The Chosen One is one of the most famous archetypes in fantasy, among those who enjoy it and those who don’t. It is sometimes seen as a wish fulfilment plot, with some justification. In it an usually ordinary person is plucked from obscurity to experience power and prestige unlike any other; how is that not the fulfilment of wishes for many? Yet a close read suggests that to be the Chosen One is is a double-edged gift and that often, their main role in the story is to be a sacrifice.
This essay will only go deep and spoilerrific on Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad & Malloreon, The Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, and The First Law. Reader beware.
The first and most important part of this theory is why the Chosen One was given power to begin with, for it is rarely to use for their own ends. No where is that clearer than with Frodo – arguably more one who chose anyway – who is given an artifact of extreme power he can hardly use. Indeed, that’s why Frodo carries it, rather than any of the other characters; since he cannot use the Ring’s full powers, he has less temptation to use them and succumb. He is given this power in order that it is destroyed. The case of Shea Ohmsford in The Sword of Shannara has marked similarities in terms of an artifact of limited utility.
Harry Potter’s power as the Chosen One comes through a mistake on the part of his enemy, Voldemort, and most of the powers given are mostly of use against him only; he is a nemesis created by hubris. Belgarion in The Belgariad is born with awesome power, but that is granted by divine purpose in order to save the universe – with divine purpose being a loud, authoritative voice in his own head. Similarly, Rand’s power in The Wheel of Time has been granted for the purpose of defeating The Dark One and while the power could serve him greatly, the pattern of the Wheel is instead forcing him into a confrontation in which his death is foretold. And in a more light version, Jezal’s first taste of power comes when Bayaz uses magical power in order to let him win a duel. Jezal benefits, but in the long run, we see that Bayaz benefits more.
We most now consider how the power affects their lives. Loosely, while it offers them great opportunity that they didn’t previously have, it also makes them a target and greatly disrupts their lives. Jezal is torn away from his life of luxury and a love affair to take part in a quest, and arguably has it easiest of the lot. Rand and Belgarion are also torn away from their homes and loves, and suffer a good deal of trauma as a result of the lives lost as a result of their actions; in Rand’s case, this is further reinforced by the numerous physical wounds and mental illness he suffers. The two men also suffer from having another voice in their head with the loss of privacy, peace, and identity that comes with it.
That’s something they share with Harry. Harry Potter gains a certain amount of celebrity and licence thanks to his status as The Boy Who Lived, and his realisation of said identity is heavily linked to his stay in Hogwarts and all the good that brings him. Yet clearly there’d be huge benefits to being just an ordinary wizard given how many murder attempts he suffers, along with the pressures from the rest of the wizarding world to be their hero. As for Frodo, his life of ease is shattered and he undergoes prolonged inner turmoil due to carrying the Ring, not to mention a number of physical injuries. And at the end of the story, when everyone else has come to the end of their labours or found reward, Frodo is unable to escape the shadow on his mind. He has saved the world, but for others.
It is the ending that determines just how much being the Chosen One is a sacrifice and how much the good accrued outweighs the bad for them. Frodo is clearly a sacrifice. Harry Potter undergoes the ordeal of a sacrifice, dying and resurrecting to be free of Voldemort, but when it is done he is still alive, he marries and has children, and seems free of the shadow under which he spent his life. His sacrifice is a ritual one, the forms followed without true substance given. Belgarion isn’t even that; others sacrifice that he may win his final battles and go home to his wife and family. Rand Al’Thor seems to be fall between those two poles; he cheats his death, but does so at the expense of his body and identity. Rand leaves a family, but it is unsure whether he will see them again. He is happy, but the cost of his sacrifice is real.
Intriguingly, it is Jezal, the inversion of the Chosen One, who pays one of the heaviest costs. Being king has a fairly limited amount of pleasure when he’s at the end of a dog lead held by people he dislikes, one of them married to the woman he loves. His is a comfortable but hollow existence; something the Jezal of the book might have accepted more easily than the Jezal of the end.
As we can see, the form of the Chosen One as sacrifice is more followed than the function, but the form is widespread. But why are they sacrifices?
Some of them draw from Christian thoughts on Christ-like martyrs. It is not hard to find Christ parallels with Rand and his stigmata, and there’s plenty of articles out there on Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo as Christ as Prophet, King and Priest. However there is also a Pagan/Neo-Pagan example here too, the idea of the Sacred King who would be sacrificed in times of hardship, an idea referred to in Kay’s and Pratchett’s work, and in movies like The Wicker Man. In all Western religious thought, you sooner or later come across the idea of the martyrdom of the powerful.
And for me, while some of this is based on the clear and obvious thought that great obstacles can only be overcome with great efforts, there is a darker, more cautionary thread woven in. You can see it in some of the older myths in which warriors and kings turn against those they are sworn to protect; a distrust of authority in which it is held those with the power to protect us also have the power to destroy us. It’s a thread that Tolkien displays prominently when Gandalf and Galadriel refuse the Ring, knowing it was only be swapping one tyrant for another. Sometimes, the Chosen One is sacrificed because society cannot bear them to remain with their power intact.
Sometimes however, it is less about what they do with their power, and more what the power does with them. Again, Tolkien went this route with Frodo, but Jordan went down with it with Rand Al’Thor. To bear that much stress and responsibility, to embrace the darkness of the human soul that thoroughly, is too much to do and walk away unscathed. It is perhaps telling that two combat veterans went down that route; the effects of that adventure are not always real to those of us who lead comfier lives. In this scenario, the Chosen One is a sacrifice in that they have power so we don’t have to.
Either way, there is a deep and grim reality behind the archetype, one that can be seen in most uses. Most authors, it is true, shy away from it in the name of a happy ending. But there a few authors who write the Chosen One not as a fulfilment of wish, but as a sacrifice to the wishes of others.