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The Chaotic Champion – Part One: Introducing the Champion

The honest, hardworking peasants of a village are being harassed by bandits and decide they’ve had enough. They can’t actually do anything about it themselves, so they hire a group of professional fighters to sort out the situation. These men, essentially not unlike the bandits they’re fighting, save the village although several die in the fighting, but the peasants feel uneasy around them—they thank the survivors, assure them they’ll never be forgotten, then ask them to leave.

Seven Samurai (poster)The story started as the great Japanese film Seven Samurai and was retold in the almost-as-great western The Magnificent Seven. Since then, it’s been used in innumerable contexts and genres. It’s a story of the Hero we understand instinctively.

Defining the figure of the hero is complicated, not least because the word is used to mean so many different things: a brave person, a role-model, or just any sympathetic protagonist of a story. In its original mythological sense, a hero was a demi-god who became the object of a cult after his death—assuming, that is, he wasn’t mere fiction to start with.

It’s this meaning, I think, that’s most useful for examining the figure of the hero in a meaningful way. The hero, most fundamentally, is someone who is not around here and now—and that’s a good thing. Let’s face it, how many of us would really want Herakles, Theseus, Perseus or Jason living next door, slaying monsters and overthrowing tyrants at all hours of the day and night? They have adventures, which are, as Bilbo Baggins observed, Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner! Heroes belong in stories.

This isn’t true only of classical mythology. How many fictional heroes—real heroes, who battle against Evil—can you name who are entirely at peace with the society they protect? Or, for that matter, who live long, productive lives and die comfortably in their beds?

Hereward the WakeEven when historical heroes die peacefully, the stories tend to be “improved”. Take Hereward the Wake, for instance. The historical Hereward was an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who led a resistance movement in the Fens area of England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. He was a thorn in the side of King William the Bastard for a few years, before coming to terms and settling down to a quiet life.

That’s all very fine for history, but everyone knew it wasn’t “true” as a story. In some versions, the legendary Hereward died fighting valiantly in a heroic last stand, which was much better.

Not all heroes are complete outsiders, of course, as the Seven are. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are respected members of society (well, perhaps “respected” is a bit strong for Clark) even though Batman and Superman are mysterious figures who come and go when they’re needed. Some heroes even have an official rank: Knight of the Round Table, U.S. Marshal, police officer (a “good cop”, of course). Occasionally, they’re even kings; but even a good king isn’t a stable figure when he’s a hero. Witness Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, whose violent ways so disturbed his people that the gods sent a fitting adversary for him to fight.

Why is this? What is it about heroes that makes us need them, but not actually want them around? Why, like the villagers, do we ask them to leave when their job’s done, but still tell stories and venerate the graves of those who fell?

Brightwall by emrahelmasliIt’s my contention that the story of the Seven is a particularly clear iteration of a figure I call the Chaotic Champion. The preferred human fictional reality (not actual reality, but what’s reality compared with a good story?) sees life as a constant battle between order and chaos—essentially good and evil. Order is represented by quiet, law-abiding communities that want nothing more than to raise their crops and children, or whatever’s equivalent in their situation, and to be left alone. Beyond the fringes of the village, or whatever form this nice ordered society takes, lurk the forces of chaos, represented by people like the bandits, who believe that might is right and live by taking what they want.

In reality, of course, order can be an authoritarian monolith that is often expert at defending itself, while it’s from chaos that inspiration and creativity tend to come. It’s important to remember, though, that fiction (even the most uncompromising social realism) isn’t about what the world’s like, but about what we think it ought to be like. That’s not wrong, merely stories doing what they’re supposed to do. In a fictional sense, it’s “true”, just as the people retelling the story of Hereward felt their version was the “true” one.

Might & Magic Card by GuizzThere’s a problem about this structure, though. Order, made up of the normal, decent people, doesn’t have the strength to fight back against the turbulent violence of chaos because, as with the peasants, what order values isn’t the strength and skill for fighting.

