From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

“The Chosen One” vs. The One Who Chooses

General Hero Tropes in the Harry Potter series and Zahrah the Windseeker

“The Chosen One” is a very specific trope in F/SF. Whether by a seer, some higher power or force, or simply because of their particular bloodline, characters are chosen for some great destiny that often includes a fight between the forces of good and evil. A prime example of this is Harry Potter from the very popular series by J.K. Rowling. Like most “Chosen One” heroes, Harry leads a normal life before his difference is revealed. From that moment on his life is no longer his own but pledged to the service of destiny. Although in Harry’s case this is complicated by the fact that there are two revelations; the revelation that he’s a wizard–which while amazing to us just makes him normal for a wizard instead of normal for a human–and the revelation that his ability to repel Voldemort’s attacks are what set him apart. This type of character usually spends the remainder of the story, book, or series fighting evil but obsessed with trying to revert to his previous life where everything was normal and the shadows under the bed were just shadows. This is very different character from the protagonist that I like to call The One Who Chooses.

Zahrah the Windseeker

The One Who Chooses is a heroine who isn’t chosen to fight evil and who doesn’t have some awesome destiny; she’s just an ordinary person who, through her own choices and decisions, becomes embroiled in conflict. Protagonists like this are just as magically inclined as “The Chosen One” but their adventures stem from choices they make in their everyday lives; often bad choices, but still choices they make on their own. They often have the choice of walking away from the situation they find themselves in and knowingly choose to fight the good fight. The titular character in Zahrah the Windseeker fits this type. Zahrah chooses to go on a quest to save her best friend from certain death regardless of the fact that no one blames her for his condition and no one expects her to do anything about it. Zahrah chooses her own unique path and adventure despite the normal or expected path laid in front of her.

I’ll admit that on whole I prefer The One Who Chooses to “The Chosen One” for a variety of reasons. There’s something reactive about the whole ideal, something that robs the character of agency, of the ability to make their own decisions. Of course they make “decisions” throughout the work but there’s never any chance that they’ll deviate from the ultimate destination of the big battle with the Big Bad. Their decisions often amount to nothing more than little detours on this pre-destined path. In the grand scheme of things they have very little choice. Is there any doubt in Lord of the Rings that Frodo and co. will make it to Mordor? Any chance that Aslan and the White Witch won’t have a confrontation in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? These are forgone conclusions and the only things that truly change are the roads to the endpoint that we all know is coming.

This doesn’t mean that works with “The Chosen One” trope aren’t enjoyable, well-written, and fun. There are ways to put a new spin on anything. There’s also the argument that, despite the endpoint, it’s the story of the journey there and the changes that the characters undergo that truly matter. That’s a valid argument and I see the point; I enjoy a Chosen One trope as much as the next person. What I don’t enjoy are the underlying messages that sometimes get passed along in these kinds of stories.

Even within the fantastical worlds both of these types of characters inhabit they are “different”, excluded from normal society by their supernatural origins or abilities. They are set apart for some reason: magical abilities beyond the norm or below the norm, the ability to work a magical device that no one else can, a special connection to a goddess, or perhaps just a quirk of personality. Whatever it is it sets them apart from the general populace. For Harry Potter it is the fact that as a child he vanquished the dark wizard Voldemort and somehow achieved this when fully-grown witches and wizards could not. For Zahrah, her dadalocks set her apart and mark her as an oddity, someone to be feared for the wisdom and power that people with dadalocks are supposed to have.

Now of course both of these character archetypes play on adolescent fears and feelings–the knowledge that you are different. The shame of not being like everyone else and the desire to fit in above all other things is a common anxiety for humanity. We are all different from each other and, as trite as it sounds, special. No two people are exactly the same. But when we’re young we’re often not yet capable of taking pride in the things that mark us out as unique. From that perspective it makes a lot of sense to start with a character that feels isolated and shunned for something they have no real control over, something that is a part of them. One of the underlying differences in these archetypes is how the fear of being different is resolved.

