The Chosen One

“You’re the only one who can save the world!”

Media bombards us with the concept of “The Chosen One,” telling us there is a singular character preordained to save the world. Whether it be Doctor Who or Jesus Christ or the President of the United States, there’s going to be a singular person bequeathed with this fateful responsibility.

There’s, of course, the explanation of it being a copout: it’s either shouldering the burden to someone else or it’s putting it on yourself, in the case that only you can solve whatever internal or interpersonal problem is destroying your world.

Regardless of the intent and interpretation, this premise is an important trope throughout every facet of media. From novels to network news, a singular person is presented as having the unique ability or position to solve the world’s problems. This is problematic. Firstly, it distills the evil of the world into one sole source: a la Wonder Woman (2017) with Ares. That didn’t work. It’s also not accurate. The problems of the world are complex, gray, and ambiguous, with no definite answer and no definite right/wrong and good/evil “sides”/ ”[involved] parties.”

Also, as far as the looming threats over the world are concerned, there’s not usually a single person with the exclusive right to save the world. Life is situational enough, though, that this can be very compelling. If only the one person who was sitting next to Archduke Franz Ferdinand were able to warn him, take the bullet, or do something to affect the incurred events, then World War I would have been prevented. Right? “The War to End All Wars,” able to be stopped by a single motion of a single person. But, although I don’t have the research to delve into the details, I am aware that the geopolitical situation in Europe was not so simple that World War I could have been erased from history by the prevention of one little event.

A lot of things have to come together for a hero of such magnitude to be born. But what has to come together for this hero to be compelling and to produce an exciting story.

I have three examples of standards of convention in which there is “only one person who can save the world,” each functioning in different ways. [1] Sometimes there are other people who can save the world, but there is some convincing reason for which they choose not to. [2] There is only “The Chosen One,” who because of some genealogy, unique ability, or divine providence, becomes the only one who can save the world. [3] And then there’s the magical example. Always something magical. And, as with magic, following some set of rules and procedures based on a power outside of our control, a “Chosen One” is born of magical, situational, significance.

 

Avatar and Legend of Korra comprise my examples for [1]. Both do an expert job of demonstrating why only the Avatar can save the world. In the first part of the Avatar series finale, Avatar Aang is missing, and the team finds Iroh, who is possibly the only other person in the world capable of combatting and defeating Fire Lord Ozai. Iroh, though, responds:

“History would see it as just more senseless violence, a brother killing a brother to grab power. The only way for this war to end peacefully is for the Avatar to defeat the Fire Lord.”

War conclusion and postwar climate are exceedingly sensitive issues and can affect the fate of the winning side, the losing side, and whether the war has, in actuality, ended. Just ask Japan (book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II). Post-WWII was pivotal and transformative for their country and people.

Iroh is entirely aware of this. So he chooses to have faith in the “chosen” Avatar Aang to defeat Ozai and bring balance to the world.

And the Legend of Korra visits a similar dynamic in its fourth season, except to the opposite effect. Kuvira takes it upon herself to unite the Earth Kingdom as an Empire while there is universal civil unrest and disorganization and Korra is away in recovery. Kuvira demonstrates brutality and kindness. Strong civil leadership and near-despotism. There is no balance. And balance is the essence of the Avatar and what makes the Avatar special. With access to all four elements and acting as a bridge between human and spirit worlds, the Avatar is able to experience, understand, and create balance in the world. While arguable whether or not this setup is true-to-life, Avatar and The Legend of Korra has established and invited us into a world in which rules like this apply.

 

[2] “And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives” (citation)

Familiar? Of course it is. It’s the repeated excerpt from the prophecy in Harry Potter. This cryptic message is at the core of the conclusion to the Harry Potter series, posing to us the necessity that Harry and Voldemort are intrinsically linked and that, in order to defeat Voldemort, Harry may have to sacrifice himself.

This prophecy is also implicit in Harry being the sole person to be able to defeat Voldemort. It’s also vague. Ambiguous. Nonsensical. Inconsistent. Etc. Harry becomes aware—both through necessity and through the pervasive thought running through the media and the social circles of the wizarding world—that he is “The Chosen One.” And it inflates his head. And his ego. And Harry, at least briefly, becomes intolerable and self-important—moreso than usual.

But this prophecy is a less-than-convincing one. At least for me. I can’t speak for everyone, but I was not convinced as to why Harry should be so special within the world of Harry Potter with which I’d been inducted. The classic question, “Why not just shoot Voldemort with a gun?” is an important one. Of course, it can be a bit of a dumb question, a la “THE EAGLES” yelled in protest at the whole of the twelve-hour-experience of The Lord of the Rings. But the core of the question is the core of this piece. Why Harry?

