How Fantasy Inspires Hope Part 2

Now let’s fast forward a couple decades to meet two very different ragtag bunches of misfits in the land of Exandria.

The Legend of Vox Machina

This show started out as an animated adaptation of a very long-running web series where a bunch of nerdy voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons. (Yes, I memorized the tagline.) But for the purposes of this blog, I’m looking at how the team in the animated series inspired hope in a time when hope is very hard to come by.

The mercenaries that make up Vox Machina are way more chaotic, crass, and dysfunctional than the Fellowship of the Ring. At the very first episode, the druid Keyleth even questions why they’re still together when they have nothing in common. Vax and Vex only look out for themselves and their own needs, Pike and Keyleth have morals that conflict with the rest of the group, Grog and Scanlan both act as the “id” of the group with very basic motivations (ale and sex), and Percy treats everyone with disdain.

However, in spite of their differences, the team works well together. Vax and Vex act as the leaders, keeping everyone in line and encouraging them, albeit in very unorthodox ways. Vax has an ongoing competitive rivalry with Grog, akin to Legolas and Gimli’s friendly rivalry. Grog and Pike have basically been friends forever and Grog’s straightforward honesty helps Pike with realizing that she can still serve the Everlight and still be a part of Vox Machina (as crass as they are). Scanlan gets the chance to prove that he’s more than a joke by going off on his own to distract Duke Vedmire, one of the baddies living in Whitestone. Vax helps Keyleth with her confidence issues.

The best example of Vox Machina’s unlikely but heartwarming bond is how they all decide to help Percy once Lord and Lady Briarwood enter the picture. Percy spends most of the season keeping Vox Machina at arms length as a coping mechanism. Since Percy already lost his family to the very sudden and violent coup that the Briarwoods pulled, he doesn’t let anyone else in for fear of losing anyone else.
Percy was focused on one thing and one thing only: Vengeance for the death of his family.

The animated series starts off with Vox Machina taking down a dragon, but this very typical fairy tale task was no easy feat. In fact, their first encounter with the dragon was a near-disaster, leading to the dragon desecrating an entire village. Thankfully, with a bit of ingenuity, the team manages to slay the dragon and avenge the deaths of the villagers.

The real arc, however, begins when Lord and Lady Briarwood come to Emon. As soon as I realized that the Briarwoods were vampires, I screamed with excitement. Vampire hunting is one of my favorite things, after all. But what really made it compelling were the personal stakes: Percy’s vendetta was against the Briarwoods.

The party journeys to Percy’s hometown of Whitestone, which has a very bleak aesthetic due to the Briarwoods taking the town over. Much like Star Wars, however, there’s a band of residents who act as the Resistance. Percy is quickly tasked with rallying the Resistance members, as he is the only surviving member of the De Rolo’s who’s out of reach from the Briarwoods.

There are two moments in The Legend of Vox Machina that inspire hope for me. Both of them came from the episode “The Tide of Bone,” which is my favorite episode of the season.

The first moment is when Percy decides to rise to the occasion, just as everyone has their backs to the Sun Tree as an army of undead surrounds them. This is the first and only time thus far that Percy ever used his full name. (In the livestream, Taliesen introduced Percy with the full name every time they met someone.)

The other moment I wanted to share is, well, basically a deus ex machina/divine intervention. But Vox Machina made it work:

Even though Pike was separated from her friends, she found her resolve. She realized that she loved her friends and that being a bit chaotic wasn’t in conflict with her job as a cleric for The Everlight. Pike becomes the hope that Whitestone needed, inspiring the rest of Vox Machina into fighting back.

The entire arc in Whitestone shows instances of the members of Vox Machina rising to the occasion. Before the battle at the Sun Tree, Scanlan succeeded in distracting Duke Vedmire while the rest of the team rescued Percy’s sister, Cassandra. Grog helps the team escape from an acid trap. Vex holds the team together, even when her brother is charmed by the Briarwoods and taken away. When the team finally takes on the Briarwoods at the Ziggurat, Keyleth unleashes her full potential and literally lets the sunshine in, destroying Silas.

The Legend of Vox Machina was one of the few things that made me smile this year. As of now, I’m deep into Critical Role. I’ve watched the Vox Machina adventures up until the end of the Briarwood Arc and now I’m enjoying myself with the misadventures of the Mighty Nein.

