From Simple Roots

Today: Fire Emblem Gaiden, Ch. 1: Ram Village to Ram Woods.

Gaiden is a Fire Emblem that needs a little bit of context in a different storytelling background, because its use of that background is a bit unusual among games in the series. Here’s that context. I hope you like comparative mythology.

Mythmaking in Valentia

That's GENERAL Gramps to you.
“I’m probably more reliable than he is anyway, because I dress in blue.”

The boldest statement that Gaiden makes is the one it makes immediately. SD&BoL began with a prince with a backstory, called to arms in the first scene by a princess with her castle under siege. When the game handed the reins to me I found myself in command of a little army of trained soldiers ready to sock it to some pirates, and there was a cursor right there telling me to start making tactical maneuvers.

By contrast, when Gaiden kicks it over to me—after a single line of dialogue—I’m just some kid in the country, and I’m walking around in an idyllic farm town at total, if temporary, peace. No princes, no warfare, no blinking cursor, no epic quests to reclaim kingdoms. (Or at least none of those just yet.) There is no surer statement that Gaiden wants us to know that this time we’re lodged in quite a different mode of storytelling.

What mode is that, asks the astute gamer? Gameplay-wise, it’s the RPG mode, as opposed to the electronic-war-game mode SD&BoL invented. I’ll be speaking to that at great length, I’m sure, in the entries to come. I think the more important ground rules for this story, though, are set by its narrative mode, and for that I’m going to have to dip back into—I know, I know—high-school literary theory. Mythological theory, to be precise.

"Retum" is after the hero has learned the fine art of keming.
Everything I need to know about mythologic structure I learned from Joseph Campbell.

The diagram above is a simplification of the most indispensable work of Joseph John Campbell, an American scholar of comparative mythology and religion. If you read nothing else about storytelling, read his landmark work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which as of this writing is approaching 70 years in print. The main realization in Campbell’s book is that the journeys of hero figures in mythology, across all cultures, in times ancient and modern and everywhere in between, all follow the same basic outline. Accordingly, Campbell calls this structure the monomyth (or, elsewhere, the hero’s journey), and sets about breaking it into seventeen distinct stages. You can see these stages of the hero’s journey reduced somewhat into the circle above; other scholars have quibbled with how many of these stages are actually common and how many aren’t. We don’t have to dwell on these at great length here, but I think a quick overview is helpful. Follow along here, if you’d like.

The journey breaks into three overarching sections, which cleanly correlate to a five-act narrative structure. On this point, pretty much every scholar agrees. Campbell calls the sections separation (or departure), initiation, and return.

  1. During separation (act I), the hero begins as an ordinary person in the ordinary world, but through magical assistance moves across a threshold into the Otherworld. Campbell writes that the hero is given a “call to adventure,” which he at first refuses, but is then taken across the threshold thanks to the assistance of some supernatural force or person.
  2. During initiation (acts II–III), the hero journeys through the Otherworld and grows as a person. He faces a “road of trials,” all of which he overcomes, growing stronger or discovering new things with each challenge (act II). At the end of the road, the hero meets face to face with what Campbell calls the “goddess,” the ultimate magic and the ultimate adventure presented to him (the act III crisis). The hero overcomes the goddess’s test, which in many myths involves some kind of reconciliation with his father and his heritage. In doing so, he achieves apotheosis, the point of realization at which he gains the greatest understanding in the story, and receives the ultimate boon, the goal he went on his journey to pursue (the act III climax).
  3. During return (acts IV–V), the hero returns to the ordinary world to use the ultimate boon to set things right. He first journeys back across the threshold, maybe unwillingly or maybe with supernatural assistance against the angry forces of the Otherworld (act IV). When he arrives back in the ordinary world, he achieves a balance that integrates the growth and wisdom he gained from the Otherworld with the human existence in which we all live (act V).