The answer: to recruit a piece of chaos itself, to fight as order’s champion. This is the Chaotic Champion, an agent of chaos that sees the value in order—or, at least, wants something order can offer. The arrangement suits both sides.

I’d contend that this transaction underlies the vast majority of the heroes of human fiction, whether we’re looking at ancient mythology or modern comics. On occasion, it’s more or less openly recognised. In a later series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, Buffy attempts to find the source of her Slayer powers. In the end, she discovers that the powers that allow her to fight demons and vampire are actually demonic in origin. There are other modern example where this is explicit: Hellboy, for instance.

The Chaotic Champion can be a wide range of people. He* might be cynical and opportunist, like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, or noble and altruistic, like Lancelot. He might be an obsessive adventurer, or an ordinary person thrust into heroism, who wants nothing more than to be allowed to sink back into obscurity.

Mentor of the Meek by algenpflegerSimilarly, his motives for defending order can be almost anything. Some are paid, others are blackmailed. Some are action junkies, while others may think of nothing but their personal honour or prestige. Some find themselves in a situation where they’ve no choice but to choose sides. Some might genuinely care about the people they’re defending.

I’ve identified six categories of Chaotic Champion, depending on the level of involvement in the society they’re fighting for, and in subsequent articles I’ll look at these in more detail. Briefly, though, there’s the Wandering Hero, who simply happens on fights to take on; the Recruited Hero, who’s persuaded (one way or another) to take on a specific cause; the Outsider Hero, who’s involved in society but also somewhat separate from it; the Outlaw Hero, who comes into his own when the chaos comes from the top; the Protector Hero, who has an official role in the society he’s defending; and, rarest of all, the King Hero, whose intervention changes a society, as well as protecting it.

The Exile's Return by Charles KeeganOf course, by no means all Chaotic Champions fit neatly into one or another of these categories. Neither storytelling nor human nature—assuming there’s a difference between the two—are that prescriptive or neat. A character may be different kinds of hero at different stages of the tale, or even at the same time depending on how you look at them. Some might inhabit the cracks between the different categories.

The purpose of these articles isn’t to force characters into a strait-jacket, but to provide a vocabulary to help define them in their individuality. It’s perfectly OK, for instance, to describe some hero as having aspects of both Outsider and Protector, and to spend part of his story as a Wandering Hero. But then there’s the bit where he’s more like an Outlaw, and…so on.

Later in the series, I’ll be examining in more detail how these crossovers work. In the final article, I’ll look in more detail at how the model of order and chaos may have developed and what needs of human nature they and the Chaotic Champion fulfil. For the next six articles, though, I’ll look at each of the categories in turn, examining how they work and some of the heroes, ancient and modern, who fit into them.

This is a brief overview, and I can’t possibly fit in every story that fits or illustrates my point. Since my purpose is simply to give a few examples, I’ll be concentrating on the better-known heroes of mainly western culture, ancient and modern, and only a small selection of those. Apologies if your favourite heroes are left out, but hopefully these articles will get you thinking about how they fit the pattern. The chances are they will.

*Chaotic Champions can be male or female, of course, but for the vast majority of human story they’ve tended to be male, so I refer to the generic figure as “he”. This isn’t meant to devalue any female characters.

Title image by Guizz.

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4 Comments

  1. bainespal says:

    Fascinating. I look forward to reading more.

    Are there other heroes who aren’t really characterized by chaos at all? Is the Chaotic Champion sort of an alternative to the Monomythic Hero?

    • Thanks for the interest. No, I don’t think the Chaotic Champion’s quite as universal as the Monomyth, because there’s a lot of types of characters it doesn’t apply to – Dickensian protagonists, for instance – which the Monomyth arguably does. The Champion works mainly in stories with an action-based theme, although not necessarily the all-action type of stories. I wouldn’t say categorically that all action stories must include a Chaotic Champion, but I’d say most do. Later in the series, for instance, I’ll be touching on how the typical Hitchcockian hero fits into the paradigm

  2. […] This the second in our Chaotic Champion series. You can read the first article here. […]

  3. […] One: Introducing the Champion Part Two: The Wandering […]

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