Fear is a powerful thing, and creatures that terrify, from the Nazgul of Lord of the Rings to Septimus Heap’s magogs and the Sidhe of The Call, are ubiquitous throughout fantasy literature. The characters who face these creatures don’t simply stroll onto the battlefield and take them down; they are afraid, and in overcoming their fears are able to defeat their monsters.
In many series, magic is used to help characters face their fears without necessarily having to face down the actual thing causing the fear. Consider the boggart in Prisoner of Azkaban, for example: while it takes the shape of the things it senses that Lupin’s class fears, it doesn’t progress past that. A boggart-turned-dementor cannot Kiss away a soul, for example. While learning to face a fear does not always remove a character’s fear entirely, being able to recognize and acknowledge what they are afraid of can help them grow and develop as characters. Genre fiction is ideally placed to allow characters to do this because of the magic involved, and in doing so, it can offer us important guidance for dealing with our own fears.
In the Wheel of Time series, women who want to become part of the Aes Sedai, a millenia-old organization of women who can channel magic, must advance from the rank of novice to Accepted, and then from Accepted to Aes Sedai. The test to become Accepted draws on your fears and desires to gauge your dedication to the Aes Sedai. Women must step through a series of magic rings and into a hypothethical situation, and are told “the way out will come but once; be vigilant.” These hypotheticals can be positive—Nynaeve al’Meara sees herself reunited with the man she loves in one vision, with their country at peace and a passel of children. However, they can also be negative, as another vision draws on her fears of not being able to protect her friends and family from the evil forces at work.
In each vision, when the way out—a portal back through the rings—appears, Nynaeve must abandon the situation and leave, or risk being trapped in the rings forever. By doing this she not only is able to prove her determination to become Aes Sedai above all other things, but she is also made consciously aware of what her fears and weaknesses are. When she leaves the ritual, Nynaeve can’t help but dwell on the situations she experienced and puzzle out how she would have dealt with them had she not been called away by the rings. In examining what upset her about the scenes she witnessed, she is able to steel her resolve should she ever meet with similar events in the real world. By passing through the rings, she has learned something about herself that will ultimately make her stronger.
Luke Skywalker faces a similar challenge when training with Yoda on Dagobah during The Empire Strikes Back. While he has not yet learned that Darth Vader is his father, he does still fear the Sith Lord, and worries about the havoc he might be causing while Luke is stuck in training. Yoda sends Luke into a cave where he will be made to face his fears, and obviously Vader is quick to appear.
Luke fights the apparition, and after a lightsaber battle, defeats and beheads him. However, when Vader’s decapitated head rolls toward Luke and he finally sees under the vision’s mask, he is horrified to recognize the face inside as his own. The cave, then, magically suggests to Luke that it is not Vader himself that Luke fears, but rather Luke’s own potential to become like Vader.
Armed with this new insight, Luke is able to carry on with his training and prepare to face the real Vader, which he does later in the same film. Most importantly, when he does fight Vader, and is offered the opportunity to join him in the dark side, he doesn’t. Even more so, he is able to find it in himself to go beyond simply rejecting the dark side, and instead reaches out to the man he now knows is his father in order to bring him back to the light as well. In acknowledging that he feared his own potential to fall to the dark side, Luke was able to examine that fear and work against it.
What’s important about these stories is that they don’t simply say “don’t be afraid!”—this kind of thing is useless in dealing with fear, the “don’t think of an elephant” of being brave. You can’t just say “today I am going to stop being afraid of heights” and head off to go ziplining. That’s not how fear works. Taking the time to delve into these fears, to interrogate why you are afraid of something and then to use that knowledge to help yourself move forward: that’s how you start to break them down and deal with them. Maybe most importantly, they tell us that sometimes our fears are valid. Looking at the cave scene from the scope of the whole Star Wars series, it wasn’t irrational for Luke to fear the dark side—it consumed his father, is consuming his nephew, and at the time he went into the cave, had consumed all of the Jedi Order in the collateral damage of doing so. But in examining his fear, he was able to realize that he was in control of his life and could make a choice one way or the other. Showing us, the viewers, this, through the actions of our heroes, offers us our own toolkit for dealing with the things we are afraid of.
However, some stories deal with fear differently. In the Divergent series, as part of the training program for Dauntless, the aggressive faction associated with bravery, candidates must enter a hallucination of their fears in order to pinpoint the things they are afraid of. They cycle through visions of drowning, of being forced to shoot family, of being back under the thumb of an abusive parent, and presumably emerge stronger, because they now know what frightens them. As they eliminate these quantifiable fears, they are considered ever braver. However, this series doesn’t handle facing fears as effectively, because the Dauntless put the focus on the number of fears you have—the character Four is so nicknamed because he has the least fears of any Dauntless—and wants their candidates to focus on eliminating fears entirely rather than learning to understand their fears and process them in a healthy way.
While Harry Potter acknowledges that bravery can be like Neville’s in Sorcerer’s Stone—being terrified of something but doing it anyway—Divergent’s bravery is more tied to beating away the concept of fear. The Dauntless know what they fear, but because their faction isn’t given to reason (the Erudite faction’s province) or honesty (Candor’s realm), they’re not given the metaphorical tools to critically self-assess, to break down these fears and find the instigating factors at their roots. They’re merely told: You are afraid of spiders. You will be a better Dauntless if you stop being afraid of spiders, so do that. Unlike the other examples, the idea that bravery is exclusively the absence of fear is a bad message to send to the people consuming this story. Humans fear for a reason—it’s an evolutionary safety response, even if it can be irrational at times, and accepting and understanding your fears is the healthiest first step to overcoming them.
The stories we tell so often focus on the things we are afraid of; after all, at the very least, it is entertaining to read about a character’s feats of bravery against untold foes. But in telling those stories, creators need to be careful of the messages they’re sending. We learn from our childhoods onward from the media we consume, and we replicate the behavior of our heroes. In telling stories of courage, it’s important that these heroes deal with the consequences of facing their fears in a healthy way, so that we as consumers can learn to do the same.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!