Something I love about the Mighty Nein thus far is just how relatable they feel. The members of Vox Machina eventually became, well, the stuff that legends speak of. The members of the Mighty Nein all have mysterious pasts and live in less of a fantasy world a la Lord of the Rings and more of a Game of Thrones style kingdom, even with all the fantasy elements. The land of Wildmount is a lot more barbaric and harsh with an Empire and lots of underground criminal activity. And yet I still find myself wishing I was adventuring with this ragtag bunch of misfits.

I’m not exactly sure what it is about the Mighty Nein that inspires hope. It might be because they’re aware of the powers that be and have the potential to bring down establishments. It might just be because they’re full of puns. But regardless, I’m having a very good time.

How Fantasy Inspires Hope Part 1

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

JRR Tolkien-On Fairy Stories

I mentioned on my last blog post that fairy tales always teach a lesson. As cheesy and contrived as it sounds, I’ve always been drawn towards stories that are a lot more fantastical than realistic. When I was a child, I grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. Now that I’m an adult, however, the fantasy stories that inspire me and give me the most hope comes from two vastly different works: The Lord of the Rings and The Legend of Vox Machina (and the related adventures of the Mighty Nein on Critical Role).

These two works couldn’t be any more different. The Lord of the Rings is a very traditional, safe epic fantasy. The Legend of Vox Machina is crass and gory and chaotic. What these works have in common, however, is the hope that even the least likely of people can rise to the occasion and become heroes.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t shy about showing the horrors of war and how people with the best of intentions can be corrupted. There are three scenes from each of the movies that I want to talk about along with my favorite part of The Legend of Vox Machina and my thoughts so far of the Mighty Nein campaign. All of these moments that I’ll go into inspire hope in the most unique and strangest of ways.

My Favorite Parts from The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring

I can literally count the number of movies that made me cry on one hand. The moment where Boromir dies is one of them.

In the context of the book, this is the turning point, where all hope seems lost. The Fellowship has broken apart by Boromir’s betrayal. Merry and Pippin are taken captive. Sam and Frodo have gone off on their own.

And yet, it’s the exchange between Aragorn and Boromir that creates a glimmer of hope in the Fellowship’s first darkest hour. Boromir laments his despair, but Aragorn makes a promise.

Aragorn promises to protect Gondor and to honor Boromir’s desire to defend their people. This is when Aragorn finally accepts his calling to be the king that was promised. Then Boromir’s dying words are a vow. If circumstances were different, he would have followed Aragorn to the end of the line, serving his true king. And mind you, this was the same guy that earlier claimed “Gondor needs no king.”

Even though this scene makes me cry every time I watch it, Aragorn’s promise (and really Aragorn himself) is the spark of hope. This wasn’t going to be the end for the Fellowship.

The Two Towers

Tolkien fans pretty much have Sam’s speech memorized by this point. During the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Isengard, all hope seems lost again. But as Sam inspires Frodo, we see shots of the battles turning around.

The context of this scene is especially poignant. Sam and Frodo have no clue how everyone else is doing or how their journey will end. Frodo just tried to kill Sam in a moment of despair, but Sam takes it in stride. Sam and Frodo have no idea that Merry and Pippin are taking back Isengard with the Ents. They have no idea that Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf are turning the tide at Helm’s Deep. In fact, they assumed that Gandalf is dead because the last time they saw him, he fell to his death in the Mines of Moria.

And yet, in spite of all this seeming despair, Sam holds onto hope. It seems so foolish and yet it’s all that Sam has. This hopeful speech is enough to bring Gollum to tears and convinces Faramir to let them go on ahead to Mordor.

Now that’s what I call a Natural 20 on your performance roll.

Return of the King

There’s a moment in the original book that wasn’t included in the movie:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

I think this quote sums up how Tolkien creates heroes and inspires hope in his stories. Instead of taking the Beowulf/Might Makes Right approach and creating an ultra-strong, muscular protagonist who fights and kills his way out of every problem, Tolkien’s heroes are all clever, wise, and empathetic.

This extends to the prophecy/poem:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

In this movie, Sam and Aragorn both shine as beacons of hope. My favorite moment of Aragorn’s is when he literally summons an army of ghosts and promises that when they fight on his behalf, their debt will be repaid and their souls will be laid to rest. This shows that hope can come even to those who have passed on.

