There are no end of books or films about The Chosen One. That extra special character who is destined to do great things, or to bring everything crashing down around our ears.
In the Matrix films, it is Neo – a none too subtle anagram. In Star Wars the Chosen One started out as Luke Warmwater until he became too boring so the interest switched to Darth Vader, nee Anakin Warmwater.
Lord of the Rings had at least two chosen ones, which sounds like a contradiction in terms. Frodo is the ring bearer and Aragorn is Isildur’s heir. The chosen two?
Then again maybe Sam is the chosen one to help Frodo. And Gandalf is bound to be chosen for something and …
Is there anyone in Lord of the Rings who wasn’t a Chosen One?
My heart sinks whenever I read a fantasy novel which starts with a prologue and then gives us a prophecy about a chosen one. Probably with a magical sword. And a villainous villain.
And, yes, yes, we’ve all seen the trick where the prophecy comes true but not quite in the way that you expect. Whoever writes these prophecies ought to go on a Plain English course. Ah, so when you said that the Chosen One would being balance to the Force, what you really meant was that it would destroy the Republic first? That kind of balance?
Why didn’t you say that in the first place?
Why so many chosen Ones? Incidentally, it does have to be capitalised. In the world of the Chosen One there can be only Chosen One, so it becomes a proper noun. Unless it is the film Highlander which had a Frenchman playing a Scot and a Scot playing a Spaniard, by way of ancient Egypt and Sparta. And the tagline was “There can be only one” although there seemed to be lots of them.
The reason for the chosen Ones, I think, is partly to do with the relationship between the story teller and the reader.
The story teller is going to spin a narrative of heroism and sacrifice. The Chosen One is going to do great things. He will fight monsters, defeat villains, solve crossword clues conveniently scattered around the landscape, get the girl, go through a character arc and finally achieve his destiny.
Meanwhile the reader is sitting listening to a bard tell the story, munching popcorn in a multiplex or thumb-flicking the pages on his kindle. How can we connect the reader to the action, make him empathise with the characters, involve him?
A Chosen One, a magical sword, a destiny, a prophecy … these are all ways of telling the reader that the hero could have been them if only they had been chosen.
The Chosen One gets to do heroic things. Hey, I could do that if I was the Chosen One!
He fights impossible odds risking his life on every page. Easy-peasy if you know you’re contractually obliged to make it to the last chapter.
A Chosen One is a permission to dream that it might be us. That’s why lotteries focus on telling you that “it could be you” and not “the odds of winning are so ridiculously remote that it almost certainly won’t be you.”
That’s why Chosen Ones nearly always start out in humble beginnings. The story teller is reaching out to the reader and saying this is your adventure. If it could happen to Cinderella, it could happen to you.
For all that, there has been a subtle shift in Chosen Ones over the course of human civilization. The mechanism doing the choosing has changed.
In some civilizations, the One is chosen by a god. Zeus points a finger and a hero goes off to fight a monster. The old testament God commands Noah to build an ark. Achilles is destined to look like Brad Pitt in a leather miniskirt until he has an unfortunate workplace accident where he forgets to wear adequate footwear.
We also get heroes who are chosen by their ancestry. It’s a kind of “Who do you think you are going to conquer?” King Arthur is the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon. Luke is the son of Anakin. Aragorn is descended from Isildur. Jaden Smith is the son of Will.
Okay, maybe not that last one. Not if the Karate Kid is anything to go by.
Then the story of Robin Hood came along and changed the meaning of Chosen Ones. And we are still using the Robin Hood style of Chosen Ones to this day.
Let’s travel back in time to medieval England. Somewhere in the Dark Ages of the 1200s. A Thursday. Somewhere after Beowulf but before Chaucer. Knights on horseback, castles, maidens, that sort of thing.
The nobility of the time are mostly descended from the French counts who gave England a bloody nose in the home fixture of 1066. They like reading stories about hereditary Chosen Ones. The Arthurian romances. Biblical stories. Ancient Greek and Roman classics. The common thread for all of these is that the hero had an important Daddy or Gramps.
And that must be very reassuring if you are a medieval Lord whose only claim to power is via your Daddy or Gramps.
But those stories don’t work so well for the peasants. They can’t get so excited about heroes who are the sons of someone important.
And that is when stories about Robin Hood start to circulate. The important thing about Robin is that he is a Chosen One, but he has chosen himself. He has the skills and courage of everyman.
Okay, so later versions of the story added in the idea that Robin was a nobleman, but in the earliest stories he was a yeoman. A commoner. A little higher than a peasant, but certainly not a Lord.
And that is the version of the Chosen One that has become the staple of modern fiction. Our heroes are generally not chosen by some outside force, such as a deity or fate or their lineage. Modern heroes choose themselves.
In particular, they choose themselves by their skills and courage. James Bond and Jason Bourne are Chosen Ones, but they are chosen by virtue of their training and their personal attributes.
The message to the reader is the same – this could be you. If only you had James Bond’s training and gadgets you too could save the world, look good in a dinner suit, get multiple girls and drive an Aston Martin.
To return to our original question. Is the Chosen One a hopeless cliché? I don’t think so. There are always new twists to find in the concept, new angles to explore.
Most of all, we need to realise one thing. The Chosen One isn’t just the hero of the story. The Chosen One is also the reader – the person who has chosen to read this story. We need to connect with them, make them feel a part of the story, make them think that this could happen to them.
The Chosen One is only a cliché if we treat it in a clichéd way. At its heart, it is also the timeless connection between author and reader.
And that isn’t about to go out of fashion.