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…
Read the rest of David Breitenbeck’s excellent piece at THE EVERYMAN.