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There’s a whole fantasy trope based around the protagonist of the story discovering that, after the initial skirmish with the forces of evil, he or she is the Chosen One, the one person who has all the skills – mental, physical and magical – to defeat the big bad and win the day.

And we love hearing about them because we can dream we are them. We’re no longer ordinary; quite the opposite. We become, for the length of the tale, extraordinary; possessing such skills, strength and stamina that no other mortal can command. The Chosen One is the archetypal super-hero story: think of Greek and Persian legends, and you’re halfway there already.

But when the story ends, the clouds come over, the sky darkens, and the world becomes colder, harsher and less caring. We’re not the Chosen One. We’re nothing unusual. Not only can we not take the battle to the forces of evil, we don’t even know where to start. We simply have to accept the way things are, with no hope of changing the slow grind of life.

But hang on. That’s not necessarily the case. We know through experience that we can claim small, if temporary, victories that bring life and light to us and ours. And we know that being inspired by our fictional heroes and heroines can make us better people – G. K. Chesterton spoke the truth when he said: ‘Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.’

We already know about the dragons, whether they’re immediate and dangerous, or distant and roaring. Their existence is not in question. What we need to know is how to stand up to the dragon, fight the dragon, slay the dragon. This is what stories do. When you’re reading, you’re training yourself. You can only live one life, unless you read books. If you do that, you get to live a thousand lives, each of them different, each of them coming with different problems – and a different skill set to solve those very same problems.

So what I want to do here is give you the life of Frederik Thaler, a protagonist from my new novel Arcanum. He’s not a hero. He’s not a soldier, let alone a general. He doesn’t possess any martial skill worth naming – give him a sword and he’s likely to stab himself with it rather than run his enemies through. He’s not as cunning as he thinks he is, and he hasn’t got a ruthless bone in his body. His idea of treachery is to take one sausage too many from the communal plate.

This is not to say that Thaler is without admirable qualities – but they are qualities that anyone can possess. He’s kind, and generous with what little he has. He’s smart, and smart enough to take advice in case he’s wrong. And while not an inspiring leader, he’s a competent enough administrator for people to have confidence in him and his plans. Never underestimate the attraction of mere competence. His simple, guileless trust in the goodness of others may prove his undoing, but we’re not there yet.

His greatest strength is inevitably also his greatest weakness: Thaler loves his books. And even more, he trusts his books to tell him all the things he needs to know. The answers to life’s most important and intractable problems are written down somewhere. If he can catalogue everything, he can solve anything. For certain, that’s a naïve, if not a faintly ridiculous, assumption: harmless enough when you’re an under-librarian in the known world’s biggest library, safe in the knowledge that the full might of the state – and this state is stunningly mighty – protects you. When everything you know has changed and your life hangs in the balance? That’s a bit more dangerous, believing that books can save you, your friends and your neighbours. But it’s all he has, and just perhaps, his belief will become infectious, and spread from person to person until it becomes an unstoppable wave of hope that will carry them all to a triumphant end.

So here’s to Frederik Thaler, a most ordinary man, about whom the fate of nations will turn.

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Simon Morden

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  1. Dan Hanks

    January 25, 2014
    at 2:20 am

    Love this. I enjoy the ‘chosen one’ stories to a degree, but it can be a somewhat lazy way to involve the protagonist in the plot. Ordinary heroes are usually far more interesting.

    So count me in with Thaler and Arcanum. Will check out soon!

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