Masters of Two Worlds: Superheroes and Fantasy Heroes

ARTWORK by chic2view from

Before I get into the essay proper, I shall warn that this essay will mention the following works in some degree of spoilery detail: Three Hearts and Three Lions, Lord of the Rings, Earthsea Quartet, The Eternal Champion, His Dark Materials and of course, Watchmen.

It’s also probably not very good. The level of all round genre knowledge I needed for this is something I underestimated before starting the essay. I’m not bad, but I’m not that good either. I also underestimated the scope. This could be a dissertation.

But hey it’s “done”, so you’re getting it.

Another week, another essay, and this one inspired by listening to some mates’ podcast. The podcast is Chronscast, and the episode that inspired me was this one where they talked Watchmen with Tade Thompson. While the whole thing was inspiration, the bit that caught me was when they were talking about the integration of identities, and the danger of never taking the cape off. Dan Jones said that Superman is the perfect superhero because of how comfortably he fits into Clark Kent and Superman, and how well they fit into their respective worlds – an argument I’ve read him making before. And all I could think of was how the end stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth was The Master of Two Worlds.

For those unaware, Campbell’s monomyth was his attempt to fit every myth in the world into one profile; the hero’s journey. As a piece of myth analysis, it is flawed. As a story plot however, it has become transcendently powerful, with a huge number of fantasy stories either deliberately or accidentally fitting into its model. The Master of Two Worlds is the stage wherein a hero has mastered both their own world and the strange world into which they have ventured forth. A lot of fantasy heroes can be seen as doing this, from Samwise Gamgee to Rand al’Thor, from Harry Potter to Sparrowhawk. It’s also something common with superheroes, people in a genre that not only loves archetypal storytelling, but who often have one identity for ‘each’ world in the most literal possible embrace of the concept. And while this is something the superhero genre embraces, it’s also something it critiques, most famously in Watchmen, the creation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that at once arguably serves as the genre’s high water mark for quality and deconstruction all at once.

This creates an interesting prism through which to view fantasy heroes who are Masters of Two Worlds. Does the genre embrace the possibilities of this stage of the journey and its underlying ideas as much as the superhero genre? Does the differing handling of the idea point to salient characteristics of the fantasy genre, do similarities point to shared characteristics between the genres or loud concerns about the human condition?

From its emergence, the fantasy genre has featured heroes navigating unfamiliar and magical worlds. Anodos visits a fairyland in MacDonald’s Phantastes as does Alveric in Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, with Golden Walter doing similar in Morris’ The Wood Beyond the World. Howard’s Conan is an adventurer to many lands, while Moore’s Jirel of Joiry journeys to alternate dimensions or hell in most of her stories. Merritt’s Kenton is transported from our world to an ancient Bablyonian world in The Ship of Ishtar, while Boots O’Hara discovers a lost Aztec civilisation in Stevens’ The Citadel of Fear. Building off lost world fiction and Arthurian romance, it sought to entertain through journeys to new and exotic lands.

However, there is little sense that most of these characters had to operate as different people to succeed in these new lands. Indeed, the appeal of many of these characters, particularly early Sword & Sorcery heroes like Conan and Jirel, was the way their core selves could conquer any situation. In many ways, these undoubting ubermensch were the sort of characters Alan Moore was parodying and critiquing in The Comedian and Rorschach, the two most violent Watchmen. In other cases, the characters existed mainly to experience these strange lands, and their psychological depth is by and large not profound. I am probably doing wrong by some things in this statement, but I don’t think I am as a whole. Possibly the most interesting hero of two worlds in this early phrase is Nate Chanticleer in Mirrlees’ Lud in the Mist, but he feels less like mastery of two worlds as going over to another ones.

Part of what made The Lord of the Rings such a breakout hit for the fantasy genre is the psychological depth we’ve got from Frodo, Samwise, and all. All of the hobbits have their own hero’s journey but it takes different forms, with Frodo’s story acting as a critique of sorts as he cannot master both worlds, and his attempt to do so damages him too much for both. None of them particularly take on dual identities to do so – the closest is Meriadoc becoming Holdwine in the Mark, but him having a Rohirrim name doesn’t denote him having a different persona – but we see clear growth through their experiences.

