Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Antihero

During the last century and a half the mimetic novel has increasingly concentrated on protagonists who have nothing in particular of the heroic about them – though they may be admirable in other more complex ways. In the mimetic novel an antihero is a character who behaves badly (not necessarily unheroically), who (if he tells his own story) may be an unreliable narrator, who embodies and profits from the advent of social change, and who cannot easily be identified with by the reader.

In fantasy, however, an unsympathetic protagonist is likely to be described in terms which contrast him with a Hero. Because the Taproot Texts from which much fantasy derives deal either directly or at second hand with the heroic tradition, antiheroes in fantasy are very frequently defined as refusers of heroic commitments, and tend to appear in Revisionist-Fantasy or Parody contexts. (Accursed Wanderers and Obsessed Seekers may have some characteristics of the antihero, as do some of the more ruthless protagonists of Heroic Fantasy and Military Fantasy, but in most such cases this is intrinsic to the legendary material on which they draw.)

In fantasy, moreover, protagonists who seem initially to be antiheroes very frequently turn out to Learn Better – Eustace Stubbs in C S Lewis's The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (1952) is typical of many, in the way his original obnoxiousness is modulated by instruction and adversity into heroism. Conversions of this sort are central to fantasy: many important stories turn on the protagonist's Recognition of his or her true self, which may well have been cloaked in antihero clothing. Tales in which that vital turn towards the happy ending is ultimately frustrated are told through the viewpoint of an unrepentant antihero; e.g., Gormenghast (1950), the central volume of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan sequence, centres on the career of Steerpike, and his total failure to undergo any form of Transformation into a less worldly person signals the sequence's overall refusal of a happy ending. Texts closer to Supernatural Fiction or Horror may also focus on an antihero; the protagonist of Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think (1948) starts as a likable scholar and becomes an amoral killer, the Messiah of a race of Shapeshifters.

The antihero finds a natural place in those sorts of fantasy, usually short stories, in which he or she can serve as an awful warning. Slick Fantasy often has protagonists unlikable to the point of being antiheroes so that the eventual comeuppance is dramatically satisfying. [RK]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.