Sam’s best moment, of course, is when he chooses to carry Frodo into the fires of Mount Doom. Even though a handful of characters resisted the Ring’s allure, Sam was the only one that the Ring couldn’t corrupt and this is way more evident in the book than in the movie.

You see, to quote one of my favorite musicals, the opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.

Sam’s desires are simple: to have a happy life in the Shire with a garden to tend to and a family to raise. This desire couldn’t be distorted by the Ring in any sense. So it’s no surprise that Sam willingly gives the Ring back to Frodo, even if Frodo couldn’t resist the Ring himself.

While a lot of people complain about how the last part of Return of the King went on for a long time with its multiple endings, I honestly didn’t mind because it shows the payoff to everything that the Company has been through. They finally get the happy reunion they deserve. However, Frodo is still unable to completely heal from his scars and so goes off to the West with Bilbo and the Elves from Rivendell. There’s an implied promise that Sam and the other Hobbits may soon follow Frodo into the west as well.

(Side note: It feels so poetic that the place where Tolkien passed away just happened to be a seaside town. It’s like the author himself decided to sail off into the West and join his creations.)

Come back here tomorrow for Part 2 where we go into the land of Exandria and meet a couple of different unlikely heroes.

The Fairy Tale Motifs in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness

For the longest time, Disney had this reputation of sanitizing fairy tales for a family-friendly audience. Now that Disney has evolved into an eldritch abomination of a mega-corporation, however, there’s a movie within the umbrella that takes fairy tales back to their horror-themed roots: Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness.

Spoilers for Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness.

Each of the main characters in this movie fall under a fairy tale archetype. While the movie is categorized as horror, fairy tales and horror have a long history of going together. The original Brothers Grimm fairy tales usually had some sort of body horror along with lots of dark atmospheric settings.

America Chavez: The Princess In Distress

Yes, my dear readers, America Chavez is secretly a Disney Princess. And like a lot of Disney Princesses, she starts out as a damsel in distress. This precocious young girl is in way over her head with powers she doesn’t understand along with demons chasing after her. However, America learns that she needs to tap into her self-confidence and trust in her ability to hone her powers. Once she does so, she ends up saving the day. I really hope that I see more of America Chavez in future MCU installments.

Wong: The Noble Knight

Wong is the Sorcerer Supreme and while he plays a supporting role in this movie, his archetype is that of the Noble Knight. He is stalwart, courageous, and loyal to his friends. He stands up to the villain and keeps Doctor Strange in check.

Wong seriously needs his own movie or series on Disney Plus.

Christine Palmer: The Helper-Maiden

In Saint George and the Dragon as well as the myths of Jason and Medea (and Theseus and Ariadne), the helper-maiden is a woman who helps the hero. Christine Palmer is essentially Doctor Strange’s anchor, reminding him of what he needs to do. Much like Wong, Christine constantly questions Strange and does her best to protect America Chavez.

Wanda Maximoff: The Evil Witch/Queen

Every fairy tale has one. And I’m not gonna lie: Wanda being the villain of this movie hurt, especially after Wandavision. Corrupted by the Darkhold and driven by a grief that she hasn’t been able to process, Wanda grasps at dark powers, all for the desire to have some sense of control over her life.

What separates Wanda from every other Evil Witch and Evil Queen is that her motivations are ones that any grieving mother and widow can understand. And eventually, she learns her lesson, realizing that she turned into a monster that frightens her own children.

(I also do not think that Wanda is dead, even with her collapsing the Darkhold tower around her. She is way too powerful to go down that easily.)

Doctor Stephen Strange: The Clever Trickster

Doctor Strange’s archetype is one that’s found more often in mythologies and folklore than fairy tales. The Clever Trickster takes the form of the cunning fox or the sly crow, the gods Hermes and Odin, and Loki, heroes like Odysseus, Jason, and Theseus.

Doctor Strange’s lesson in this movie is humility. Every other Strange in every other universe was arrogant, prone to corruption, and always took charge at the expense of what everyone else needed. Strange knows better than anyone that actions have consequences and by the end, he takes a good step in humility by bowing to Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme and his most trusted friend.