More superhero like however are Aragorn and Gandalf, initially supporting characters and mentors. In both cases the identities we see at the start of the books disguise their true self, which they reveal through the course of the story with a name change and promotion. Their long apprenticeships in the hard places of the world protecting others has given them superheroic prowess and fitted them for mastery over others.

While there were many ingredients to Tolkien’s cocktail, key ones were Nordic myth, his experiences in World War One, and his seat as a spectator to World War Two. It seems possible that World War One gave him the idea, at least subconsciously, of there being two separate worlds to master – or fail to. World War Two gave him the idea of great evils that had to be fought (and I believe a lot of superhero comics also started taking off around this time, notably Superman). And the Norse myths have a good deal of gods going in disguise, notably Odin – whom Gandalf is explicitly based on – and Heimdall, the god who kept watch and who also fathered a line of kings. Does Aragorn possess aspects of Heimdall?

An interesting parallel can be found in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. Set at the time of World War Two, it features Holger Carlsen, a Danish engineer and resistance member who during a mission ends up in a faerie land where he must fight the forces of Chaos, eventually discovering he is the Ogier the Dane of Frankish legend. He regards the new land he is with wonder and must learn its rules as while he has Ogier’s strength, he does not have his knowledge.

It is probably too glib to say that the extraordinary events of World War Two provoked the desire for superhuman moral opponents, yet there seems to be a link. We can also perhaps perceive a growing need for a population of soldiers and sons of soldiers to see people who were masters of two worlds. There has frequently been a tension in western masculinity between the need to be gentle, kind, and generous in peace, but ruthless and ferocious in war. Shakespeare’s lines perhaps give one of the most iconic versions of it:

“In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage”

The full reality of this version of masculinity has rarely been the experience of the western Anglosphere before the World Wars however. It seems more than possible that this created a desire for different characters in both creators and consumers. This would echo again in the Vietnam War, a time period that neatly coincides with the Silver Age of Comics and The Lord of the Rings’ sudden boom.

Meanwhile, other fantasy authors would use characters with multiple personas as the genre started to re-emerge from sci-fi’s shadow. Michael Moorcock’s use of John Daker and Erekose in The Eternal Champion features this, but in a darker way, with Daker as Erekose forsaking one world to act with certain morality in the other world in the style of those sword & sorcery heroes, or many of Watchmen’s characters. The transformation of Duny into Ged into Sparrowhawk, followed by Tenar into Arha into Tenar, in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan offer a more personal, psychological view of this journey. In the former, Ged’s first attempt to be a master of two worlds goes so disastrously wrong that fixing it becomes his story’s purpose, reconciling the darker side of his nature within himself at the end of it – he is an ultimate master of two worlds at the end. Tenar’s journey is more like Erekose’s, an experiencing of two worlds ending with a rejection of one. If we are viewing the fantasy genre through the prism Watchmen provided, then Tenar’s role is like Dan Dreiberg or Laurie Juspeczyk – they lived in that different world, but found it necessary to return. Other fantasy series of around this time that could be considered to contain dual persona characters are Roger Zelzany’s Nine Princes in Amber and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Forest.

The explosion of epic fantasy that followed Tolkien’s popularity would however obscure many of these works. The hero’s journey would be an easily seen influence in most of them, and they are filled with protagonists who either go through portals to assume different identities, or protagonists who master the magical and mundane worlds. The most well known of these characters – Pug, Belgarion, Rand al’Thor – would end up taking Superman-esque levels of power, crusading, and integration into both worlds. Yes, some works went darker, particularly portal fantasies like Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and The Fionavar Tapestry, yet there is a reason this era is well remembered for clear cut takes on good vs evil.

