“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.”
There you are: three beginnings (fairly innocuous beginnings, to be fair, that don’t really begin to hint at the wonders contained within) to three classic origin stories… from fantasy and/or children’s lit, depending on how you want to categorize them.
We really love beginnings. The freshness. The newness. The possibilities. (Once we’re into them, that is. Getting into beginnings is often more fraught with angst… because, ironically, most of us don’t like the uncertainties change frequently brings with it.)
And we really love origin stories. There’s something to an origin story that never again resurfaces in any and all sequels or continuations… a magic (if you’ll pardon the pun) that can only occur once:
-What is a hobbit and who is he and why does he live in a hole in the ground and what’s he like?
-Say what? Yer a wizard, Harry? And there’s a special school for people like you?
-Once a King and Queen in Narnia, always a King and Queen?
Speaking of Narnia… the interesting thing about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is that the 2005 film, frankly, gives us a better beginning than the book does. Sorry, Jack! I know I speak heresy. But the film’s beginning is far grittier and more realistic: four English children evacuated from London during the Second World War to a rural manor house presided over by a formidably stern housekeeper would be… well, exactly what the film depicts: bewildered, frightened and desolate, wondering if their home --- and by extension, their mother --- will even be there when and if they return. Not treating the whole thing as a lark, which is how the book opens. And the film’s incredible, magical moment of Georgie Henley’s Lucy discovering the solitary gas lamp burning tranquilly in the middle of a forest --- where no lamp post should be --- and her first meeting with Mr. Tumnus is an unforgettable series of images. The sweet innocence is unforgettable. And while there are many magical moments later on, in the following stories, they never quite match the wonder of the origin story.
Because the origin story --- regardless of what genre you’re discussing, whether it’s mystery or horror or western or science fiction or fantasy or children’s lit or whatever --- deals with fundamental questions that have been very much on the collective human consciousness since the Beginning: What’s the story?
How did this come to be? And why? (We love asking the why questions, just not so much answering them). Humans have an insatiable need to understand the whys and wherefores, especially how something began. It’s why every culture has its own creation story, and explanations for things that were beyond human ken: weather and climate and other natural phenomena, as well as the behaviours of humanity and other living organisms.
And the origin story does that.
How do we wind up with Frodo at Sammath Naur, trying to summon up the will to hurl the Ring into the fire? Well, it all began long before. Do you want to start with another hobbit named Bilbo, or go further back to the forging of the Rings of Power? Your choice…
How do we wind up at the penultimate battle between Voldemort and Harry at the climax of book seven? Well, it all began under the stairs at Number 4, Privet Drive with a loathsome/pathetic family and their odd, unwanted relation…
Yep, we just love to hear about how these things get started. It scratches some sort of deep-seated itch most of us have located somewhere far down in our consciousness.
The origin story becomes even more important because many authors, past and present, have a tendency to begin things in media res, or in the middle of things. It makes events so much more dramatic when we start, not right at the very beginning, but somewhere along the story’s progression, so that going back and discovering the roots becomes that much more delicious when we’re finally given the Big Reveal. Ahhh. Scratch that itch! So that’s why the protagonist is such a [insert correct descriptor here].
So treasure the origin story and its strange magic, its ability to satisfy that deep desire to know why, and know that you’re in good company: just about the entire remainder of the race (bar the vacuous drones) that has ever looked around and wondered…