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Ender's Game and the Hero's Quest

[This essay was delivered to "Life, the Universe, and Everything" in 1988 as "Literary Heroism in the Works of Orson Scott Card" and subsequently published in The Leading Edge: Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy Vol. 16 (Winter 1988): 59-69. Much expanded and revised, it became a chapter of In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1990. The essay has been revised slightly for StarShine and Shadows.]

In differentiating between "science fiction" and "sci-fi," Norman Spinrad has argued that the essence of "sci-fi," and of all commercial fiction, lies in strict adherence to a predetermined "Plot Skeleton" that precludes the level of character development

which is ultimately what almost all fiction that attempts to touch the heart and higher philosophical brain centers of the reader must be about. Which is perilously close to saying that "sci-fi" and "literature" are by definition antithetical. (181)

According to Spinrad's thesis, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game remains at the level of "sci-fi" largely because Card has pursued Plot Skeleton to the detriment of character.

Elaine Radford's idiosyncratic "Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman" similarly contends that characters in Ender's Game "are constructed of the highest grade cardboard, but since Norman Spinrad has already detailed Card's amazing lack of originality in plot and character construction, I won't indulge in a literary hatchet job here" (11). In spite of her final denial (since she proceeds with a "literary hatchet job" nonetheless), she asserts that Card's fictions desperately lack adequate character development and thus fail as literature.

The surprising thing is not that such assessments reached the public forum, but rather that the attacks focused, wholly or partially, on what many other readers considered one of the greatest strengths of Card's fiction: characterization. Card himself has assessed the importance of characterization in articles such as "The Finer Points of Characterization," defining what constitutes strong characters and suggesting that his aesthetic and critical empathy lies less with modern, experimental fiction than with more traditional forms - specifically, the "romance" tradition. More to the point, perhaps, Card argues in "Fantasy and the Believing Reader" that fantasy (including science fiction as he writes it) does not lend itself to critical reading. Instead, it demands "epick" and "mythick" readings - that is, it defines readers as a members of a community or as members of humanity at large. Card's use of the term "epick" is important, particularly in light of his approach to character. Science fiction often incorporates remnants of earlier traditions, transformed superficially to accommodate narratives hinging on technological developments and future worlds. In a study of epic heroism, John M. Steadman discusses the attempts of Renaissance poets to imbue their heroes "not only with the martial arms of classical and romantic worthies but also with the moral and theological virtues of the Christian knight" (3). To a degree, Steadman's concerns parallel Card's, who speaks as an LDS science-fiction writer to a community that includes, at the opposite extreme, the anti-heroic impulses of the cyberpunks.

Spinrad and Radford argue that Card's characterization is flawed; yet my experience in reading Card's novels suggests the opposite. Of the conventional elements of fiction, characterization seems in fact the most fully developed. In spite of Card's long-standing love affair with maps and map-making, for example, setting often seems merely plausible rather than a reflection of the intricate world-creation one finds in J. R. R. Tolkien or Frank Herbert. Novels such as Capitol or A Planet Called Treason rely in part upon setting, but this concern lessens in subsequent novels. Ender's Game shows little overt concern for the physics of the Battle School; in Speaker for the Dead, the town, the forest, and indeed the world seem as much metaphorical as actual. Yet this is not a failing in the narratives. In most instances, a few well-placed brush strokes of detail sufficiently create the setting Card's narratives require.

Much the same might be said of plot. In Ender's Game, for example, the essential conflict is implicit in the Stilson episode of the opening pages; the remainder of the story clarifies the relationships between Ender and his world. Speaker for the Dead, Wyrms, and the Alvin Miller tales incorporate carefully woven plot lines, but again, the final sense is less of plot manipulating character than of characters making inevitable, often irrevocable, decisions on the basis of who and what they are.

