Today, let’s talk about all things dragons, Noblebright Fantasy (to be defined in a moment) and heroes that aren’t, well . . . very heroic.
This summer, I stumbled on novelist JA Andrews and chatted with her a little bit about her mountain life in Montana, what it’s like being an author with three kids (she homeschools too!) and, to be my great surprise, a genre of fantasy I’d never heard of before—Noblebright Fantasy.
Take it away, JA! (<— You see what I did there?)
Noblebright and the Unhero: Because what we think of heroes matters.
Noblebright and the Unhero.
No, that isn’t the title of a story about a unicorn and a monster that undoes heroes. (Although, I would definitely read that story. #unicornsforthewin)
“Noblebright” and “unhero” are two ideas that I constantly come back to. I admit that most people won’t understand either word because they’re a bit obscure—and by obscure I mean “might not really be words”—but if you stick with me for a bit, I’ll do my best to explain them, and maybe you can see why I get all atwitter about them.
BecauseI firmly believe that how I think about heroes matters.
The Typical (and Atypical) Hero
I love a good hero. I grew up on fantasy books in the 80’s and 90’s, full of larger than life heroes striding across the page with the Sword of Destiny slung across their back. There were great warriors, powerful mages, sneaky thieves who could pick even the lock of the Impenetrable Vault of Doom.
And stories about them are great.
I also love a good antihero, those heroes who are not your typical hero. Bitter, caustic Severus Snape. Conniving, manipulative Scarlett O’Hara. Sherlock Holmes. Hans Solo. They’re great at something, just not something traditionally heroic, and they’re among my favorites.
But I do think heroes and antiheroes make us think that heroism is limited to the Special Ones. To be heroic you must be rich, or strong, or exceptionally skilled.
But I do think heroes and antiheroes make us think that heroism is limited to the Special Ones.
I don’t know about you, but it’s a rare day that I feel Able-To-Save-the-World special. In fact I often don’t feel Able-To-Complete-My-To-Do-List special.
So for a lot of my life, without really thinking about it, the only people I put in the Can Be a Hero category were those I’d deemed More Special Than Me.
Enter the unhero.
Confession: I just made up the term “unhero”. A quick googling shows that it’s not a real word. But it should be. An unhero is a not-hero.
I’m very fond of the unhero—that character who just isn’t heroic.
They’re never going to escape unscathed from a tavern brawl, never mind win an actual sword fight. It’s Bilbo Baggins and Neville Longbottom. It’s characters who are not special. Not only would they not win the Most Likely to Be Good At…Anything Award, they’d also be the one the coach forgot when ordering the participation trophies.
They’re actually a lot like me.
I love when these characters get put in a situation that demands heroics. Because this is where I think the truest vision of heroism is seen.
Superman keeps saving the world. But let’s be honest, he doesn’t even have to live up to his potential to do it. One time I saw him spin the entire earth backwards to reverse time. Anyone who can defy all the laws of physics, time—and logic—like that can easily defeat one bald villain.
But when Bilbo Baggins, with his absolute lack of skills or power and only the help of a ring he literally stumbled across, actually steps out and speaks to that terrible dragon – that is heroic. When he leaves the safety of his dwarf friends because they’re overtaken with greed and he knows they’re wrong, that is heroic.
Bilbo never slays the dragon, but he’s the hero of the story. Because heroism is something different than physical strength and power. It’s not muscles or magical powers or astounding skills.
Because heroism is something different than physical strength and power. Heroism is stepping up to do what’s right, regardless of whether you’re going to succeed. And when you have an Unhero, well, you know that internal strength is all they’ve got.
When Neville kills the big bad snake at the end of Harry Potter, who wasn’t cheering? Sure, Harry got Voldemort. Of course he did, Harry was the Chosen One. But…Neville! With nothing but his own unremarkable him-ness he stood up to that big, nasty snake—and won!
And here’s where the idea of noblebright comes in.
Unlike “unhero”, “noblebright” is actually a real word that came out of the gaming community as an opposite to the term grimdark.
Grimdark is pretty well known:
- The world is savage.
- People are savage.
- The hero, who’s fairly savage, might possibly survive long enough to succeed, but they’ll have no chance at changing the savage world in a meaningful way.
- Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive.
The most popular grimdark story is Game of Thrones. There is no good vs. evil. There are only morally grey characters in a morally dark grey world. And no one has the power to change that.
There are a lot of grimdark stories out there and some of them I like quite a bit.
But I like noblebright better.
Being the opposite of grimdark doesn’t mean that noblebright stories are fluffy tales about rainbows and dancing chipmunks. It means the central worldview is opposite.
In noblebright there is good and there is evil, and even though the whole world and each individual character is a mix of the two, good and evil are still distinct things. Goodness isn’t just naiveté. Evil is still ruthless and cunning and vicious, but goodness has a deep-rooted, unyielding power of its own.
And that power means that a person has the chance to affect their world for the better.
This is where Noblebright and the Unhero come together.
Because the unhero’s tale is the place where it’s most obvious that it is goodness that is heroic.
The unhero is not fighting because they’re strong, or wise, or skilled. They’re fighting because they know it’s the right thing to do.
And it turns out that stepping forward and facing evil and injustice not because you’re sure you’re going to win, but because that is what Good does, is the essence of heroism.
Which is awesome.
It’s hard, and sometimes terrifying. But if I believe that what it really takes to be a hero is doing good, and believe that goodness is powerful enough to change the world, well, that reforms what I think a hero is.
And even better, those two beliefs allow me to see that I actually exist firmly in the Can Be a Hero category.
Have you read Noblebright Fantasy? Who is your favorite Unhero? Leave your responses in the comments!
JA Andrews lives next to the Rocky Mountains of Montana with her husband and three children. She is eternally grateful to CS Lewis for showing her the luminous world of Narnia. She wishes Jane Austen had lived 200 years later so they could be pen pals. She is furious at JK Rowling for introducing her to house elves, then not providing her a way to actually employ one. And she is constantly jealous of her future-self who, she is sure, has everything figured out.
You can grab a free copy of her book, A Keeper’s Tale, by signing up for her Bookish Things newsletter. Her book, A Threat of Shadows, is now on sale for $0.99 instead of $4.99 in honor of her being a semi-finalist in the Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off Awards.)
A Keeper’s Tale:
A hapless hero,
a dragon with a grudge,
and a maiden who doesn’t need rescuing.