The story is familiar. A child is born. It is identified by a mark, prophecy, auspicious birth, or wise soothsayer. A lightning bolt on a forehead. The world rejoices at the birth of the Child Messiah, and hope for the future is restored. Though it may be a happy event for the world, what does it signify for the Child Messiahs? We assume that the heroic destiny is the stuff of dreams for children, and that they are, or at least should be, honoured by destiny's choice. But perhaps being chosen as the Child Messiah in today's world is not as rewarding as it once was. In this paper, I propose that the Child Messiah of late-twentieth-century children's fantasy is not the luckily chosen one, but a doomed sacrifice to Fate in exchange for the future survival of the human race.
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy of The Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (1999), and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985) are texts written in the past thirty years that write into the messianic trope of children's fantasy. His Dark Materials features two Child Messiahs--Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry; Ender's Game features one Child Messiah--Ender Wiggin--and a large number of other child characters who are also pushed to military heroism. Pullman's and Card's Child Messiahs are doomed; both texts are active participants in a discourse that has been increasing over the past thirty or so years. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, for example, falls also into this discourse of doomed Child Messiahs.
Why do we so often come across children or adolescents on whom the fate of the world depends? Aside from the fact that the child reader of children's fantasy will be able to empathise with a child protagonist, the child also embodies the future of any society. Although it may be that adults aid the Child Messiah during his or her quest, the pivotal action must come from the children themselves. This is not exclusive to children's fantasy; it extends to such works of classic fantasy as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, where the childlike Frodo must bear the Ring, though the adult Gandalf and Aragorn have crucial roles in the action. In Pullman's trilogy, Will and Lyra are aided by adult characters, but at the critical moment, these characters know that the Child Messiahs are more important than they are, and make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. Similarly, although an adult world manipulates Ender in Ender's Game, adults are reduced to spectators as Ender and his army finally ensure Earth's future. The Child Messiah stands representative for the younger generations who will continue the world that the Child Messiah has saved.
There is a darker side to this generational logic. While children represent a nebulous, future, adults work in the immediacy of the present. Because of the standard power differential between adult and child, adults are assumed to be the ones who will, after the Child Messiahs have worked their magic, step in to take control of the situation. They are not always beneficent in this endeavour, and they can in fact be the agents of a more threatening future. In such cases, they often represent a corrupt old world; these scenarios are a familiar feature of many post-apocalyptic texts. For example, Card's Shadow series, written as a sequel to the Ender series, reveals that the vying adult factions on Earth have returned to a global war all too soon after Ender has nearly destroyed himself saving them. Although the adults cannot save their own world, they see their supportive role as crucial--the Child Messiahs ensure that there is a future, but it is the adult world that will construct it. After the world has been saved, it is returned to adult hands to do with it what they will, regardless of the children that have been expended to purchase the chance for a new future. The Child Messiah therefore does not affirm the indispensability of the child, but works instead on the principle that the child is dispensable. …