The mythical roots of the “Chosen One” trope

If you had read a book, watched a movie, or played a video game, you’ve come across The Chosen One. He is the heroic protagonist that the story revolves around. While there are slight variations to this trope, he oftentimes falls into patterns related to his lineage and destiny. The Chosen one is an outsider, born to one or more magical parents. Being part god, this character inherits special abilities that separate him from the rest of humanity. He is also given a prophesized task to complete, whether it is to be crowned king or to bring peace to worldwide conflict. In most stories involving The Chosen One, he beats the bad guys and sets the world right once and for all (until the inevitable sequel).

This is a popularly used character, spanning thousands of years of folklore. While reading this, you are probably thinking about Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, two outsiders gifted with powers who were destined to beat the bad guys and right the wrongs of the world. But these stories go much farther than the last 100 years. I wanted to enlighten the evolution and stagnation of this character trope throughout history, starting all the way back to Ancient Greece.

Achilles, one of the first superheroes

The Iliad is one of those ancient stories that were passed down orally, meaning it took quite some time before it was written down. And those who are familiar with The Iliad know just how long and exhausting that story can be. However, it produced one of literature’s first Chosen Ones: Achilles. You most likely know him from the movie Troy, and from the tendon in your foot associated with him. But Achilles’ character inspired a whole stream of tales that passed down to the Romans, and eventually to all of Europe. Alexander the Great was said to carry The Illiad with him and geek out over Achilles. His Chosen One status becomes immediately clear when you read the original stories.

Achilles was born to a human father and a nymph mother, Thetis. Zeus was close to getting together with Thetis, but Prometheus warned him in a prophecy that Achilles would be greater than his father… In other words… If you want to continue ruling Olympus, don’t be typically creepy. His mother dipped him in the River Styx, a river that led to the underworld of the dead. She did this to grant him supernatural invulnerability and protection… but famously forget to dip his heel. So right off the bat, we are introduced to a superhuman with a destiny.

To summarize the story of the Iliad, King Agamemnon disgraced Achilles by stealing his girlfriend from him in the middle of the Trojan War. At the suggestion of his mother, Achilles removes himself from all battles and conflicts. It becomes clear to everyone in the Greek army that the war cannot be won without the super powerful Achilles. It isn’t until his best buddy Patroclus gets killed in battle that Achilles steps in and wipes out the Trojans… and fights a sea god because the waters were filling up with so many dead bodies. Though he eventually died taking an arrow to the heel, he proved to be the greatest warrior of Greek mythology, and a pretty clear Chosen One.

Arthur and Galahad, two medieval Chosen Ones

Fast forward to medieval times. The Roman empire fell, leaving a vacuum for the Germanic tribes to seize power in places like England and France. When the Celtic people of England, the Britons, were being invaded by Anglo-Saxons, a tale arose of King Arthur. This was a noble man who defended the land and kept stability throughout the territory. The historical accuracy of this is pretty foggy, but what is important to me is the trove of folklore surrounding this Chosen One character. So for the sake of simplicity, I will be referencing L’Morte de Arthur, a Renaissance-era book by Thomas Malory.

Arthur, the secret son to King Uther Pendragon, is destined to rule Britain. Living with a foster family and oblivious to his heritage, Arthur happens upon a sword in the stone (yes, that one). He removes it, and on the blade reads a message saying that whoever pulls the sword out of the stone is proclaimed ruler of Britain. Surprise! He goes on to do just that.

In his Round Table, Galahad is another Chosen One. He is considered the most pious, most holy one in the court. He even gets his own prophesized sword in the stone. Oh, and he is prophesized to be the best knight in the world. Oh, and he is also prophesized to sit in a holy chair called Siege Perilous… and being able to sit in that chair means that you are destined to claim the Holy Grail. And he gets a magic shield that only he can use. Honestly, Galahad goes a little too far with his Chosen One status.

Rey, the not-Chosen One

So now, let’s end this analysis with our modern depictions of Chosen Ones. Neo is The One in The Matrix. John Connor is the one to bring an end to the future apocalypse in The Terminator series. Anakin Skywalker is prophesized to bring balance to the Force in the first six Star Wars films. Speaking of Star Wars, I’d like to talk about Rey and her relationship to the Chosen One.

In The Force Awakens, Rey is born an outsider with no knowledge of her parents. She periodically experiences visions, has weirdly exceptional ship-flying skills, develops an Arthurian fixation with Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber, and possesses a huge potential as a Force-user. J.J. Abrams placed all the pieces in line with the assumed revelation that Rey was actually a daughter of Luke, or Obi-Wan, or some other character. She was going to be another addition to the Chosen One collection.

But then the series was turned to Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi was released in 2017. Rey realizes that she has nothing special about her. Her parents are irrelevant. There is no prophecy. She’s just a nobody who got lucky with Force sensitivity. This combined with that last shot of the slave kid Force moving the broom sends a message that you don’t have to be a Chosen One to save the world. You don’t need to be a superhuman with important lineage. Everyday people are capable of being heroes. And I think that’s a good message for today’s world. Not that I’m saying that the Chosen One arc is bad, or needs to be abolished.

All I’m saying is that while the mythological roots of our stories are important, I believe it is crucial for our myths to evolve in response to today’s urgent issues.

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