Yet while Jordan, Feist, and Eddings were providing us with Superman-esque heroes in fantasy, Moore and Gibbons were giving us Watchmen, ushering in a different age of comics. While fantasy in a similar vein existed at the time, and we can see mainstream epic fantasy growing darker in the 90s, it’s not until the mid-2000s we see the Grimdark explosion and fantasy literature ‘catch up’ to comics. Even then, while definitely offering a differing view to that of Eddings, Feist, Jordan, Tolkien and Lewis, they lack the explosive deconstruction of the genre’s heartbeat that Watchmen brought.

Perhaps that’s because the fantasy genre never argued that deeply with some of Watchmen’s conclusions as to the actuality of living in two worlds permanently. Lord of the Rings might feature a good vs evil morality and belief in right authority that Moore would never agree with, but Frodo’s experiences with conflict don’t seem to belong to a radically different worldview. While many fantasy authors would echo parts of the superhero experience, particularly those writing portal fantasies, their characters would mostly become one with their mask, incapable of taking it off, often with dark consequences – or would eventually return. Think of Lyra and Will separated in different realities at the end of Pullman’s His Dark Materials – it is typical of fantasy’s belief that one cannot go between realities forever. However, that promise might be seen to lie at the heart of the superhero genre, even at a time when the MCU has given us a blockbusting set of movies based around superheroes who often have no “off” switch?

What then of the future of dual persona heroes in fantasy, and of the superhero? I am unable to speak with much authority as to the latter, yet I am sure their day will come again, particularly when the USA feels threatened again (am I linking the MCU to the War on Terror? I’m not sure I buy it but would love to hear someone more expert comment). Or perhaps the link is a generation of young men looking for a link to their forefathers.

However my first thought of dual persona heroes in fantasy as of right now were Zhu in She Who Became The Sun and possibly Peretur in Spear (possibly as I haven’t read it yet). It seems potentially crass to reduce the expressions of gender identity set by both characters to a literary device, yet they can be seen as fitting, and it seems crasser to ignore them altogether. If previous usages of masters of two worlds with personas belonging to both can be traced to wartime experiences and making sense of conflicting senses of gender, it should be no surprise that such a thing can happen in a different context later.

However, there are many different ways in which people can find themselves moving in two different worlds right now. There are the experiences of immigrant families for multiple generations (after all most of the inventors of superheroes were Jewish immigrants), people whose professional and personal lives might involve radically different groups of personalities, and the same for people in terms of physical and internet friends, or friends and family, to pick to just a few. I don’t even know how healthy this is but the idea of having multiple personas seems very natural to many people I know. Might we see a rise in popularity for heroes who reflect that? Who can say. But it seems a possibility for both the superhero and fantasy genres, even if to date they have viewed the idea of literal Masters of Two Worlds rather differently.

4 thoughts on “Masters of Two Worlds: Superheroes and Fantasy Heroes

  1. Reblogged this on This Literature Life and commented:
    My good friend and master blogger Peat Long has developed some of the thoughts from this month’s Chronscast episode with Tade Thompson on Watchmen, and posted them in a marvellous essay based around Joseph Campbell’s idea of a character becoming a master of two worlds. Well worth a read.


  2. Great blog Peat, as usual. I don’t know about linking the MCU with the War on Terror – it seems more chronological coincidence rather than intention, especially given the vast, sprawling scope of the MCU (as opposed to the, er, vast, sprawling scope of the war in Afghanistan…?). I think it was more a case of the studios having the technology to do superhero films properly (ie with CGI battles and ting), and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films providing a good proof-of-concept that the public would lap up films about characters that were previously the reserve of nerds and poindexters.

    By the way, two of the texts you mention – Mythago Wood, and Lud In The Mist – will be the bases of future poddy episodes, too, so I’d love to know what you think of them when they drop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not saying they did them because of the War on Terror. After all, people are always trying to do superheroes, right?

      I am floating the possibility that why they do so well is in part because of that timing because America’s three greatest periods of superheroes and three periods of feeling most at war coinciding seems worth exploring. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but what if it’s not?

      And if it’s not, then how appropriate is it that the genre’s greatest critique came at a moment when so many thought that being at war was finally going to get us all killed?

      Liked by 1 person

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