This does not argue a flaw in either conception or execution in Card's fiction. Instead, it asserts that he is aware of an area in which he excels, perhaps because of his extensive background in theatre, certainly because of his concern for the primacy of character. This in turn leads to an approach in Card's novels that not only disputes the assertions of critics such as Spinrad and Radford, but also argues that they have in fact inverted an important direction in Card's fiction. In a genre that emphasizes an ever-changing, futuristic orientation, the best-novel Hugo and Nebula awards for 1986 and 1987 went to books that were, in one essential element at least, conservative and traditional. In Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, Card presents a traditional hero. He looks back over the centuries to restate, in a science-fictional format, the "Hero Monomyth," a paradigm for heroism that recurs in the literature of virtually every human culture. The pattern incorporates eight specific stages:

  1. Miraculous conception and birth, including the hiding of the new-born child - a motif familiar through the Incarnation of Christ but also having parallels in classical, Norse, and Egyptian mythology, as well as in the tales of Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs;
  2. Initiation of the hero-child, often resulting in (or from) his displaying unusual knowledge, as when the child-Christ instructed the teachers in the Temple;
  3. Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation, often accompanied by the hero's refusal to submit to temptation;
  4. Trial and Quest, the "agony and rewards of adult life," with the quest either for an object - such as Gilgamesh's search for the secret to immortality, Jason's for the Golden Fleece, or Percival's for the Holy Grail - or to complete an action, as in the stories of Hercules, Faust, and Christ;
  5. Death, often as miraculous or unusual as his birth. As David A. Leeming argues, "In death, the hero acts, psychologically, for all of us: he becomes a scapegoat for our fear and our guilt";
  6. Descent into the underworld, during which the hero confronts the reality of death and attempts to overturn it;
  7. Resurrection and rebirth, a logical culmination of confronting death as well as the completion of the quest. The hero "overcomes death physically and is united with the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth";
  8. Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement, through which the hero is "taken out of the cycle and placed in a permanent state in relation to the cosmos and to the creator-father god." (Leeming 6-8)

Within the Christian tradition, Christ fulfills all eight stages of the paradigm, a logical discovery in light of his role as mediator between humanity and God. In actual practice, however, fictional heroic figures may not necessarily complete the full paradigm; in order to share the mythic, archetypal strengths of the hero, the character need experience only some of the stages. According to Donald M. Burleson, "It is generally significant to find even half of these things in any one account" (174). As defined by scholars of mythology and literary symbolism, the paradigm enables us to penetrate to the depths of the human soul. Leeming introduces his anthology of epic and heroic tales by arguing that "Myth is as real as human concerns are real. It is when we lose our ability to feel the mythic that we lose contact with that which is most basically and universally human. In a real sense a society loses its soul when it can no longer experience myth" (5).

In his novels, Card restores the "soul" of humanity by recasting traditional elements of archetypal heroism into new forms while retaining the essential outlines of the paradigm. Beginning with Capitol and its intriguing figure of Jason Worthing and continuing through the Alvin Miller tales (in "Hatrack River," for example, with the miraculous birth of the hero, and in Red Prophet with Alvin's withdrawal into the wilderness and overt preparation for future action), Card consistently draws central characters who meet at least half of the eight characteristics required. Several - including Lanik Mueller in A Planet Called Treason and Orem Scanthips in Hart's Hope - meet six or seven. The most complete example of heroic development, however, occurs in Ender's Game. Ender Wiggin fulfills all eight stages of the Monomyth; then, as if to emphasize Ender as an archetypal hero, Card repeats the cycle almost in its entirety in Speaker for the Dead. Adding a further level of complexity, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead move the hero partially through a third cycle which will presumably culminate with the as-yet-unwritten [as of 1988] Ender's Children.

In Ender's Game, we meet Andrew Wiggin and immediately understand the unusual nature of his birth - he is a "Third," a third child in a society that allows only two. Even more unusual, his birth was mandated by the government, setting in motion ripples of guilt from his lapsed-Catholic father and lapsed-Mormon mother. They see in Ender not only a breaking of their vows not to have more than two children but also a physical manifestation of their own deeply hidden spiritual need to multiply and replenish the earth. He becomes a constant accusation of their failure of faith (Ender's Game, 23). From the beginning, he is different, set apart.

