He is willing to put up with Frodo's bad temper and even Frodo's anger at him in order to best serve. Sam also gives Frodo the motivation to go on when things seemed unbearable, by speaking of the Shire and the home that they still had to protect for their children and grandchildren. This powerful instinct to protect and hold is a strong characteristic of the second.

Mwita is clearly a healer by nature, and he constantly is providing for Onyesonwu, both physically and emotionally. Every time that she returns to consciousness after passing out from performing magic, he is the first thing she sees. He also provides her with the will to continue on, even when times are hard. Again, there is an example to be found when she was visited by the masquerade in Ssolu. After the needles fall out, Onyesonwu becomes very sick and needs to be cared for day and night. Mwita rarely leaves her bedside until she awakes. He also sacrifices his own health and wellbeing by refusing food until she ate as well. He knows that his own hunger will be the only way to force her to eat and does not hold back from using any means to help Onyesonwu, no matter how uncomfortable it was for him. Onyesonwu recognizes this skill in her second and says that every time “I would do something […] I'd always need Mwita to put me back in order” (Okorafor 231).

Touchstone is also a healer, although his first moment of healing is less conventional. When they go down to the Great Charter stones to free the body of the Abhorsen, Sabriel's father, not everything goes as planned. They are able to “rescue” him, but it is for a very short time and one that the Abhorsen uses to fulfill his duty of binding the dead by ringing the bell Astarael: “Astarael was the banisher, the final bell. Properly rung, it cast everyone who hear it far into Death [sic]. Everyone, including the ringer” (Nix 82). This everyone, of course, would include the living Sabriel and Touchstone. They are instructed to run as fast as they can in an attempt to escape the echoing sound of Astarael, but they are unable to outrun its song. In a passionate display of life, the young (soon-to-be) couple kiss. In this context, the kiss is a healing action. As death tries to claim them, they hold it back by their life and love.

One could argue that this action belonged to the hero rather than the second; after all, the kiss was initiated by Sabriel. But without Touchstone, she would have been lost. It was his returning of the lifesaving kiss that enabled them to cling to life, and if he had not responded in the correct way, he would not have been able to withstand death, no matter how hard she kissed him or any other.
There is also the traditional healing found at the very end of the novel. In typical second fashion, Touchstone casts a healing spell over Sabriel, entirely ignoring his own injuries (Nix 491). It was this spell that enabled her to return to her body when she was returned to life by the host of past Abhorsens.

Conclusion: The Second as a Shadow Hero

But why does it matter, one may ask, if we call the companion a sidekick or a second? It matters for several reasons. Placing the companion character as a second rather than a sidekick gives the character validity as a true developed person, rather than merely the hero's base-humored alter ego. It also allows a character other than the hero to accept praise for an action which, while primarily done by the hero, would not have been possible without their help.

Furthermore, expanding our ideas of heroism to include the actions of the second enables us as readers of fantasy to define heroism in new and creative ways. While it’s easy to think of a hero as someone who wields a sword, it’s more unusual to think of the hero as the one cleaning out the stables or mopping up the floor. Recognizing the key role of the second in furthering the plot of several fantasy novels, however, demonstrates that such actions are often just as important to the quest and are inspired by motivations just as noble as any hero’s. The second has become such an integral part of the fantasy genre, often serving in such vital ways, that one must ask, “Who is the real hero? Is it the one who quests for the dragon and kills it? Or is it the one who makes such actions possible?”

Works Cited

Cooper, Susan. "There and Back Again: Tolkien Reconsidered." Horn Book Magazine 78.2 (2002): 143-150. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 28 April 2011.

Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.

Okorafor Nnedi. Who Fears Death. New York: Daw Books, Inc, 2010. Print.

Tolkien, J R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Tolkien, J R. R. The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Tolkien, J R. R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Williams, Bronwyn T. "Action Heroes and Literate Sidekicks: Literacy and Identity in Popular Culture." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50.8 (2007): 680-685. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.