Harry Potter

I love the Harry Potter books and think it’s a fun series. However, from the very beginning Harry wants to be like everyone else. I’m not discussing the fact that he’s a Wizard among Muggles because we only get that viewpoint for 1 or 2 chapters every book. What he wants to be is normal like his parents and normal for the world he navigates for 90% of the year. He is not like other Wizards; he is viewed as a savior, expected to be powerful. He has abilities beyond his friends (such as parseltongue) and a celebrity status that he loathes. He wants to be just like his friends–normal. This need to be the same and how much it hurts that he’s not is constantly reemphasized within the text.

Zahrah has the same impetus as Harry; she is different because of her hair and other abilities and she longs to be the same as the people in her community like her parents and best friend are. She wants to be accepted, to have friends. But while Harry’s differences mark him out as someone to be in awe of and treated with respect, Zahrah’s differences mark her as a true outsider, someone to be feared and ignored, someone to be treated as less than. Harry has many friends and acquaintances that like and treat him well. Zahrah only has her parents and her best friend.

As we follow their journeys the corollaries and contrasts are readily apparent. Both Harry and Zahrah start out with the same goal inside, but the message of the stories are completely different.

When we come to the end of the Harry Potter saga we are greeted with the fact that Harry has achieved his greatest wish: not only has he been rid of the things that make him different, he is now part of a very typical heteronormative family structure. He has assimilated into the mainstream. He now lives “the ideal life”. Harry has shed his difference and can now blend in with all the wizard folks. Nothing has truly changed in the world–Slytherin is still the “evil” house, house elves still serve wizards for no pay. It’s a bit ironic that a series that started as a representation of difference has ended on a note of conformity that would not be remiss in any 50’s school approved video on the evils of “the different”.

Not only does this wrap up seem a bit trite, it also ends up alienating those who truly identified with the difference within Harry and felt for his longing to be normal but don’t have the same option in their own life. Authors are not required to write to please a segment of the audience. However, when the basis of a whole series is about contrasts, the dichotomy between wizards and humans, wizards and centaurs/goblins/house elves, light wizards and dark wizards, ally and enemy, safety and danger, it seems odd that the ending contains an almost bland sameness. And those who read for the conflicts in difference–who feel most keenly the difference in themselves– are left out of this blissfully normative fairytale ending.

On the other hand, Zahrah learns through her journey to accept her differences. She’s accomplished amazing things because of them–things that have never before been done. Instead of this gaining her acceptance among her society, it gains her notoriety and ignorant responses from the reporters who accost her. But she’s come to a very important conclusion: that she is a good person and that her abilities are part of what makes her Zahrah. She accepts herself for who she is. While society hasn’t changed by the end of the novel there is the hint that it is slowly shifting. Zahrah proved that something thought impossible could be done and opened minds all over her world. And while she’s still considered odd and not normal, her perception of herself has been altered.

Endings are a reward for the character’ previous actions. Harry’s reward is to ostensibly forget that he was ever different and fit into a very traditional, assimilationist life. Zahrah comes to be proud of her differences because she could not have completed her quest without them. I think this is indicative of a trend within the hero tropes I am investigating. “The Chosen One” is not able to make large choices and so they fall into a very normative life where they no longer have to be different or unique in any way. The One Who Chooses has agency from the beginning to make decisions on her own behalf and so has the option to accept herself and her differences as assets.

Perhaps my biggest issue with “The Chosen One” and Harry Potter in particular is that by denying the protagonist any choice in the main part of the story they are often also denied the choice to accept themselves. Harry’s story ended with the moral that being different is something that can be corrected and changed and if we only overcome the challenges ahead of us we too can fit into the narrow view of what is normal. Zahrah ends on a note of self-acceptance and self-love that is overall, I think, a more powerful and needed message. Not just for the YA audience both works are aimed at, but everyone.

Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a freelance writer in San Francisco. His lifelong love of Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror books, TV and movies (both really-exceptionally-bad and good) can probably be traced to a mother who showed him films like Monster Squad and Bladerunner and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits at far too young an age. He writes about identity, politics, media, and writing at his personal blog Words From The Center, Words From The Edge and is one of the many wonderful bloggers at Feminist SF – The Blog!.

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