The novel's action begins with Ender's initiation. Deprived of his monitor, a device which allows protective surveillance, he is thrust into a situation in which he must demonstrate his ability to function without external support. Again and again, this motif repeats as Ender incrementally discovers the extent of his abilities and is consequently (and constantly) introduced to higher levels of awareness. This sense of repetition is important in the novel, since Card treats the Hero Monomyth with greater complexity and sophistication than by merely following a straight-line, one-dimensional pattern. Instead, he allows the elements to interweave, to double back, to create layers of cycles within cycles, all leading to the ultimate resolution in the final chapter. This process is particularly evident in the intermediate stages of the Monomyth: withdrawal leading to trial and quest. Again, what we see is not single-minded adherence to a predetermined pattern imposed upon the story but rather a series of increasingly wider circles composed of multiple manifestations of Trial and Quest. Every cycle, more serious and wider-reaching than the last, begins with Ender's search for acceptance as an individual and as part of a clearly defined community - something that, as a Third, he was denied.

In effect, Ender is isolated from the beginning, a situation defined overtly in the opening dialogue, as disembodied voices dictate that the child must be "surrounded" by enemies at all times (1). He is removed from a mother and father who authentically love him, but distantly; from an older brother who threatens to destroy him physically or (worse) psychologically and emotionally; and from a sister whose love runs to the opposite extreme. She threatens to subvert his strength through gentleness. Ender's emotional ties must be severed, because to save humanity - and himself - Ender must first act as an individual. He must make an adult-level decision without the traditional ties and background that would allow him to do so. As a result of his first interview with Graff, Ender assumes the most generalized quest-level in the novel: saving humanity from the Bugger invasion.

To do so requires that he relinquish what fragmentary personal identity he has attained. He leaves his parents' house, and leaves behind everything demonstrably his, including his name; for the rest of the novel, he is "Ender" instead of "Andrew," the saint's name his parents selected. He has effectively been removed from the normal circuits of human society. But he does not yet understand what that means, just as he does not yet comprehend the extent of his own powers. Thus Card initiates a series of increasingly expansive quest-cycles, each repeating in miniature the essential movement of the Monomyth. The Launchies provide a partial substitute for Ender's severed relationships. Through his handling of crises - Bernard's antagonism in particular - Ender consistently defines new communities, structured to include himself. The chapter detailing Ender's first fully successful interaction with the Launchies ends with an image of community: Ender and Shen "laughed together, and two other Launchies joined them. Ender's isolation was over. The war was just beginning" (57). The last statement is true, just as the one preceding it is, in light of the rest of the narrative, false; Ender's true isolation has just begun. By forging relationships with the Launchies, he has merely impelled himself to the next stages of isolation, into an almost tribal structure, with Ender separated from the other Launchies as an authority figure. He experiences empathy for those like him and understands more fully the cruel necessities behind certain adult behavior. His first actions as commander of Dragon Army recapitulate his own experiences as Launchie, however, but in reverse. He subjects Bean to the same stress he endured, realizing that precisely that sort of opposition will bring Bean to his full potential and thus enlarge Ender's potentials as a leader.

As Card traces Ender's experiences, he also allows Ender opportunities for withdrawal, meditation, and preparation, primarily through the device of the Giant's Game. The game functions as a metaphor for Ender's psychological development, for those times when he retreats into himself in order to understand internally what is happening externally. His entering the game often signals a transition between stages, as he learns to rely on his internal responses for strength and understanding.

As the tension intensifies, Ender struggles toward yet a larger community identity for himself and for his soldiers as Dragons. But as before, the adults refuse to let him remain on the plane of static acceptance within that community; they change the rules, so that each victory merely establishes new parameters for a subsequent challenge.

Ultimately, Ender is forced into denial. With the decimation of Dragon Army, beginning with Bean's transfer to the command of Rabbit, Ender refuses to fight: "I don't care about their game anymore," he says, consciously distancing himself from "them" and from the "game" that has thus far given the novel its title (242). He threatens to move too far from the community, to divorce himself too completely from responsibility for others.

The immediate consequence of this threat is that Ender is returned briefly to Earth. Graff's purpose in taking Ender to Earth is explicit: in order to want to save humanity, Ender must feel part of humanity, a feeling that has largely submerged during his training. Graff must ensure that Ender reconnects to the world from which the adults have systematically isolated him. Graff returns Ender to his earliest ties in his meeting with Valentine and in his immersion in the bowl of sky, the lake, the landing.

