To ‘Look Foul and Feel Fair’: Tolkien’s Influence on a Romantic YA Trope

Christ and Pop Culture | 1/29/2019 | K. B. Hoyle
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Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.

On Twitter, I follow an amusing account called @broodingYAhero. As you might guess from the user name, @broodingYAhero tweets in the guise of a typical brooding hero in Young Adult literature. The results are often hilarious. Recently, @broodingYAhero tweeted:

Tweet - Trope - Young - Adult - Literature

This tweet is works because it is a trope in Young Adult literature to present the male hero of the story—also typically the romantic lead—as unpleasant at first impression. Yes, sometimes there is brooding, but the trope goes beyond that into the territory of true loathsomeness. The hero’s true self in YA stories is often concealed beneath a foul exterior, an impression meant to repulse the heroine for the sake of romantic tension and the accrual of conflict. The romantic male lead (hero) appears to be rather monstrous or foul or otherwise toxic, but turns out to be just the opposite once the female lead (who is usually the love interest) gets to know him, and voila, everlasting love is born! These stories are a dime a dozen, and the heroes are almost always young males who are royal and hiding their true (good) identities or intentions beneath a dark veneer—sacrificing their reputation for the sake of some higher purpose. The main point is that they actually, despite initial appearances, possess integrity, honor, and virtue.

As predictable as this character arc is in YA stories, I can’t help but trace it back to the modern master of fantasy literature himself: J. R. R. Tolkien. Although obviously not an author of Young Adult literature, Tolkien’s influence is undeniable on all books, themes, and tropes in the genre, no matter the intended audience. When it comes to the typical romantic male lead,...
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