The Chaotic Champion – Part Nine: Order and Chaos
I’ve spent most of this series discussing how the figure of the Chaotic Champion works in story. My contention is that he’s* a universal concept in human story, whether the story’s an ancient legend or a modern TV series, that fulfils an essential role in the narratives we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and our place in it. I’ve outlined how he can fill one or more of the six variations. But what exactly is this Chaotic Champion, and how does he relate to the world we actually live in? Whichever world exactly that might be.
As we all know, the people and events we love in a story are very often not those we’d like to see in our own lives. As Sam Gamgee puts it in Lord of the Rings:
Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different. Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway.
Many—if not most—Chaotic Champions tend to fit that description. They upset the status quo, even if that status quo isn’t a good one, and hanging around them is likely to get you killed. Yet we love to hear, read or watch their stories. There’s clearly a big gap between the story and the reality.
Much of that difference, I think, lies in the fact that the order/chaos model doesn’t really work outside narrative conventions, and nor does the idea that one special person can change everything. Michael Moorcock, writing about heroes such as his own Elric, observes:
In real life such power only comes through group action and the ballot box, yet we’re all familiar with examples of local heroism, the courage of ordinary individuals in terrifying conditions.
Even when an individual does change the world (and not always for the better) it’s not usually such a solo effort as it might seem. Hitler certainly changed the world; but, if he hadn’t been there, the Third Reich would probably still have happened, although not in exactly the way it did. Like most such quantum leaps in history, the Third Reich was the result of a confluence between a complex set of social conditions and imperatives, and an individual capable of expressing the needs that arose from them.
The kind of group action Moorcock invokes can be effective because, far from being helpless as in the stories, order is actually capable of an immense degree of organisation and ruthlessness, while the chaotic individual is often a victim, rather than an oppressor. Order is what produces complex political systems, civic duties and well-disciplined armies; chaos, by contrast, can produce creativity, crime or insanity in roughly equal measures.
Nevertheless, the origins of that order lie not in strength, but in vulnerability. Early humans weren’t especially powerful as individuals, but their great strength lay in their ability to act collectively. This may have started as a defensive strategy, but by the later paleolithic era it had made humans incredibly successful hunters. The tribal hunts of that period, when a group would kill a mammoth or giant rhino, required the same skills and gave the same emotional rewards as warfare has subsequently, and it’s possible that one developed into the other.
In spite of this spectacular success, though, humans have never quite lost the paranoia of being threatened from all sides by the dark, unknown forest and the fearsome creatures that lurk there. That threat is no longer very real for those of us who live in a modern urban environment, but we do our best to focus on replacements, whether on the grand scale (rogue meteorites are popular agents of chaos these days) or on the intimate scale of those who veer far enough from the norm to be labelled chaotic.
The corollary of human paranoia is a need to continue to see ourselves as vulnerable, validating the compromises we must make to the collective human society. At the same time, though, we don’t want to lose sight entirely of individual achievement. In the great paleolithic hunts, the mammoth was brought down ultimately by collective action, but it took individual courage and skill to deal each decisive blow, in the same way that, as Moorcock points out, ordinary people can show heroism in extraordinary circumstances. We need heroes, as well as organisation.
That’s well and good as long as the two are working to a common purpose, but in most human activity—including warfare—the alliance isn’t quite as easy. An army commander needs his men to be willing to go screaming over the top, when ordered to, in a heroic charge into certain death, but he also needs them to obey orders without question and sink their individuality in the collective unit.
The solutions found to such practical issues don’t concern us here, but we are concerned with the methods society has to develop to show this paradox positively in story. It’s necessary to portray individual heroism as available when needed but absent when not, and we as a species seem to have achieved that by separating the hero off as something distinct from society.
Another need the Chaotic Champion seems to fulfil is the mitigation of the basic human paranoia I’ve referred to. Most children (and plenty of adults, for that matter) love stories that scare them stiff before reassuring them at the end. Being saved from the monsters or the evil men somehow makes us feel safer than if there were no danger to start with.
The saviour doesn’t have to be a Chaotic Champion, but his presence meets this need in another way. If we’re surrounded by chaos, whether that’s the unknown forest or the mean streets, it reassures us to feel chaos isn’t all dangerous. The idea that one little part of it’s on our side makes us feel we have control over it.
As an inevitable result, we often take as our heroes people who would be villains in real life. This is clearest with Outlaw Heroes, modelled purely on criminals. It would be easy to create revisionist versions of these stories in which, for example, the dedicated Sheriff of Nottingham battles the threat from Robin Hood and his ruthless gang.
In this case, the Sheriff could be seen as a Protector Hero, and this role, too, depends on how you view it. Every heroic cop can be a Sheriff of Nottingham if the story happens to be about an Outlaw Hero, and vice versa.
In the scene from Lord of the Rings quoted above, Sam goes on to wonder if Gollum thinks he’s the hero or the villain of his story. Of course, most people see themselves as the hero of their story. Not all, perhaps, but most, even if their self-image is as the heroic outlaw, and any good story can be told either way round. It’s up to the teller, and the listeners or readers, to decide who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
A good example of this comes in the film Serenity, the big-screen spin-off of the TV series Firefly. Mal’s outlaw crew is pursued by a government agent, known only as the Operative, whose role isn’t really very different from James Bond: the Protector Hero, out on a limb and using questionable methods to protect society from threats to its existence. It just happens that, in this story, we’re encouraged to see the government as corrupt and oppressive, and the outlaws as people we like, so the Operative is a villain rather than a hero.
In an exchange between Mal and the Operative, the latter expresses perfectly the eternal paradox of the Chaotic Champion when he speaks of something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin. Mal challenges him: So me and mine gotta lay down and die, so you can live in your better world? And the Operative responds I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there, any more than there is for you. Malcolm…I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
Just like the Seven, the order the Operative sees himself as defending uses him when it needs to and then rejects him.
The Chaotic Champion has little validity in the reality we have to live in, but that’s nothing in comparison with the vastness of the narrative reality we use as a species to explain the world we inhabit. I hope this series has illustrated that, of all the stories we tell ourselves, the tale of the Chaotic Champion has been one of the most successful, from yarns told around the campfire in the forest to the books, films, TV and comics of the 21st century, and will probably continue to dominate story for as long as humans are human.
*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.