One other way that Doctor Strange learns humility is that he is humble enough to let Christine Palmer be happy. Even though he loves Christine, he won’t hold her or any other version of her hostage. Their love was never meant to be and Strange has accepted that.

I’ll end this blog post with a quote from GK Chesterton, who knew a thing or two about fairy tales:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

And that is why fairy tales and horror go hand in hand.

How Moon Knight Reminds Me of Anime

It’s said in the MCU fandom that each MCU film and show falls under a different genre. For example, Captain America: The First Avenger was a historical wartime film while Guardians of the Galaxy would be considered more of a sci-fi action/comedy. In the case of Moon Knight, the best genre I can compare this show to is actually anime.

Anime in and of itself has many genres, but elements of Moon Knight reminded me a lot of various anime shows I watched. Here’s a list as to how:

1) The Egyptian/Middle Eastern aesthetic of Moon Knight’s costume reminded me of Moonlight Knight from Sailor Moon R.

Back in the very early days of Sailor Moon’s infamous DIC English dub, there was a filler arc in the 2nd season (Sailor Moon R) where Darien/Mamoru’s “subconscious” manifested itself into an Arabian Night inspired hero called Moonlight Knight, complete with a saber sword and everything. I mean, look at this picture.

The resemblance is uncanny.

2) Like Sailor Moon, Steven Grant starts out as a crybaby but develops into a courageous monster hunter

Steven Grant is, by far, the most relatable reluctant hero in the MCU. He’s got the most ordinary job: gift shop worker and inventory for a museum in England. However, he also struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder and he was unaware of his condition until he comes across the villain, Arthur Harrow. And even when Steven Grant tries out the Moon Knight powers for the first time, he doesn’t get things perfect right away. By the end of the series, Steven developed his own fighting style.

It’s very similar to how Usagi Tsukino became Sailor Moon. She started out as a below-average middle school student who gets powers she doesn’t understand. When she goes into her first fight, she literally cries so hard, her wails turn into a sonic scream. However, like Steven Grant, Usagi eventually develops into a true soldier of love and justice.

3) The relationship the hero has with the supernatural world

There are a lot of anime shows involve protagonists with some connection to the supernatural world. Dragon Ball Z was partially inspired by The Legend of Sun Wukong which includes lots of gods and mythical figures from Chinese mythology. Yu Yu Hakusho featured an entire underworld and one of the supporting characters was a psychopomp, a guide of lost souls. In these anime, the supernatural world interacts with the world of the anime, having real consequences.

Moon Knight is the first show outside of the Thor movies to have a connection with an established pantheon of gods. What makes Moon Knight unique, however, is that the gods themselves interact with the protagonist and play a larger role in the story, interacting with the human world, rather than being separate from it like the gods of Asgard are. My favorite of the deities featured was Taweret, the sweet hippo-humanoid goddess of childbirth and mothers who became an essential ally to Steve/Marc as well as to Layla.

4) The Egyptian aesthetic is similar to Yu-Gi-Oh

The first Yu-Gi-Oh series centered on a very meek, mild-mannered student named Yugi Moto who (for a while) was unaware of the spirit that lived in his Millennium Puzzle. He’s quite similar to Steven Grant as both Yugi and Steven had a love for Egyptian history. Similar to Marc Spector, Yami (or Atem as he would later be known) was ruthless, relentless, and created some nightmare-fuel punishments for those who crossed his path. However, Yugi eventually worked alongside Yami/Atem and the two of them became great friends.

Also, to note, one of the Millennium items was the Millennium Scales, used by Shadi. These Millennium Scales He also attempted to summon Ammit in order to devour Yami Yugi’s soul. More info about the Millennium Items can be found in this video:

5) The hypercompetent tsundere

I. Love. Layla. As far as MCU girlfriends and love interests go, she takes the top tier, stealing the spot from Pepper Potts. She is a very smart, strategic woman who just happens to have a love/hate relationship with Steven and Marc. And by that I mean she starts falling for Steven all the while being very estranged from Marc.

The “tsundere” is a classic anime archetype, usually reserved for female characters. The best way to describe a tsundere can be found in this video:

So yeah. Layla is very much a tsundere. And I love where she ends up in the finale. But that’s spoiler territory.

Overall, I really loved Moon Knight as it’s the perfect mix of urban fantasy, supernatural, and adventure.

How long until Season 2, people?!