My mother is pretty much the most awesome human being ever. The worst thing about living in Việt Nam is being away from her. I keep coming back to one especially fond – and recent – memory of the two of us together.
It was during the last winter vacation I had, in December 2009. I was busy being super lazy; I was supposed to be researching for my thesis, but I’d had enough of obscure Finnish poems. So I hunkered down with a quilt and watched *the entirety* of the SyFy channel’s Merlin Series 1 marathon. That’s about ten straight hours of Merlin. My mom watched it with me, and we laughed a lot about how Merlin looks like a scared deer.
Ah, Merlin. He is forever being too clumsy to live. He goes about banging into brooms, dropping vials of Important Potions, and stuttering every time he’s caught doing something Sneakily Magical. Happens every episode. I should know, I watched them all in a giant chunk. And when do you do something like that, patterns stick out to you. This sort of clumsiness doesn’t just happen in Merlin, it happens in *so many fantasy adaptations.* Why?
Consider the evidence!
Exhibit A: Ella Enchanted. The movie, not the book. Anne Hathaway’s character falls over everything in sight. Everything. In. Sight. Though she can’t always help it; she’s cursed, after all.
Exhibit B: The Princess Diaries. Anne Hathaway’s character falls over everything in sight. Everything. In. Sight. There is no excuse.
Exhibit C: How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup is a wiry, scrawny sort who can’t lift heavy objects and falls over everything. He is our Noble Hero with a deep understand of magical beasts, especially dragons. Kinda like Merlin, who in addition to being made of Sparkly Magic, is also the “last dragon lord.”
Exhibit D: Tinkerbell. Have you seen the recent Disney Tinker Bell movie? She’s kind of a klutz. With anger issues. Never a good thing.
And so on. Of course, this trend isn’t necessarily restricted to the fantasy genre. There are klutzes everywhere, especially in rom-coms. The theory for why this is is pretty simple: give the main character a flaw to make them more likable! But make it a little flaw, so they remain a super awesome hero/heroine. And let’s just reuse the same flaw over and over again, because we’re lazy.
But I think that there’s more to it in the fantasy genre. See, folk and fairy tales have great tradition of fools-as-heroes. They are usually under-noticed sorts: youngest sons, mostly, like in The Youth Who Went Out To Learn What Fear Was, as retold by the Brothers Grimm. The Youth isn’t so much clumsy as he is foolish; he has no idea how the world works, what he should be afraid of, or even what a corpse is. Consequently, he is able to face some frightening adventures without flinching, and wins himself a princess in the bargain.
These kinds of heroes are super-common in classic fairy tales. There are several reasons for this. First of all, having a fool unwittingly outsmart the “smart” people around him allows for a subversion of the status quo. You don’t have to be a daring and intelligent prince to win the day. Those who operate outside the system and what is defined as “brave” or “smart” can, in fact, seize the day.
Stories like this also posit that no one should be written off because of their disadvantages, like being a youngest son, or being clumsy or foolish.
This pops up in contemporary adaptations, too. Everyone writes off the clumsy, doddering Merlin. He doesn’t fit in with the rest of society. But what they don’t know is that Merlin is actually a secret magician! Ha! And he protects them all, too.
That last point is really what I want to get at. Foolish and clumsy characters start out as subversive: they practice magic, don’t conform to society’s expectations for intelligence, rank, decorum, etc. They fly in the face of all that is usual. However, they use their abilities to support, better, and reform the status quo, not abolish it. The Youth uses his foolish daring to save a kingdom and win a Princess, not to bring down the whole system of feudal obligation all together. Anne Hathaway eventually abandons her gawky-outsider ways to assume Princess-hood and conform to normal beauty standards. And Merlin – heaven bless every awkward bit of him – uses his subversive magical powers to *repeatedly* save Uther and his magic-phobic Kingdom. He also always stays in his position as a servant, never really challenging the status quo.
Thus something which starts out as subversive is re-incorporated into the dominant societal matrix. Reform, not revolution. This is the focus in all but a few bits of classic mythical and fairy-tale literature. Merlin: King Arthur’s extremely powerful yet loyal adviser. The fantastical sidekicks of “How Six Men Got on in the World”, patiently serving a hero far weaker and less cool than they. You can be different if you like, the tales say, but don’t go trying to think you can upset things because you are.
Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule, and I love them dearly. The most familiar to most people is probably Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. Elphaba is unapologetically different, not seeking to change herself, and refuses to be an agent of the Wizard. She tries to change the world, does Elfie, and don’t you get in her way. (She is also, by the way, given to bursts of clumsiness).
Elphaba’s fate, however, shows how difficult a life like hers is: refusing to assimilate into the accepted hierarchy often means scorn, persecution, general ridicule for things like green skin, etc.
I personally think that we need more heroes like Elphaba and fewer like Merlin, though it pains me to say it. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending, and not everyone fits into the graceful-princess-saves-the-day mold. Differences and agitation should be celebrated, especially in children’s literature and films, which reach readers/viewers when they’re at that critical phase, learning whether they are “normal” or “outsiders.” Abolishing this terminology altogether, or at least teaching children that there’s power in being subversive…well, I think that’s something to work for. Though I’ll still watch Merlin in the meantime. It’s fluffy, but oh so endearing.