A boy picks up a sword. A sword of legend and destiny. His father’s sword. A sword reforged. A hero’s sword. A magic sword. A boy raises armies. Overthrows evil. Fulfills the prophecy. Claims his crown, his kingdom, his people. He marries the princess, rules justly, leaves statues and legends to tell his story.
A boy walks into a destiny. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The literary canon is lousy with Chosen Ones. There’s always an ancient riddle to live up to, a monstrosity to depose, and a balance to be restored. More often than not, it’s your garden variety able-bodied, cisgender, straight white boy anointed the arbiter of balance. (If your hackles just went up, this may not be the article for you. Fun story: They’ve put a little ‘X’ in your browser tab for just this sort of event. May you find safer harbor in the overwhelming majority of the western literary canon.)
None of this is news; we’ve been brought up to see the typical farm boy as our cypher for a grand adventure in improbable worlds. And what’s so wrong with that? What’s wrong with walking into a story where even a humble peasant can overthrow a tyrant, where a commoner can become a king, where sacrifice is rewarded and bravery turned to song? What’s wrong with wanting to be chosen?
Well, a couple things, it turns out.
Let’s start off by discussing what’s good about the Chosen One trope. There’s undeniable power in the idea that one person can effect tremendous change, like Katniss turning her sacrificial role into the symbol of a revolution in The Hunger Games, or the Abhorsen Trilogy’s Lirael going from outcast to unlikely savior. I’m partial to Sailor Moon, in which an immature crybaby repeatedly saves the world with her Meg-Murray-esque refusal to give up on the people she loves. Especially in this day and age, when we feel isolated and helpless against problems too great for any one person to tackle, Chosen One tropes remind us that even an individual’s actions can change lives and worlds for the better. Additionally, they can inform someone’s sense of right and wrong, and hopefully inspire them to good deeds of their own. (Though if dragon-slaying’s in the mix, I’m going to have some questions.)
We’re also seeing a push for more Chosen Ones from marginalized backgrounds, which is an undisputed win—not just for the marginalized kids who get to see themselves in the chosen heroes like Alice Kingston and Aru Shah, but for the authors who are carving out a new, more inclusive space in the definition of ‘heroic.’ As more diverse authors and narrators engage with the question of what it means to be chosen, what it means to be a hero, they’re also exploring what that looks like from different cultural perspectives.
But this raises the first question: is the One enough?
This is the first crack in the fantasy. The Chosen One is presented as a silver bullet of sorts—they need to be in the right place, at the right time, hoist the magic crystal or point the magic sword, and Evil Will Be Defeated. The Evil King is cast out, the Good King takes his place. Instead of interrogating the systems and structures that allowed a great evil to come to power, we are simply content that it is gone, and that a benevolent ruler has replaced it.
This is reductive, certainly, but so is the metanarrative it reinforces: that a flawed system can be repaired by simply trading out or removing a few bad pieces. Sure, it could be quite a struggle to even get those bad pieces out in the first place, but once the fight’s over, you can wipe the crown down with Comet, toss it on the anointed one, and retire to the countryside, right? For example, the problem with Denethor’s rule as Steward of Gondor is presented as the result of arrogance and despair, rather than the product of giving unilateral power to a single person by virtue of their bloodline. This problem is then resolved by the true king Aragorn taking his rightful place, not by challenging the merits of a system that allowed Denethor to come to power.
In children’s literature, you see similar examples in the Chronicles of Prydain and in Harry Potter. The eventual High King Taran does take a gap year to learn about the land he will someday inherit, but at the end of the series, no one questions the wisdom of naming him the new High King of Prydain. This is despite the fact that the former High King failed to stop the manifold evils of Queen Achren and Arawn Death-Lord, and despite the fact that Achren was the former queen of Prydain before Arawn overthrew her. Taran is simply one more ruler in the chain of monarchs, but his claim is backed by prophecy, and thus acceptable. Similarly, Harry Potter’s story does nothing to interrogate the system that allowed Voldemort to come to power; the books are riddled with adults shaking their heads mournfully and saying “If only I’d done something sooner…” without making the leap to “How can we prevent this?” It’s enough that Harry and Ron become magic cops, and Hermione becomes a bureaucrat. The status quo remains but the players have changed, and all is well.
And this idea, that simply replacing the pieces can fix a flawed machine, has real-world consequences. Like when my fellow white Americans decided that since we elected President Obama, that meant racism was over and everything was fine. We no longer had a civic responsibility to confront the systemic racism saturating our society, we no longer had to reckon with the evils of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, because the right man had been given the power to fix it for us. I encountered this phenomenon as a field organizer for elections in 2010 and 2012—individuals whose activism stopped on November 7, 2008, were baffled or resentful that the nation’s demons had not been exorcised by February 1, 2009.
The Chosen One as a silver bullet further entrenches the idea that it just takes one humble outsider to restore the monarchy to its rightful function, instead of questioning the ethics of a monarchy in the first place. It eschews experience and expertise in favor of secret bloodlines and divine limericks, handwaving the innate flaws of a power structure because the “right person” has temporarily been empowered. And even when the Chosen One rejects or is denied the power of the tyrant they conquered, it plays into the second major flaw: the Single Noble Sacrifice.
The Single Noble Sacrifice flavor of the Chosen One trope happens whether our hero bravely perishes or not. (They can’t all be Aslan, folks.) It’s the dark side of the uplifting messages about the power of individual action; if all it takes is one person to change the world, why does it have to be you? If only a Chosen One can topple the great evil, then what do we expect from everyone who wasn’t chosen? It’s the rationale behind “Somebody should do something”—someone else should give up time, energy, ambitions, a future. If Buffy’s out there slaying vampires, everyone else can go about their lives. Instead of “Anyone can wear the mask,” it’s “Someone else was chosen to wear the mask, so I don’t have to.”
Since the answer is in slotting the correct people into existing power structures, and there are clear markers of who has been chosen and who has not, the audience is absolved of their ethical responsibility to confront injustice because they “aren’t the type.” Someone else has been chosen to fight those fights, to wield the magic sword against the demon king. Someone else will put their life on hold. And unless they come knocking at your door for help, you can go on about your day.
Ultimately, the greatest appeal of the Chosen One trope isn’t that it handwaves questionable power structures or lets the average civilian off the hook. It’s the fantasy of having the power to protect what you love, and fight for what you believe in. More and more creators are engaging in the complexities of the trope, and in new and interesting ways. Take, for example, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Slight spoilers follow). Adora’s story begins as a classic Chosen Warrior to Defend the Defenseless narrative, but uses that foundation to interrogate the pillars of the Chosen One trope. The show deliberately raises uncomfortable questions about the weaponization of superpowers, about forming an identity when you’re the manifestation of an ideal, about the ethics of asking someone to sacrifice themselves. As a result, it manages to give depth to the Chosen One trope without losing the empowering elements.
And it’s one of many new stories pushing the trope into new areas. But at the end of the day, the long wars aren’t won or lost by a Chosen One. They’re decided by the battles we choose.
Born and raised at the end of the Oregon Trail, Margaret Owen first encountered an author in the wild in fourth grade. Roughly twenty seconds later, she decided she too would be an author, the first of many well-thought-out life decisions. The Faithless Hawk, sequel to The Merciful Crow is available August 18th from Henry Holt and Co.