The Bildungsroman in fantasy fiction
Bildungsroman, a genre of literature focused on coming of age experiences, is not specific to the fantasy genre; however, fantasy fiction authors utilize this subgenre throughout their work, frequently using it to define the morals and expectations of their own society. The Bildungsroman has been used successfully throughout the genre, arguably producing its most successful works: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore, The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, The True Game by Sherri S. Tepper, and countless others. Despite its frequent usage and repeated messages, this subgenre of fantasy has remained popular; it continues to represent several of the best selling fantasy books, affecting generations of young readers. The Bildungsroman will remain a popular and important subgenre, its ability to affect readers both young and old supporting its continuation.
The Bildungsroman can be understood as a very basic concept, one capable of adaptation and reinvention as society changes. Similar to gender roles, the Bildungsroman is a product of the society it’s written in, changing the values and morals it passes on to fit that society. This ability of the Bildungsroman can be seen in a comparison between The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Tolkien was writing from a time period of stricter values, values leaning more closely to the right. His times affected his writing, as reflected in both the world itself and the characters he created. The men are men, the women are women. Characters like Aragorn, Arwen, and the majority of the fellowship of the ring all uphold strict gender and societal values. Unlike Jackson’s movie adaptation, Tolkien does not use Arwen to save Frodo from the Ringwraiths. Tolkien relies on a male character, an elf prince named Glorfindel, to aid Frodo and lead the party towards Rivendell. Aragorn, another strong male character, directly confronts the riders, fighting them off on Weathertop. In comparison, J.K. Rowling plays with gender roles, as well as the values she wants to instill through her writing. Instead of the rigid, predictable characters of Tolkien, Rowling manipulates traditional roles. Hermione is a stronger female character than many portrayed in The Lord of the Rings. While she still comprises several traditional female characteristics (compassion, emotion, and harassment of the male characters), Hermione rescues Harry and Ron several times. She is the most intelligent of the three, utilizing her knowledge and logic to rescue Harry and Ron from danger. In addition to Hermione, Rowling redefines the role of the wizened wizard. Whereas Gandalf, throughout much of Tolkien’s series, is seemingly all knowing and powerful, Dumbledore displays the ability of older generations to make errors and contain faults. Rowling seemingly attempts to create an older, wizened character that is ultimately human. Although both authors utilize the Bildungsroman, they do so in differing ways, passing on different values and morals. The values and morals they pass on directly reflect those of that author’s society and times.
Although the Bildungsroman is utilized by authors to pass morals and values onto youth, its affect on readers differs depending on the age group reading it. The morals and values impressed on youth through the Bildungsroman will have little impact on older audiences. After a certain age, readers have a set of morals instilled in them, values unlikely to change due to a single book or series. In the case of older audiences, the Bildungsroman serves to revisit youth and experience those issues once more through the lens of adulthood. Like the Pensieve in Harry Potter, Bildungsroman literature allows us to revisit previous experiences and memories. This allows older readers to bring greater understanding to their lives.
The Bildungsroman, while focusing on youth, can span several ages. Harry Potter spans ages eleven to the late teens. The Lord of the Rings focuses on a character several decades old; however, in the eyes of that character’s society, he is still a youth. Xanth focuses on a character in his early twenties. The exact age does not matter; in fact, age itself does not matter. In Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, the vampire Louis, despite his over 100 year lifespan, is forced to undergo the transformation associated with Bildungsroman literature. Over the course of the book, Louis must adapt and change. He is forced to accept the change he has undergone, what he has become. By the end of the book, Louis can be seen to have matured into an adult vampire. This has nothing to do with age. Instead, the transformation is emotional, it’s psychological. This is a key example of what Bildungsroman is really about. Instead of aging, it’s about growing up and being accepted as an adult by one’s own society. The key issue of the Bildungsroman in fantasy fiction is whether that character is considered an adult in the eyes of their society. The main objective of the Bildungsroman, as it pertains to the character, is to force experiences onto the character, forcing them to undergo changes which result in their achieving adulthood –not a specific age– in the eyes of their society.
The importance of the Bildungsroman can be understood in its ability to impact society; it influences several generations at once, despite being targeted towards youth. The impact it has on all generations allows it a sway over society comparable to any classic literature. Books such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings exemplify this potential impact. We can see this potential effect by analyzing the social impact these two series have had. While both series have remained immensely popular, what sets them apart is the impact they had on the youth. Students who previously disdained books began to pick them up. While it can be argued that Harry Potter did not create a generation of readers, as it has previously been claimed, it still affected youth in a positive way. The values and morals found in Harry Potter affected how these children viewed what was right and wrong. It influenced their outlook on the world, as well as how they viewed themselves in relation to that world.
How we understand Bildungsroman can change as the author varies. The emotional and psychological maturation of the main character is what’s key to Bildungsroman, not the age of the character or how many years pass. While the characters tend to be young, they can be any age from eleven to two-hundred. Bildungsroman is an important subgenre of literature because it allows authors impact youth in a positive way. It allows authors to shape and mold them with positive morals and values, values dictated by society. It is also important because it impacts readers outside of its target audience. Older readers are able to reexperience portions of their lives. They are able to revisit important events which shaped who they are today, reminding them of who they are and how they got there. Ultimately, the Bildungsroman is and will continue to be an important facet in literature, especially as a subgenre in fantasy. Its impact on a wide audience allows it to adapt with each generation, keeping its message relevant and understandable.