“It’s stupid,” the girl was saying.  “Really trite.”  I think her name was Sonja.

            “What makes you say that?” My English Literature professor prompted.

            “Well, I don’t mean Beowulf specifically,” she qualified, “I mean, it started the trend in English literature, it’s so old.  But I mean the theme itself.  ‘Hero chosen by Fate to overcome all odds.’  The lone hero figure is everywhere culturally, from ‘Die Hard’ to ‘Hamlet.’  It’s annoying.  Real life isn’t like that.”

            “What does real life have to do with literature?” Katie asked.  “Isn’t it possible to just enjoy a story?  Escapism has its place.”

            I tried to rouse myself.  Something about this was important.  I kept falling asleep in class lately.

            “But it becomes cliché.  Trends catch on and get boring.  After ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ all protagonists are insightful and brooding.  After Beowulf, everything from Camelot to modern movies has a singular hero out to save the day.  Wrap it up in one package, throw in a few prophecies, and you have Harry Potter garbage with Special Child Syndrome.”

            “What do you mean by that?” Professor Fleur said, trying to cause more discussion.

            “It’s maybe just my name for it,” Sonja shrugged.   “But it’s like a disease.  How many stories have you read where the unlikely hero starts with nothing and becomes practically god-like, while prophecies predict his success?  It’s boring.  Especially considering the deus ex machina endings.  I’d rather read something a little more creative.”

            “You didn’t think Harry Potter was creative?” Suzanne asked.  She loved fantasy literature.  “I think it’s full of great magic spells and an interesting world.”

            “Are you kidding me?” I spoke up.  “Potter’s roots are in Narnia, Nesbitt, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes.  If anything’s derivative, it would be Rowling’s writing.  Her genius lies in marketing the themes to a new generation.”

            I turned my scathing tone towards the professor and the Sonja girl.

            “It’s not a trend from Beowulf.  Ancient civilizations wrote myths about heroes constantly.  From Mesopotamia to Greece.  The Bible is filled with it.  Where do you think prophecies started?  Look at Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson… Let alone Jesus and his connection to the books of the Prophets.  It’s not escapism, and it’s not unrealistic.  For millennia it’s been part of the human condition.  People wanted to believe they had a purpose, and that the world was bigger than just them.”

Fiona spoke up from across the classroom:  “Don’t you think it’s incredibly narcissistic to think that way?  For a reader to connect with the one character that’s significant, doesn’t that isolate them from other people?  No one is that important.  It’s misleading.”

“When you couple that theme with the deus ex machina ending Sonja is criticizing, you’re connecting with the history of morality plays and Everyman stories.  In them, the ordinary person is elevated to Beloved of God, with a soul worth fighting for.  You’re not isolating one person from humanity, you’re saying every individual is a ‘Special Child’ to God.”

My friend Erin, sitting beside me, put a cautionary hand on my arm. “You’re a little loud,” she whispered.  “Ease up a little.”

            Professor Fleur’s eyes widened.  I had never been quite so scornful in my tone of voice in class before.  Sonja was made of sterner stuff, however.

            “Putting something in a book, or even a lot of books, doesn’t make it true or even important.  And repeating the trend isn’t creative.”

            “It is if you subvert it.  Use what people know, and their preconceptions, and then twist them, make them stand on their head.  With that you can be counter-cultural, offer critique of prejudices and preconceptions.  William Shakespeare does it in ‘Macbeth,’ where your ‘Special Child’ of prophecy ultimately turns out to be a tragic villain, brought low by hubris.”

Erin pulled on my shirt, trying to get me to sit down.  Apparently, I had stood up in the middle of class.  It didn’t slow me down.

“He does it again in ‘Titus,’ criticizing Britain by criticizing its Roman influence, by holding it up for people to see.  He doesn’t come out and say ‘Hey our system is misogynist and hierarchical and unfair,’ he does it through subtlety.  That’s why he’s the only writer of his era who didn’t go to prison.”

            “I still think it’s uncreative.  Find a new way to say something, don’t just stand on someone else’s ideas,” a young man spoke up, Patrick.  “Just tell the story.  No one needs all that symbolism.”

            “What’s wrong with symbolism?”  Another young man, Allan, said.  “It’s a rich tradition, connected to folklore and old wives’ tales.  It’s historical.”

            “Symbolism connects you to universal truths of the human condition,” I backed him up.  “You get in touch with Jung’s collective unconscious, the thoughts that are shared with the entire race.  Everyone can understand and become emotionally invested in the story.  And that opens the door to new ideas layered on the old ones, for critique, for allegory, for transformation.  There’s nothing wrong with a clean story, but there’s also nothing wrong with one with layers.  Sure, some authors fail to use the themes creatively.  But that doesn’t make the themes themselves irrelevant.  Holden Caufield’s misery doesn’t suddenly make depression trite.  Tell that to someone who’s suffering.”

            “I think we’ve had an engaging discussion today…” the professor tried to end on a positive note.

            “I think I’m tired of listening.” I said, mainly to myself.

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