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Father Issues

Fathers and father figures have tremendous influence over children in their early years, and by extension, they have a lot to say about what children become as adults. Fantasy is a great genre to explore father/child relationships. There are so many potential opportunities for fathers and children to butt heads in fantasy—in worlds where children inherit thrones, property, businesses, and the like from parents, conflict seems like a natural outgrowth of the relationship. And in less technologically advanced worlds where more primitive legal systems hold sway, there’s a lot of opportunity to delve into what makes a good, responsible father. Adult sons and daughters in most fantasy settings can’t just go attend college and start a business or get a job. There are some limitations to those types of options imposed by most fantasy settings, so those settings can give us a lot of options for looking at the relationships more closely.

Because I dealt with some of the specific ways to heighten conflict between parents and adult children in my last article, I thought I’d look at a few of my favorite father/adult child relationships in fantasy and discuss why they work and what could give them a new twist.

Darken Rahl and Richard Cypher Rahl. Or Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, or any number of “evil father/hero son” combinations throughout fantasy and science fiction. This is a trope as old as time and myth. Even Zeus had to defeat his own father, the Titan Cronos.

Why it works: The conflict of the younger man wanting to ascend to his inheritance speaks to something deeply mythological inside us. There’s something that scares and exhilarates us a little bit when we think about the new banishing the old. The new promises excitement, growth, youth, but is it the best thing? People are often resistant to change, and the young man may represent scary possibilities—or even very dangerous possibilities. The old man may be staid, steady, and reliable. There’s conflict there, even if we see that the younger man is the better man. Introduce conflicting moral and ethical codes, and you’ll have instant conflict.

What I’d like to see: There aren’t enough “evil father/heroine daughter” combinations. I think the father/daughter dynamics are different than father/son—if you doubt me, read King Lear or A Thousand Acres. I’d love to see that combination played out more. Or, another combo that could be interesting is the “hero father/evil son” combo. We want good to overcome evil, but if “good” also represents “old,” you suddenly have a lot more conflict. “Old” has to die eventually, so how could you solve that problem?

Denethor, Boromir, and Faramir, Stewards of Gondor. The depths of dysfunction in Denethor’s family could fill a dozen articles, so I’ll confine myself to the issue of a father who plays favorites. In both the series and the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Denethor’s favoritism of Boromir over Faramir comes through loud and clear. We ache for Faramir as he longs for his father’s love and approval, and we want to slap Denethor over the head.

Why it works: This is another ancient formula that shows up over and over. I think it speaks to a longing we all have for parental approval. When we don’t have it, chaos ensues in our own lives. Faramir clearly worked and worked to earn his father’s approval, and yet he never stopped loving his brother. This particular story works so well because Faramir was also a heroic son, so even though he knew his father preferred Boromir, once Boromir was dead, Faramir did the right thing for Gondor, even knowing he’d have to face his very poisonous father.

What I’d like to see: More protagonists who have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to deal with a father who prefers another child. What if Faramir had said, “forget Gondor, forget my father, I’m going off to seek my fortune elsewhere”? A whole new level of conflict could be introduced by some other person forcing Faramir back to Gondor.

Belgarath and Polgara. If you haven’t read David Eddings’ wonderful Belgariad series, I highly recommend you do so. Here’s one example of a healthy adult/child relationship that is far from perfect or sickly sweet.

Why it works: For one thing, Belgarath raised his daughter to be independent and strong. Polgara is, I think, one of the strongest female characters in fantasy. Second, their relationship is flawed. She thinks her father is a rogue, and he thinks she’s too uptight. They argue and sass each other, but they also make up at the end of the day. They work together, on the same side of the good/evil equation, for the overall good of the world, but they respect the other’s role in that work and try hard not to step on toes.
What I’d like to see: Just a whole lot more of this.

Elrond and Arwen. Here we have the overprotective dad. I think the relationship is far more fleshed out in the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy than in the book.

Why it works: Dads do tend to be protective of their daughters. You rarely hear men talk about the proverbial “polishing the shotgun” when their sons prepare to start dating. Elrond recognized the vast differences between his elfin daughter and Aragorn, and he wanted to keep her from being hurt by marrying a mortal man. Elrond is motivated by love for his girl, but in the end, that same love is what allows him to let her go.

What I’d like to see: What would have happened if Arwen had left Aragorn and stayed with the elves? What if Elrond had forced her to sail away with the elves? The overprotective dad can be cute and healthy or sick and twisted. I’d enjoy seeing that combination played out in some more extreme ways with a more twisted father or a weaker daughter.

Next week, I’ll take the same look at mother/child relationships. As a mother, I have some definite favorite moms in fantasy, and I’ll give you a hint about one of the frontrunners: Catelyn Stark. See you next week!

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One Comment

  1. Khaldun says:

    Fun little article. Thanks A.R.D!

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