One place to begin, in talking about fantastic defenders, is the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro”: a childless old woman finds a beautiful peach floating down a stream and she takes it home to her husband; the peach suddenly splits open and a miraculous baby boy is inside. When the boy grows to fifteen years old, he hears of the people of northeast Japan being terrorized by demons who arrive by sea to pillage, kidnap, and murder. Momotaro determines that he will be their defender and fight the demons.
Or, if you prefer, look at Beowulf: the young man hears of a land being tormented by the man-eating monster Grendel and he sails from his home in Geatland to offer himself as defender to King Hrothgar.
As for the “fantastic” part, while it points to the story having fantastical elements, the defender often does not have any magical powers—but still may have to oppose supernatural creatures. Momotaro may be a gift from heaven to a deserving couple, but no special powers are given to him. Beowulf relies on his courage and his great physical strength.
In these two exemplar stories, we can discern the nature of the defender, who:
• is compassionate and feels intensely the distress of others;
• may defend an individual, but frequently is defending an entire people; and
• possesses an extraordinary firmness of will and clarity of purpose, and does not waver or give up.
Every defender will not perfectly fulfill all of these traits, but this is our starting point.
The struggle against despair is a frequent theme in stories of fantastic defenders. Sometimes it is an inward struggle, a personal dark night of the soul. Or despair permeates an entire community; a people have lost the ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence. The defender is the enemy of despair.
To point to another well-known defender, Gandalf does have magical powers—he is a wizard and also possesses one of the rings of power. Yet his actions with the greatest impact, for all his ability to bring down bolts of lightning on foes, are in discernment and hope. He counsels and persuades Theoden to resist and fight rather than surrender to hopelessness; he rallies scattered forces to return and fight; dread flees from his presence because his courage and steadfast commitment heartens people.
And here’s another: Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence—in spite of his cherubic demeanor, tendency to giggle, and dithering over ordering a flaming rum punch or mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”—proves to be a determined, indeed, a steely and almost cruel defender against despair. He allows George Bailey to see an alternate future in which he never existed: a brother dead in childhood; his mother old, embittered, poor; his uncle in an insane asylum; and most painfully, his never-wife Mary alone, childless, not recognizing him. This is tough love at the highest setting.
It’s rather fun to put Clarence in the company of Gandalf, Beowulf, and Momotaro. But something even more unusual is under the surface of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the process of saving George, Clarence doesn’t just keep him from jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He enables a revelation: it turns out that George is the defender of the town of Bedford Falls, and has been ever since he took over the family building and loan after the death of his father.
As the alternate-reality scenario later makes explicit, the fate of Bedford Falls depends on the outcome of the struggle between the predator, Mr. Potter, and the defender, George Bailey. George makes a blunt assessment of what’s at stake very early in the story, when he hears the town banker call for the Bailey Building and Loan to be shut down: “My father…did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter… People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle… This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”
And yet, somehow, George remains largely unconscious of his calling as a defender. Momotaro knows what he’s set out to do. So do Gandalf and Beowulf. George, however, doesn’t see the latent, ghostly potentiality of Pottersville, awaiting the moment when the will of its would-be maker is free and unopposed, ever ready to manifest itself and grow into merciless and degrading reality. George runs his business, makes loans, celebrates the new houses of his friends, and all the while his life is a disappointment to him. Distracted by his regret for the adventurous life he never achieved, he misses the big picture of his purpose in family and community.
That awareness comes as part of the climax on Christmas Eve, when George faces despair and sees what it means to not be there, to not take action. How interesting it is for the audience to see the hero’s purpose—which is usually presented early to drive the story—arrive so late, and yet be so satisfying!
We have stretched the definition of a fantastic defender and ventured outside the confines of genre by including George Bailey. He does not face a supernatural foe. But look again at Beowulf’s enemy, Grendel. Why does he hunt and murder the Danes? Because the sound of music and joy coming from the beautiful hall Heorot arouses his anger and hatred, directed against the people inside. In terms of character psychology, Grendel’s estrangement from mankind seems strangely similar to Mr. Potter’s.
So, step into the circle, George Bailey. Shake hands with Beowulf, but do be mindful of his powerful grip.
One last thought. Why do we love stories of fantastic defenders? Here is a possible answer, first provided by G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already,” he wrote. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
This idea was paraphrased more succinctly by Neil Gaiman as “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Chesterton and Gaiman are speaking of stories about fantastic defenders, the ones who see rapacious and violent enemies and refuse to flee, will not lay low. They run toward the terrors. We admire them and take heart from their courage. And it is with pleasure that we offer the stories of Fantastic Defenders. We hope that the stories do justice to the spirit of real defenders everywhere.