And, through the chronicle’s conclusion, the answer to that question remains ambiguous. Harry Potter features a world of certain rules and realities, to which we as the audience have been inducted, for which we’ve suspended our disbelief of magic and fantasy. But, for a story in which prophecy and superstition have little bearing on the story (see: Greek Tragedy, for comparison), it ends up being the prophecy which ultimately drives the story and the conclusion. Harry becomes “The Chosen One” in a story which is laid upon a foundation of magical school hijinks, the power of friendship, and teenage detectives saving the world. None among The Kingkiller Chronicles, Naruto, and Riverdale (2016-) (respectively, for each description) has any significance placed on prophecy, so far as the plot is motivated. So when it’s contrived (arguably) into the tale of Harry Potter, it does not make a compelling case for its placement.

 

[3] “How can we go on a quest to regenerate [save] the world if we can’t even save the people standing right in front of us?!”

This is an iconic quote and personal favorite line of mine by lead character Lloyd Irving in 2003’s (2004’s) game Tales of Symphonia. It’s a sentiment which can be applied anywhere in life, for anyone trying to do good or fighting for their ideals of justice. It’s a powerful moment leading up to a turning point in the game’s plot. And it’s a line which suggests that anyone can do their part in “saving the world,” as long as they look in front of themselves and do not stand passively by while injustice is present.

Then why is there a “Chosen One” in Tales of Symphonia? Why does this character have the significance that he/she does? Simple answer: magic. More complex answer: “because” magic.

Tales of Symphonia features a world of magic and monsters. And the mana regeneration cycle for which the “Chosen One” is chosen follows the rules of magic.

What is magic? Magic is a series of phenomena outside of our control and understanding, dictated and enacted by a set of rules and procedures. At least, that’s how I tend to define it. It’s a supernatural science based on correlation and not the causation suggested by laws and theories.

Tales of Symphonia features a plot shrouded in mystery and highlighted by conspiracy. The Regeneration Cycle follows my principle of magic, a series of steps which leads to some supernatural effect: release the seals at the elemental temples and climb the Tower of Mana, and…voila! The world mana (energy) is regenerated, and Sylvarant/Tethe’alla will experience a period of prosperity.

And, while Tales of Symphonia features a “Chosen One” based on this superstitious dogma, there ultimately is an explanation behind the Regeneration Cycle and a comprehensive constitution for how this magical world works. The “Chosen One” is, in some ways, a façade, though it is true that “Chosen” Collete Brunel and Zealos Wilder have unique abilities and roles.

Tales of Symphonia succeeds where Harry Potter does not because the dynamic that creates a “Chosen One” is integral to the plot and because this dynamic is ultimately the solution to the game’s core conflict.

 

There are some other dynamics established when presenting that statement, “You’re the only one who can save the world!”

In superhero stories, primarily with the Justice League, there are villains’ threats and conflicts which can only be resolved with access to certain superpowers. This works, especially considering the team dynamic and mostly anthology format of the Justice League cartoons (JL, JLU, JLA).

Other superhero stories without a team can suffer when only a single character’s abilities are required. The Dark Knight Rises is an example of how horribly wrong this can go when our hero is inadequate or incapacitated and a less-than-stimulating stalemate takes up half the film.

It’s pretty common that there’s a child protagonist who fulfills the role as, the only one who can save the world. Often, this is situational like with mystery and detective stories (Series of Unfortunate Events, Riverdale (2016-)), or it is rooted in a child’s imagination and innocence (Spirited Away). Sometimes, though, it is not a compelling trope, and an adult character is in the perfect situation to resolve any conflict. And sometimes teamwork is involved, anyways, with a combination of these dynamics and the kid’s special/unique abilities (Gravity Fallls).

There’s also the convention of the “Lost Hero.” Some character of legend who is found or accessed through some quest. This is Avatar’s Iroh. This is The Kingkiller Chronicle’s Kvothe and Hunter x Hunter’s Ging Freecs and Star Wars’s Yoda (original trilogy). But the “Lost Hero” is a misdirect, and it is our younger protagonist who must save the world (or galaxy), due to any number of reasons (a good one outlined above with Iroh).

And, the last important, unique dynamic is the hero who is unique because of exceptional ability. It’s pretty simple: this person is the only one who can save the world because he’s better at saving the world and at any adjacent tasks than any other person in the world. This is, James Bond, Doctor Who, Vampire Hunter D, Sherlock Holmes, and Agent Dale Cooper. Traditionally, my “Genius [and his Companion]” heroes.

 

I guess this just leaves one question

“Are you the only one who can save your world?”

 

 

Appendix: relevant hero list
Ruby Rose (lineage, special ability)
Max Caulfield (bestowed w/ special ability)
Madoka (Tragic convention gives her special significance)
Paul Atreides (lineage)
Chloe Price (bestowed significance)
Flint Lockwood (closeness to conflict/ relationship with threat character)
Leto Atreides (self-import, prophecy powers)
United States [vs Soviet] (situational, propaganda)