Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Identity in Fantasy: Why It’s Common and What It Means

Tiffany Wood explains:

Fantasy fiction is a growing sapling in the forest of literature, but already it has conventions, stereotypes, successes and failures, and all the other defining qualities of a genre. Some of these attributes may be a bit harder to pin down than usual given its relative youth, but the main thing to consider is this: though fantasy is young, it is alive and well and has been developing patterns through which we can begin to understand its purpose and influence (conventions such as world-building, mythical creatures, good vs. evil...). One such pattern I'd like to address is that of identity. It seems as though a lot of fantasy fiction is built around the search for identity, or deals with coming of age. Why is this? Why is identity a common theme in so many fantasy books? I will try to uncover the answer to this question by looking at a stunning specimen of the fantasy genre: King's Blood Four of the True Game series. Sheri Tepper weaves a beautiful tale around Peter, a lost boy with whom we travel through the lands of the True Game in order to find out exactly who he is. Tepper will help us answer why the question of identity works so well in this genre, and what it means for us as readers.

It must first be established that the question of identity is not unique to fantasy, by any means. However, it is true that it plays out especially well in this particular genre, and for good reason. Every human being in the history of time has dealt with the question, "Who am I?" and all its various sub-questions. Thus, writing a novel about it makes for a very relateable story. In fantasy, however, there is the added aspect of the unknown, the new creatures and world and rules that the author chooses to create, so a reader is often just as curious about this world as a young or lost character would be. It makes it especially convenient for the author to introduce readers to this fantastical place through the eyes of a character who is also searching and learning at the same time. The reader and the character can, in a way, grow up together, and both reach maturity by the end of the story.

Sheri Tepper masters this growth with impressive grace in her novel, King's Blood Four. Peter, the main character, almost literally has no identity. For starters, he is what is called a “foundling” (7), another name for a child abandoned at birth, only to be taken in by his school. He has no clue who his parents are, or where he came from. Secondly, he is still young, which means he does not yet know what is his Talent, or natural, inherited gift that defines what kind of player he is and power he has during the True Game. At this stage, he is still an anonymous, inconsequential pawn, worth little. During much of the book he is frustrated and confused that he knows so little about himself, and is anxious for the day when he knows what Talent he has, what power will make his existence mean something. At one point in the novel he is in some amount of danger as men are chasing him, and he cries out in anger and confusion, "What do I look like? Some Wizard Child? [...] I look like what I am. A student. No sign of Talent yet. No sign of a name. No nothing" (26). We feel his struggle with identity, and relate to it. At another point he explains, "Understand, for boys of my age...the most important thing is to know what name, what talent we will have. We search for signs of it, hints, even for auspices.... What did this mean?" (43). We all need to feel some sort of meaning and purpose in life; we need to find out what we are good at. At this point, he knows next to nothing, and it weighs on him heavily.

Peter also has to leave his home after a mix up at his Schooltown in the first chapter, and he does not know much about the surrounding lands or outside world--the world of the True Game. Tepper writes brilliantly in this way, because as readers we are discovering the world at the same time Peter is, through his eyes. Tepper doesn't have to take time out of the narrative to explain to us the rules of this new place. We slowly get fed small tidbits of information as Peter travels deeper into the land, and into himself. The whole book consists of these two journeys, and we are never left behind or out of the loop. In fact, we come to grow even closer to Peter's character as we experience all the same things he does. In this way, Tepper beautifully illustrates the convenience of a coming of age story in fantasy. If Peter were old and experienced, then Tepper would have to backtrack in her explanations of her world, or insert potentially awkward flashbacks or boring chunks of information, for our sake. But since Peter is just as fresh as we are, Tepper can weave our journey and Peter’s into one solid, forward moving, chronological tapestry.* For example, Peter is with his friends in a new place, and they are sharing their thoughts about what might happen, and Peter gets "mocked once more for being naïve." His friend then tells him, "Why, it's the way of the Game, lad," and goes on to explain to him (and us) another aspect of the True Game that is important (60). Both we and Peter get a lesson, and we are grateful he is coming of age so that we can learn through him. As readers we don't feel ignorant, like we might if the author had had to explain this just for us, instead of for Peter.

Eventually, Peter finds out that he is the son of one of the most important, powerful women of the Game, nephew to his old, wise teacher, and soon after that what his remarkable Talent is. These things are trivial for us except for how they made him feel. It is coming upon him to make use of his Talent and save the people he loves and avert disaster and he wonders, "While I...what in the name of the seven devils did I want? Nothing. I wanted to do nothing. Nothing at all. Doing things was frightening. Every time I had done anything at all decisive, I had been terrified" (138). This epitomizes the rising action of Peter's self discovery. He finally has what he's been seeking this whole time, and now that he is confronted with it, all he can feel is fear. How many times have we felt the same thing! We come to a point where we must take action, do something with ourselves and face responsibility, and it's terrifying, this fear of failure. But of course, he comes to do what is necessary, and he solemnly tells us, "From that moment on I was no longer a boy. Why should one raise up the dead and remain innocent, but raise up love and fear death? I leave that to you to figure out. I only learned in that moment that it was true" (151). And here is the climax. Peter knows who exactly who he is, what he has to do, and he accepts it. Look how much he has matured, and so have we. At the beginning we felt his confusion, and then we trailed behind him as he wandered and began to learn about himself and the strange land, and now we feel his triumph, his maturity. We are right there with him; we have grown up just as much as he has, and it is a moving moment.

It is not difficult to see the perfect fit of a coming of age story inside of the fantasy genre. The search for identity goes hand in hand with the introduction and development of a new world, and authors like Tepper are taking full advantage. But now we can see that it is more than that--this question of identity is something we all struggle with, and placing this relevant issue within a fantastic context helps us to feel familiar with the author's strange new world. Further, it creates a real connection to the characters in the book because we're right there with them as they discover who they are, and this is a wonderful thing. We become friends; we gain an understanding of each other. This is not only why so many fantasy stories raise the question of identity, but it's often one reason why they are so great.


*In actuality, Peter is older (if not quite grown up) when he is telling his story, but for the purposes of this paper, this fact is of little consequence, because Peter tells the story through his adolescent eyes. He relives it for us as it actually happened, so regardless of his current age in the novel's real time, we are still receiving the young, immature Peter in King's Blood Four and experiencing the events with him as he actually experienced them.


Tepper, Sheri S. The True Game. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1996. Print.

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