Campbell suggested that the endpoint of the journey, its last stage, was “freedom to live,” the hero’s attainment of oneness with “the permanence of Being.” This should give you a hint as to why so many people in so many cultures turn to this mode of storytelling so often. These stories are ways cultures can powerfully impart what they value and what they believe in. They’re about self-actualization, which is a universal motive we’ve been striving for since time began. And the stories give just a little teaser about what the dimensions of the actualized self look like, when they show by example what a true hero has to confront and learn to gain it.

Storytellers had been more or less unwittingly following Campbell’s monomyth for centuries, of course, before he sussed out the common pattern. But storytellers since Campbell have been very careful students of him too, because they recognize that a timeless method of storytelling is one that can have incredibly powerful results. George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy is Campbell’s framework pound for pound, and Lucas has explicitly noted how he studied Campbell in writing his movies. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, while conceived and crafted a decade or so before Campbell wrote, nonetheless follows his recognizable pattern, as do the works of his fellow Inklings C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Frank Herbert’s Dune takes up precisely the Campbell structure in order to criticize it. The list continues. The monomyth has forever been, and no doubt will continue to be, a staple of mythologies and stories that want to tell us who we are, who we can be, and who we should be.

What was I talking about? Right. Fire Emblem.

The Call to Adventure

Their opponents: a soldier and four yokels swinging swords.
Valentia: where the scariest gangs of brigands all wear matching pink uniforms.

All this stuff about monomyths is to make what is, for now, a pretty simple point: unlike the first Fire Emblem, Gaiden starts with a situation that seems very Campbellian.

Marth gets a kingdom and a war story before he’s even through the first scene of his game. His campaign has a structure and a narrative through-line, but it’s not particularly like the hero’s journey: there’s no beginning in an ordinary world, no ending back in that world with momentous lessons learned. Marth is a king from start to finish, and he operates in the theatre of high drama rather than personal self-actualization. (The Marths of later tellings of the War of Shadows don’t necessarily fit this pattern, of course.)

When we meet Alm, on the other hand, all we see of him is a young man living the country life in small-town southern Zofia. This should immediately set your monomythical bells ringing. It’s a thoroughly Campbellian beginning: an ordinary person in the ordinary world, with what you know is an epic adventure ahead of him. Alm is immediately in the good company of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Hunahpu, Percival, Moses, and so on and so on.

The immediately following scene is also straight out of the archetypal hero’s journey. Alm is directed to the village gates, where Lukas exhorts the common folk to take up arms in his rebellion against the treacherous noble Desaix—calling them, as it were, to adventure. The person for whom Lukas’s call is intended refuses it (we’ll get to that in time), but Alm steps up in his stead, and the rest of his friends follow suit. The balance of Chapter 1—out of five, so you know the chapters are acts of a five-act RPG—will chronicle Alm’s journey across the threshold of the Otherworld, which is to say from everyday life into leading an army in a war for the fate of the continent. The hero’s journey has begun.

Two things, before we begin that journey in earnest. The first is that, because the game is playing its monomyth card for the world to see, it’s indicating the kind of thematic thrust it’s going to follow from here. SD&BoL was a meditation on war and what drives us to it—a big story about the principles and traits of mankind. Gaiden, because it’s shouting Campbell loud and clear from its first steps, is telling you that its focus is going to be something else, something smaller. It wants to look at what all monomyths explore: the self, the search for individual meaning, the actualization of the person. But it’s also a gaiden to Fire Emblem, so it also has some thematic connection to the big conditions of humankind that SD&BoL teed up. How it unites these two dimensions, the personal and the universal, is critical to the message it wants to send. Keep an eye on it.

The second thing to remember is that, for all the opening clearly seems to imply that Alm is the hero of this hero’s journey, he both is and isn’t. And that too links right back to what this story wants to say. And I’m an unforgivable tease, because I’m going to leave that point right there without a word of further explanation. For now.

The journey has begun. Let’s get Alm and his friends moving on the warpath to link up with the other members of the rebel Deliverance. Next up: the darker places of southern Zofia.


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