Two weeks ago I talked about the city vs. country tension that’s often found in literature, and how it might have contributed to the rise of the barbarian hero in our own genre. Now I’m wondering whether we haven’t seen a fine-tuning of that same tension in a more familiar guise: the buddy movie, or, more to the point for us genre types, the buddy adventure.
Like some of the other stuff I’ve been talking about, I don’t think this concept is something that’s just shown up recently. In Don Quijote – widely considered to be the first novel, though you won’t get many who’ll agree on what genre it is – we have the titular Don himself, but we also have his travelling companion and side-kick, Sancho Panza.
But, you might argue, Sancho is a side-kick, and not an adventurer in and of himself – though again, you’ll find those who’ll dispute that, and maybe even convince you that, title aside, the book really belongs to Sancho. But let’s think about the implications here for genre heroes. When is a character a side-kick (pray note that I don’t qualify that by saying “just”) and when is the character a co-hero?
Let’s think about it. What about Batman and Robin? Batman existed first, Robin is younger, and at least starts off as inexperienced. That seems to argue for side-kick. But is Robin more an apprentice who eventually becomes a partner? Whatever we might ultimately decide about the Dynamic Duo, is there another pairing that comes even this close?
The Green Hornet and Kato? The Lone Ranger and Tonto? Kirk and Spock? And I know that some of you are going to bring up heroic groups, like the Fantastic Four, or X-Men. But the group dynamic isn’t something I want to address – though I think someone should.
There’s a famous pairing I’ve already talked about elsewhere, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Traditionally, it’s been pretty clear that Watson is the sidekick – he certainly always saw himself in that light. In the two most recent versions of their characters, however, it’s been equally clear that Watson is moving up to co-hero status. In the recent season finale of Elementary, for example [SPOILER ALERT] it’s Watson who saves Holmes.
Of course, there have been some very successful and popular single heroes. In comics, the obvious ones are Superman and Wonder Woman (the lone female, in all senses of the word). In fantasy, Conan comes immediately to mind, along with Elric, and even Dilvish the Damned (sorry, I think the horse is a side-kick). But then dual heroes began to appear, starting with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (you knew I was going to find a way to mention them, didn’t you?). So that begs another question: Why have dual heroes in the first place? Well, there used to be an old commercial about doubling your pleasure and doubling your fun that might apply here, but it’s really more than that, isn’t it?
As I’ve said before, Watson’s ordinary Victorian gentleman (or modern equivalent) gives us access to Holmes’ genius, makes him tolerable for us, in a way that the solo character wouldn’t be (think Leonard and Sheldon). An heroic pair could have the same effect; one could be more sympathetic than the other, giving readers emotional access to both characters. But, again I think there’s more.
Let’s go back to the city/country tension I was talking about earlier. With the dual hero trope, we can use this tension in an entirely new way. We can have both the urbane character and the barbarian. Both the city mouse and the country mouse. And, the perfect example of this is (ahem) Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. One is literally a (northern) barbarian and one a child of the city streets. Leiber uses and deconstructs the dichotomy at the same time. Fulfils and confounds our expectations of both stereotypes. And do note that at the time of the first F&GM story, these were already stereotypes. Okay, maybe archetypes is a nicer word. Each complains about the other, each affects to disparage the other’s background But in fact each brings his own level of knowledge and sophistication to the problem at hand. And, perhaps most important, they have essentially the same values, which is what makes them both heroes, and what holds them together.
Lately we’ve been getting some very interesting hero pairs that build on both the country/city dichotomy, and the Fafhrd/Grey Mouser partnership. In Howard Andrew Jones’ books, The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones, we’re introduced to Dabir and Asim. One is a scholar, and the other a soldier, but even though their story is told, Watson-fashion, by Asim, it’s clear that these two are both heroes. And, in case you’re not familiar with these books (you should be), it’s the soldier who narrates, not the scholar. Once more, we’re given the more accessible everyman point of view.
In Dave Gross’s Pathfinder books, notably Queen of Thorns, or Master of Devils, we can follow the adventures of Varian Jeggare and Radovan. Even though Radovan is billed as “the bodyguard”, dual streams of first-person narrative make it clear that we’re dealing with co-heroes – and we’re also seeing some nice, subtle revelations of character, as we’re occasionally shown the same scene from different points of view. As in Jones’s work, differing social status – and species status for that matter – don’t interfere in the heroes’ partnership, and their fundamental loyalty to one another.
But, I hear many of my friends saying, these are all men. What about women?
Well, I have to leave something for next week, don’t I?
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com.