I truly believe that, when scholars look back upon our culture, after magnanimously picking through the refuse we leave behind to glean something of value, they will view the Mario games with far greater regard than they will most of the ‘highbrow’ literature and Nobel Prize winners of our day.
Granted, this will not be for any complexity or depth of storytelling. Quite the reverse: the games deliberately have an extremely bare-bones story, little more than a premise to hang the all-important gameplay on. As such, the creators at Nintendo very cleverly opted for the most basic distillation of melodrama: the princess and the dragon. In the process, they – perhaps inadvertently – lent near inexhaustible wealth to their games.
The Eternal Romantic Trio
Chesterton explicated on this while discussing Charles Dickens' novel Nicholas Nickelby, as the most basic form of romance: a princess is menaced by a dragon and a hero fights the dragon to save her. “There is the thing to be loved, the thing to be fought, and the one who does both loving and fighting,” as Chesterton puts it. In this case, Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and Mario battles him and his armies to save her. It’s simple, straightforward, instantly engaging, and endlessly reusable.
Of course, with literally hundreds of games over its nearly four-decade existence, the series has played with the formula many, many times, including having Peach rescuing Mario or having Mario, Peach, and Bowser teaming up against a larger threat. But for our present purposes the important point is the eternal romantic trio of hero, princess, and dragon. The hero – whether it be Mario, Perseus, St. George, or Nicholas Nickelby – fights a dragon – whether it be Bowser, Cetus, the nameless dragon, or Ralph Nickelby – to save the princess – whether it be Peach, Andromeda, the nameless princess, or Madeline Bray.
To put it even more simply, the fundamental pattern of romance is that a hero confronts something horrible and endures danger and suffering in order to save something precious. Put it that way and it should remind us of something.
This basic pattern of melodrama is, at its core, an image of Salvation History: Christ comes to Earth and battles the Devil, enduring the Cross and grave, in order to save the souls of the faithful from sin and death. The imprisoned princess is an image of a soul in sin, the dragon an image of the Devil. The eternally repeated pattern is a whispered repetition of the Creed: “For us men and for our salvation, He came down from Heaven, was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was Crucified, Dead, and was Buried, and on the third day He rose again from the dead."
Modernist vs. True Romance
Romance thus comes with a natural kind of sanctity all its own, however humble the guise (which again, ought to remind us of something). Consequently, it is more significant than we might think about how this enduring pattern has been attacked in recent years. The most frequent reaction we meet with from our modernist contemporaries when the above formula is brought up, is to chafe at the role of the princess.
This is sometimes couched in terms of respect: that the princess is a ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ role. Actually, looked at objectively, it’s the reverse of demeaning. The princess is the most important figure on the board, the motivating force to bother the hero and the dragon, the very thing for whom the hero undergoes such struggles. It may or may not be a well-written or interesting role, depending on the skills of the author, but it is not demeaning.
The issue, in fact, is not that the princess is a demeaning role but simply that it is not an active role. The modernists don’t like the image of the princess being rescued. They prefer a version where she takes up a sword, slays the dragon, and rescues herself. They want to see Andromeda unchaining herself from the rock and stabbing Cetus without any help from Perseus, or Peach laying the smackdown on Bowser the moment he shows his face. I remember once seeing a photoshop image of Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty wielding a sword and confronting the dragon Maleficent in place of Prince Phillip. In short, the modernist version of romance has the trio become a duo, and the hero more or less vanishes altogether to make way for the princess to take his place.
In short, the most basic form of a modernist romance is ‘a heroine faces oppression and vindicates herself by overcoming it’. The analogy naturally extends itself from there, for these tend to be the same people who believe in ‘Progress’, who see human enlightenment, science, and so on as the keys to solving the ills of the world and bringing about utopia. They are also the ones who regard God as an obstacle rather than as a goal and Christ as, at best, a vaguely supportive and positive figure wishing nothing but to avoid trouble for all concerned.
If the hero rescuing the princess from the dragon is an image of Salvation history, then the princess kicking butt and slaying the dragon herself is an image of modernism: humanity saving itself by its own efforts and its own ingenuity, needing Christ like a fish needs a bicycle.
At this point, I should clarify here that I’m speaking specifically of the attacks on this particular basic story structure and the respective philosophies at work. Stories specifically of heroines triumphing by their own skills or strength – e.g. Judith or Samus Aran – are by no means in themselves unwholesome (but that’s a separate topic).
The Eternal Struggle vs. A Contemporary Squabble
Like so much of modernism, there is a startling degree of naivete at work here. Do they suppose that a dragon is easy to slay? The presumption seems to be that she, the princess, would of course be able to handle it herself if only given the chance, or that, if not, then this is a sign of weakness. Except that the whole point of the dragon is that it’s something that only a very exceptional warrior could hope to confront. Bowser is a dangerous foe and Mario only ever defeats him after a hard-fought battle. The demand for the princess to slay the dragon herself is the demand of someone who does not take the situation seriously nor appreciate the dangers and to whom the chief question is how it looks.
In fact, in the modernist romance, the whole premise of the story is overturned for the sake of altering the Princesse’s role. The issue is not that she is small and the dragon huge – the problem the hero would face – but rather that she is being prevented by external forces from solving her own problems and thereby revealing her own personal excellence. The hero, in such a story, is an obstacle to her as much as the dragon because he prevents her from realizing her true potential, just as God, in the modernist mind, is an obstacle to man because He imposes limits on human progress.
But you may have noticed another thread running through this idea. Let us imagine that the princess, alone on the field, does indeed take up a sword and slay the dragon herself with no help from the hero. Princess Peach does indeed fight and defeat Bowser all by herself while Mario isn’t even a factor. What then?
In the true romance, there is a consummation: typically the hero weds the princess, or otherwise becomes part of her life (Mario and Peach have never made an official match of it yet, but they certainly have a relationship). She is not only saved, but her life (and the hero’s) is enriched and completed. Just as the salvation of man is not mere a restoration to the status quo, but an elevation and ennobling far beyond our original state.
In the new version, the princess is merely restored, or perhaps comes to some ‘deeper personal understanding’. But in any case, her achievement is entirely self-centered: she rescues herself for her own sake and her reward is personal vindication. It is all about her. Nothing is created, nothing is consummated. It is imagined that she is simply left alone, content in her own self having removed the obstacles that threatened to block the perfect exercise of her perfect will.
What is missing is the essential element of love. In a true romance, the hero is a hero precisely because he is not acting for his own vindication. Mario doesn’t fight Bowser to establish his personal sense of worth, but to rescue the princess. Likewise Peach does not inspire Mario to action for the sake of preening herself, but because that is simply what she naturally does by being what she is.
In short, in modernist romance, there’s only one character on the field who is seeking personal satisfaction: the princess doesn’t take the role of the hero: she takes the role of the dragon. “I defeat my enemies, prove my greatness, and get everything I want” is exactly the kind of story that would appeal to Bowser.
I will leave you to apply the analogy.
Photo Credit- youtube.com