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The Chaotic Champion – Part Two: The Wandering Hero

This the second in our Chaotic Champion series. You can read the first article here.

gunfighter 2 by davidwpaulA gunslinger rides alone across the prairies, coming from nowhere special and going wherever the wind takes him. Stopping at a town, he gets into a gunfight at the saloon and finds himself in the middle of a feud between two factions. Both sides offer him a reward if he’ll help them secure whatever they’re fighting over (a gold mine, perhaps), and he takes the better offer. After action and double-crosses aplenty, he takes his promised reward (or some of it, at least) and rides off into the sunset.

Here we have the most basic type of Chaotic Champion, the Wandering Hero. We know him* from many settings, though perhaps the rootless gunslinger is the most familiar. Other examples could be the Greek hero destroying whatever monsters he happens to meet on his travels; the knight errant, battling evil foes and rescuing fair damsels; the wandering samurai, who functions in much the same way as the gunslinger; or the sword & sorcery barbarian hero, such as Conan.

And, let’s face it, there are times when we envy him. Not all the time, or even most of it, and only a few would make a deliberate, rational choice to adopt such a life. Still, when the demands of our rooted, ordered life get too much—whether that’s working sixteen hours a day in the fields so we have enough to eat over winter, or whether it’s being confronted with a tax return that seems as long as The Wheel of Time—being a footloose adventurer has its attractions. We don’t leave home to wander the world, but we enjoy stories about people who do.

EAST by lclszzxThe pros and cons of life as a Wandering Hero are expressed succinctly in a scene from The Magnificent Seven. When Vin sums up the life as, “Rented rooms you live in—five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses—a thousand! Home—none! Wife—none! Kids…none! Prospects—zero,” Chris counters, “Places you’re tied down to—none. People with a hold on you—none. Men you step aside for—none,” and Lee adds, “Insults swallowed—none. Enemies—none…Alive.”

The figure of the Wandering Hero may have had its origin, at least partly, in the itinerant workers who would have seemed exotic and a little dangerous to settled farmers, for whom twenty miles was a long journey. These men (they would normally have been men) had to travel through dangerous forests or across perilous moors—certainly infested with bandits and wild beasts, and probably with spirits and monsters—to bring much-needed skills to the village.

This was almost certainly the origin of the rootless gunslinger figure. He was more likely to be looking for a job as a cowboy than looking for trouble—though the two might well have gone together.

Odysseus Vs. The Cyclops by ApneicMonkeyMost sword and sorcery heroes wander in search of employment, though less mundane employment than the tinker or the cowboy. Conan, for instance, is always on the lookout for jobs, whether as thief, mercenary or beautiful queen’s paramour, and eventually lands the ultimate job vacancy as a king.

Many Wandering Heroes don’t adopt the role for life. Odysseus, who might be seen as the archetype, was really only trying to get home. At least, that’s what he told his wife—“and I really was held prisoner against my will by that nymph Calypso, honestly, darling.” Theseus functioned as a Wandering Hero as he crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, slaying whatever monsters and evil-doers he happened upon, but his journey was briefer and more to the point than Odysseus’s, with the aim of reaching Athens and being recognised as its heir. Even Conan eventually settled down to rule his kingdom.

The tradition of Greek heroes wandering the world in search of adventure has been carried on in the TV shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena, in particular, shows how thin a line divides the Chaotic Champion from the unrepentant chaos she fights, since she herself was once part of that unrepentant chaos and is regularly tempted to return.

Art Deco Eleventh Doctor by Bill MudronNevertheless, she resists the temptation, and that’s crucial for the Chaotic Champion—and perhaps for the Wandering Hero most of all, since he has the least to root him to order. Perhaps the most successful Wandering Hero in modern popular culture is the Doctor. All the Doctor really wants is to travel and to see the universe, but he can’t stand by while chaos is threatening. The agents of that chaos, though—especially the Master, his Jungian Shadow—are constantly tempting him to abandon his moral high ground. In an episode from 2011, the Doctor’s dilemma was stated explicitly. In response to the taunt, “Good men have too many rules,” the Doctor retorts, “Good men don’t need rules. This isn’t the day to find out why I have so many.”

Not all heroes who travel, of course, are Wandering Heroes. Jason and the Argonauts make a long journey, but it’s a specific journey for a specific purpose, commissioned by King Pelias. Well, perhaps commissioned is being rather charitable to Pelias, who tricked Jason, but it still makes Jason a Recruited Hero. The same is true of Frodo and the quest for Mount Doom, which also involves a considerable amount of travelling, but for a purpose for which Frodo and all his companions volunteered. Mere travelling doesn’t make a Wandering Hero. As Tolkien put it, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Hilltop Encounter by Mr--JackOn the other hand, tales abound of heroes with a stable place in society—as stable as a Chaotic Champion can have, at least—who go wandering at random. Perhaps the most common of these is the knight errant of mediaeval romance. These aren’t rootless men, since they’re typically Knights of the Round Table or some similar order, yet they leave the security and comfort of Camelot to plunge into the perilous wilderness in search of enemies to fight and damsels to save.

Sometimes, these adventures are quests as targeted as those of Jason or Frodo. The Quest for the Holy Grail is the best known of these, but perhaps more typical is Gareth’s journey to rescue Dame Liones from the Red Knight of the Red Laundes. Although he must overcome a whole series of colourful knights on the way, he has a single purpose—there and back again.

Nevertheless, Gareth undertakes the quest specifically as an opportunity to establish his fame and glory—as opposed to languishing as a kitchen boy, in spite of being of royal birth—and knights without such an excuse would simply head off into the dark forest and hope for adventures to find them. Feasting at Camelot was all very well, and there were tournaments, of course, but real glory—the batting averages, as T. H. White put it—had to be constantly maintained and improved on by real adventures.

St. George and the Dragon by Donato GiancolaThis is different from the Doctor’s love of travel for its own sake, or Conan’s hope of employment. For a knight errant, the reward is the adventure itself—though the love and gratitude of a damsel, stunningly beautiful and even more stunningly rich, isn’t something to be sniffed at. Especially if she comes complete with her own castle, like Perceval’s love Blancheflor.

It can’t be just any adventure, though. The knight errant, as a true Chaotic Champion, must be a defender of order against chaos. He must slay the agents of chaos who challenge anyone travelling on the roads, just as Theseus slew Sciron, Procrustes and the rest, a couple of thousand years earlier in Greece. He must rid the land of monsters and tyrants; and, above all, he must at all costs protect any lady who asks his help.

The Wandering Hero is the simplest of the roles the Chaotic Champion can undertake, but paradoxically it can also be the hardest to maintain. Whether he’s wandering for the prospect of adventure, to look for employment or for the sheer love of travel, any self-respecting Chaotic Champion will, from time to time, be drawn into adopting a cause, either for reward or from principle. At this point, and for as long as he’s fighting for that cause, he’s no longer a Wandering Hero, but a Recruited Hero.

*Chaotic Champions can be male or female, of course, but for the vast majority of human history 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 Mr–Jack.

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

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