All of this - roughly three-quarters of the text of Ender's Game - prepares for the Final Quest on behalf of humanity. Following his hiatus on Earth, Ender becomes anew a member of the human community but shares almost no personal ties with others. On Eros, those surrounding him become disembodied voices speaking to him, listening to him, urging him onward. The one exception is the Mentor-figure of Mazer Rackham, who alone has preceded Ender on the quest and who alone can give him knowledge and understanding. Mazer attained partial victory in Ender's quest but fell short of completely understanding himself, the enemy, and the requirements of battle. Mazer can only point Ender along the way; ultimately, Ender must move beyond everyone else and act on his own.

Eros provides the setting for the final permutation in the series of cycles that constitutes Ender's development as a heroic figure. With the destruction of the Bugger home world, Ender both refuses to participate further in the adult-imposed "games" and culminates his quest: the defeat of the Buggers and the salvation of humanity. In a deeper sense, Ender validates and culminates his bonding with Earth and with humanity: "He saw Graff and remembered the woods outside Greensboro, and wanted to go home. Take me home, he said silently to Graff. In my dream you said you loved me. Take me home" (319).

With Ender's final "game," the quest stage of his development - and the level of plot resolution demanded of generic, formulaic "sci-fi" - reaches completion. Earth has been saved; the alien invaders, destroyed. If Ender were simply a Heinleinian juvenile hero, the novel could close at this point.

But Card's purposes run deeper than the superficiality of "sci-fi." At the moment of triumph, Ender collapses. In archetypal terms, his collapse constitutes the Death of the Hero. He sleeps in darkness for five days, enduring a complex of dreams that recapitulates his life and makes sense of the specter of death that has haunted him. Although the episode is short - barely over one page - the darkness suggests a state distinguishable from life. Here Ender passes what "might have been a single day; it might have been a week, from his dreams it could have been months. He seemed to pass through lifetimes in his dreams" (331).

During this state Ender figuratively descends into the Underworld to discover the key to life. On a subconscious level, he works through his guilt as images of love and hate, victory and defeat, and life and death blend to sharpen his awareness. This episode effects his transformation from "sci-fi" hero to archetypal Hero:

And always the dream ended with a mirror or a pool of water or the metal surface of a ship, something that would reflect his face back to him. At first it was always Peter's face, with blood and a snake's tail coming from the mouth. After a while, though, it began to be his own face, old and sad, with eyes that grieved for a billion, billion murders - but they were his own eyes, and he was content to wear them. (331)

At least one reviewer has disparaged the treatment of the League War, in which Card focuses on this dream-state and allows the war itself to be reported later by messenger (a motif echoing Greek tragedy rather than the stereotypically action-adventure narrative of SF). However, the emphasis parallels Card's overall approach to characterization. Ender's internal struggle is more critical than the external, political maneuverings of unstable and ultimately transient Terran states. His return to life and light signals his rebirth; in the terminology of the Monomyth, Ender is resurrected from his death-like dream-state into full awareness of his new relationship with, and responsibilities for, both humanity and the Buggers.

The final chapter, appropriately titled "Speaker for the Dead," opens without the isolated adult-human dialogue that characterizes the preceding fourteen; for the first time, Ender's awareness of external events attains parity with that of Graff, Anderson, and the others who have been manipulating his life. Although there are still elements of manipulation, Ender now fully understands them. He accepts Valentine's challenge and literally ascends into space; he parallels that act with a figurative ascension to his position as governor of a new human community. At twelve years of age, he stands at the apex of a community such as he has struggled throughout to achieve acceptance in. But - as with the kingship of another quest-hero, Beowulf - little is said about his governorship, since it is the least important element of his transformation. To the extent that he functions as governor, he still lies within the circle of humanity, and so Ender's Game must conclude with his excision from that circle and apotheosis into the "Speaker for the Dead." The new title itself suggests something beyond the human - a "Voice from the Dust," with theological, LDS overtones implicit in title as well as in the image of a lost book revealing the truths of a lost people. In this final chapter, the discovery of the Hive-Queen allows Ender to make restitution for the error imposed on him by a fearful and ignorant adult world. He becomes the Savior-figure, not simply politically and metaphorically for his own species, but literally for the aliens he destroyed.

