I have been asked many a times, if I had a choice, what superpower I would like to have. It’s a fairly straightforward question. For me the answer was usually simple, flying, time travel, underwater breathing, the regular tropes, inspired by TV shows and Hollywood. After experiencing the same question over and over in corporate team building sessions and classroom introductions I figured, the question is not as shallow as it once was. For a long time, my answers didn’t change though; A playful answer to a purposeful question. But at some point, I started dissecting the question; It became clearer that my answer, my notion of what a superpower is, was narrow; A mere reflection of pop culture I grew up in.
The question tugs on our personal desires; To be able to do something that’s humanly impossible. Sometimes it’s driven by fantasy of being able to witness events of days past; Or being able to fly far and wide, being able to witness places where we have never been. Sometimes, it’s the need of vigilantism and faux justice. Sometimes it’s the draw of unknown and associated ability to survive the harshness of said unknown. Although these answers are fairly common in my narrow idea of what a superpower can be, I noticed, that all these answers are usually oriented around our ideas of self, driven from the depths of my ego.
Last week, I was asked this question by a computer program. I had typed in “Power of Narya” on a white text box. Narya, the ring of fire, is an artefact in J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe of Middle Earth. It’s a ring that doesn’t have traditional magical abilities, magic as we have come to popularise it; Narya gives it’s wielder the power to encourage, ability to lift downtrodden spirits, ability to show the way to souls that are lost, to liberate souls that have been defeated, to waive away the weariness of time among the wielder’s fellows. It’s literally a bottomless source of uplift, a spirit fire, if I may.
When I first read Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, I was mildly disappointed. It didn’t have the amount of magic, dragons and horrifying concentration of power I was accustomed to. Tolkien’s magical universe is just a backdrop, on which a very human story occurs. A story of vulnerable people breaking and rebuilding themselves, over and over, forging friendships and losing friends along the way. Even while falling for rehashed good vs. evil tropes, the genius of Tolkien’s work is in his depiction of magic. Not only did he elevate regular folks to heights unusual in literature, he also sprinkled magic all over; Magic that does not manifest in form of glowing orbs or invisible walls, but flames in weary traveller’s heart.
In the novels, the owner & wearer of Narya, Gandalf was a cheerful wizard, spending his days entertaining people, making brilliant fireworks, smoking weirdly interesting herbs and occasionally pushing people on their journeys bigger than themselves. He was storyteller, a motivator, a guardian, and occasionally a warrior. Even though he rarely took resort to his magical abilities, he was, in fact a demigod like creature in the universe; Sent to guide the people of middle earth for a peaceful and prosperous future. Oddly, Tolkien made him vulnerable to the elements, to physical dangers and weariness of time; The author made him almost a mortal. In Tolkien’s expanded literary work, the ring of fire, Narya is attributed for Gandalf’s incorruptible spirit and endless source of encouragement to his fellow hobbits, dwarves, elves and humans. In the trilogy, parts are dedicated to how Gandalf’s friends are lost without him in times of grave danger, and how everything felt bright when he was around. As far as the characters in Tolkien’s world were concerned, the wizard always was a shining beacon of hope against tyranny and fear.
I don’t agree that it was the ring that gave Gandalf the magical ability to instil hope in the darkest of times; I think it was Gandalf himself; In my mind, Tolkien needed a prop, so he made a magical ring of power and gave it to Gandalf. Just like Sirshendu Mukhopadhaya did in his novel “Gourer Kabach”, (Gour’s Pendant).
“Gourer Kabach”, is a 1986 Bengali novel, writes a story occurring in rural Eastern India. Gour, the protagonist, is a teenager, who happened to stumble upon a little pendant that used to belong to a powerful wizard. During the course of the story, he was prophesied to bring hope in defeating the “big bad landlord” with help of the pendant. The twist, in this piece of literary work is this; At the end of the novel, it’s laid bare that it was never the pendant that made the protagonist who he eventually became, but Gour himself. The pendant was just, a pendant.
These two characters, in vastly different fictional universe fulfilled very similar roles in their respective storylines; The only difference being that one author chose to keep the myth as is, the other chose to unwrap it.
In the popular anime, Naruto, the protagonist, a boy named Naruto, takes a path that also has similar analogues. The story emphasises on Naruto’s human character and leaves the hidden mythical strength that resides inside him to rare occasions; Only when the story absolutely required such superpowers. It elevates his character from a vessel of raw magical strength to the struggles of a cooky orphan. In the stories, Naruto, as a character is a bottomless pit of positivity and hope, never letting his comrades down in the time of need.
Through a multitude of media, I have come across many characters who takes a similar arc; Where they, being mortally human, operates on sheer positivity and hope; In the course of their stories, they ascend from mythical strength to the sublime artists of encouragement; That’s a magical superpower on it’s own. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this the only superpower that managed to bypass the trainman, and escape into reality? Maybe I am getting carried away but I can’t help but think what Gandalf did to the ‘Fellowship’ during harsh times, is not that different from what my mother did to me when I was scared of life, experiencing rejection or second hand death; Warm encouragements and mid-winter pomelo snack go a long long way, over oceans, across times. Not only my parents or yours, but these heroes are all around us; When we look from the corner of our eyes. It took me a few decades to realise that this is the only true superpower; It’s not physics bending Kryptonian flying abilities but the contagious flame of human spirit. From brave acts of resistance on a society burning in tyranny & injustice to simply cheering up the weary. From mothers to activists, from teachers to friends, from poets to therapists; These superheroes work subtley, from tiny acts of kindness to grand liberations.
I want that superpower.