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Mary Robinette Kowal – Call the AARP! Middle Earth’s Ageism Needs an Intervention

My sense of what it means to be elderly is wildly skewed since my grandmother, who will be 105 next week, is sharp as a tack and still lives on her own. Sadly, fantasy has a narrower view of the elderly, and they get short shrift when it comes to adventuring. Fantasy ageism posits that old people have either had their turn, or exist to support the youth who are really getting things done. Thus, if you have gray hair in a fantasy flick, you probably fall into one of three camps.

The Wizened Adviser

Gandalf – Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Gandalf is, by any measure, an old man. Though he is clearly capable of fighting off some seriously wicked creatures, his purpose is primarily to advise and make cryptic but meaningful remarks. Unless something is about to go horribly wrong (hello Mr. Balrog), he rarely intervenes with Frodo’s journey — even though he could probably make it significantly easier. It’s like the wizard’s version of “When I was a child we had to quest up hill in the snow, both ways!”

Dumbledore – The Harry Potter Series (2001-2012)
Dumbledore also functions primarily as an adviser, which again has nothing to do with his abilities since he duels with Voldemort multiple times, retrieves a horcrux and can generally kicks some wizard ass. Even so, the story is about Harry, which reinforces the idea that people past their middle years are no longer the ones who make things happen. Dumbledore provides necessary support to Harry, but all of his actions are centered around making sure that Harry’s quest is achieved.

The Comic Relief

Miracle Max – The Princess Bride (1987)
Billy Crystal’s zany apothecary in this movie fulfills the role of Wizened Advisor too, but serves the more important function of comic relief — of which, admittedly, the movie is in no short supply. But think about that scene where Max is bickering with his wife (Carol Kane). Would it have been as funny if Max and said wife weren’t so old?

Aunt Elinor – Inkheart (2009)
Helen Mirren’s bookworm is a fantastic woman of a certain age who primarily serves as comic relief due to her flamboyant, spinster ways. She likes things a certain way and is vehement in her likes and dislikes The fact that she is a collector is not as important in the movie as the hilarity that results from how set in her ways she is. Admittedly, I laughed too, but that’s because Helen Mirren gives an amazing performance. I have to ask… why are old people so funny?

The Doddering Fool

The King – The Princess Bride (1987)
The other side of the coin for the comic relief comes in the guise of the Doddering Fool, such as Willoughby Gray’s senile King in The Princess Bride. Though he’s a sweet old man, the fact that he’s deaf and faltering means that when Princess Buttercup tells hims he’s going to kill herself that night, he commits evil by accident: He does nothing because he doesn’t understand her.

King Théoden – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2003)
In The Two Towers, King Théoden allows enormous harm to fall upon his land because he is too senile to make decisions. Granted, he’s under a spell, but the effect of that spell is to accelerate his aging. The assumption here is that old people get stupid. Gotta tell you, my Grandma would totally laugh at Saruman’s thesis there.

Now, there is the rare flick that deals with aging in a respectful and interesting way. Up, for example, presents one of the best elderly protagonists I’ve ever seen. The story focuses on 78-year-old Carl’s journey and doesn’t pretend he’s a younger man than he is. And though he travels with a young boy, it’s Carl’s journey the viewer stays with (take some notes, Gandalf!). The movie touches on the loneliness of old age, but also shows the strengths and resilience that can come with all those years.

I would love to see more Fantasy movies where the hero is someone who has already lived a full life and gets to bring all of that experience to bear on the situation at hand. Perhaps I’ll just sit back and enjoy watching you tell me the ones I’ve forgotten.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is being published by Tor in 2010.

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