The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope

By Scott Bury

Last week, Autumn Birt discussed villains and raised some interesting points about whether villains are truly evil, or just have different goals from the heroes.

It would be fascinating to continue this examination of heroes and villains, good and evil, absolutism and relativism. But today, I want to discuss another common trope in all literature, including fantasy, that doesn’t get much attention from critics but plays an indispensible part of almost every story: the source of arcane knowledge.

Keeping any story moving sometimes requires the protagonist to acquire knowledge of remote events, characters or items.

Statue of Perseus by  Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa’s head

Perseus, for example, had to search for the Grey Sisters or Witches, three sisters who shared a single eye and tooth. Only they could tell him where he would find the Hesperides, who would give him what he needed to slay Medusa the Gorgon.

How the Grey Sisters knew that information is never revealed, and in fact is not important to the story of Perseus. It’s just important that Perseus learns this so he can behead the Gorgon and from there kill King Polydectes and protect his mother.

Gandalf is the source of arcane knowledge in The Hobbit. He gives Thorin Oakenshield the map that shows the location of the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain, and also explains the fate of Thorin’s father, Thrain. Gandalf is also the source for uncounted old tales and background facts.

In Bruce Blake’s Icarus Fell series, the archangel Gabriel mysteriously appears just to give the protagonist, Icarus, little scrolls with the names of the souls he has to transport to heaven, as well as the location to bring them for the journey. How she gets this information, and how souls are chosen for salvation, is never really explained—and anyway, who are we to question archangels?

This structure shows up not only in fantasy, but in other genres as well. In the TV series Criminal Minds, for example, Penelope Garcia is

Penelope Garcia

Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by Kirsten Vangsness

a continual source of critical background information that she unearths from any database in the world. The show hints that she has unmatched computer hacking abilities as well as software and skills that allow her to cross-reference all sorts of things in seconds.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the mysterious hacker Wasp provides clues and facts for the protagonists. And at various points, Lisbet becomes both the protagonist and the font of knowledge.

I don’t know how many Hollywood movies feature a character popping up at a crucial point to impart a little factoid that the hero needs. How they get the information is never explained, and when you think about it, you realize how improbable it is that someone would find this information so easily.

But working that out would take a lot of time, and slow down the story. Good storytellers know when to skim over details that would only distract the audience from the important part, anyway.

The point is, the font of knowledge is an important role in any story—as important as a hero and a villain, because without him or her, the story just cannot happen.

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One comment on “The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope

  1. You were right to call this a rarely examined trope, Scott! I certainly hadn’t considered it as one, but now that I’m looking for it, I see hiw prevalent it is and how important! Sure the reality might be the chance of meeting just the right person with the answers might be farfetched, but it can’t feel that way in the story. Big truths must be earned, little ones can be handed over, and clever heroes might only need a few clues. Now you’ve got me thinking about my WIP! 😀

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