In terms of Ender's development through a connected sequence of novels, it is significant that by the beginning of Speaker for the Dead the name "Ender" has become associated with military "victory," while Ender's efforts in attaining the second, greater "victory" (i.e., writing his two books of "scripture," The Hive-Queen and The Hegemon) establish him as "Something of a savior, or prophet, or at least a martyr" (88). With the final line of Ender's Game, Ender is effectively "taken out of the cycle" of humanity, a process which culminates his transition into an archetypal hero. However, the process continues in Speaker for the Dead, becoming analogous to the withdrawal stage of an even larger mythic pattern and ending, perhaps, with Ender's decision to remain on Lusitania, subjecting himself for the first time to the inevitability of a normal life span and literal death.

The centrality of the Hero Monomyth in Ender's Game is evident. Equally important is the fact the same paradigm recurs in almost every Card novel. Jason Worthing in Capitol, Hot Sleep, and preeminently in The Worthing Chronicles mirrors the archetype, from the oddities of his birth as the son of a Swipe to his centuries-long sleep/death and resurrection as a god-figure restoring his children to the truth of their heritage. In A Planet Called Treason, Lanik Mueller may not have had a miraculous birth, but he clearly fulfills the remaining stages; the final chapters are among Card's clearest portrayals of human deification. Songmaster's Ansset moves from foundling and apprentice songbird to Galactic Emperor, to a figurative death as he returns to the Songhouse, and finally to apotheosis through literal death in the High Room of the Songhouse. In Hart's Hope, Orem Scanthips similarly moves from miraculous birth through trial and quest, although Card truncates the pattern, closing the novel just prior to the possible death of the hero. Even here, however, the paradigm re-emerges in the final paragraph:

Did you think this was the tale of Orem Scanthips? His tale was finished when Youth died. In Orem's short life, he has already earned his name: Hart's Hope. (261)

Wyrms similarly includes elements of archetypal heroism as it explores the prophesy that the seventh seventh seventh Heptarch will be the Kristos, the savior of the world. Written in the semi-allegorical mode Card had mastered in Hart's Hope, Wyrms recounts the transition of the heroine, through the mediation of Will and Ruin, from Patience to King. The novel concludes with an image of eternity as Agranthemen Heptek and others make annual pilgrimages to the Mother Wyrm, where they "listened to her wisdom and received her love and joy. So also did their children, and their children's children, through all the ages of the world" (263). And even in their unfinished state, the Tales of Alvin Maker clearly represent the development of the archetype, with the first two volumes defining the miraculous birth and childhood, initiation, and withdrawal and preparation of the hero for his ultimate confrontation with the Unmaker and fulfillment of his vision of the Crystal City.

Throughout his works, Card consistently focuses on character in conflict: his characters suffer great pain, they are placed in true jeopardy, and they are larger than life ("Finer Points" II, 37-38). But even more importantly, they transcend the narrow limits of romantic heroism to approach the level of mythic archetypal heroism that allows them to transcend the equally narrow limits of their individual narratives and speak not only for themselves but. ultimately, for all humanity.


Burleson. Donald M. H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study. Westport CT: Greenwood Press. 1983.
Card, Orson Scott. "Fantasy and the Believing Reader." Science Fiction Review (August 1982): 45-50. Rpt. in Storyteller: The Official Orson Scott Card Bibliography and Guide. Compiled by Michael R. Collings. Woodstock GA: Overlook Connection Press,2001. 426-439.
Card, Orson Scott. "The Finer Points of Characterization, Part I: Just How Important Are These People?" Writer's Digest (October 1986), 26-28; "Part II: Creating Characters that Readers Care About" (November 1986). 37-38. "Part III: Making Your Characters Believable" (December 1986). 32-36.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York: Tor, 1985.
Card, Orson Scott. Hart's Hope. New York: Berkley, 1983.
Card, Orson Scott. Wyrms. New York: Arbor House. 1987.
Leeming, David Adams. Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero. New York: Harper & Row. 1981.
Radford. Elaine. "Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman." Fantasy Review (June 1987): 11-12.48-49.
Spinrad. Norman. "On Books: Science Fiction Versus Sci-Fi." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (December 1986): 178-191.
Steadman, John M. Milton and the Paradoxes of Renaissance Heroism. Baton Rouge LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
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