In my experience, starting anything with a qualification softens the blow of a potentially offensive point far too much. But my fantasy-nerd street cred is probably lower than it ought to be right now, and I am attacking what seems to be one of the biggest selling genres of the day. So, let me just say that I love fantasy, I love coming-of-age stories, and I love coming-of-age fantasy stories–when they are done well.
The problem is that our artistic culture is stupid. It is filled with artsy artists, who tend to be insecure, introspective brats who like to dream up a world with themselves at the center. On top of that, people who are coming of age are some of the most self-centered people on the planet. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for annoying.
How many stories of this type have you read, or even watched? Now tell me if the following seems to accurately describe your experience: 1) protagonist is incredibly gifted, 2) protagonist is horribly misunderstood, 3) protagonist finds himself in situations demanding far too much of him, but through his aforementioned giftedness and some cheesy variant on finding himself manages to come out okay, and 4) all those people who horribly misunderstood him are either publicly proven wrong or else our victorious hero has for his own ends chosen to allow his natural inferiors to continue in their pitiful ignorance. Sound familiar? I swear I’ve read it a million times.
This is annoying on so many levels. For one, coming of age stories can actually be awesome. I mean, this is where kids discover things like the opposite sex, their vocation, what it means to take risks and be responsible, real good guys and real bad guys, the passage of time, and how cool the world actually is. Not to mention the magical ability to suddenly understand some of the most important people in their lives–their parents. That is an era of life and a process that is rich with themes and characters and potential plotlines. Wasting it on “poor me, I’m misunderstood” is just stupid.
Then there’s the fact that it essentially ruins the fantasy genre. What is awesome about fantasy, what draws most people to it (or draws me to it, anyways), is the fact that it deals with the world on this grand, sweeping, epic scale full of wonder, excitement, and discovery. You can be taken on an Odyssey that introduces you to so much that is new, so much that has never been seen before, and then do cool things with all that new stuff. It is just plain fun. And a misunderstood teenager story limits the vast potential of fantasy into the most cramped of possible spaces–the distance between the two ears of a kid who won’t grow up.
That is, of course, the central irony with this trend. I don’t have a problem so much with protagonists who think they are misunderstood–I’m not sure any teenager doesn’t think that–no, I have a problem with a story that says they are right. That kind of story, where junior proves his superior wisdom over society or the authority figure, that’s a coming of age story where absolutely no one comes of age. There is no growth, only the increasing rot of an already bad egg.
But like I said, I don’t mind if the character starts out that way. In fact, I would love to see a coming of age story where that fantasy setting is used beat the living angst out of the kid, pitch him out of his own skull, and let him discover the awesomeness of the world around him. As in, the world and its inhabitants which are awesome, not him or his skills or his gifts or specialness. A coming of age fantasy that is humbling. That I would love.
Now, I’m sure they are out there, somewhere in books that aren’t fifty year old products of awesome British Christian academics. Somewhere, someone alive and kicking has written a non-winy-misunderstood-teenager style coming of age fantasy, and possibly even written a good one. But where? Honestly, have you heard of one?