Believe it or not, Fantasy is a team sport. While there may be a clear protagonist of the story, much of the draw to the genre is the group coming together to accomplish the quest. Harry Potter would be nothing without his support staff of Ron and Hermione. Same with Roland Deschain and his crew of Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, or Buffy and her Scooby-gang (and arguably Scooby Doo and his human lackies).
Some might argue that the fantasy group originates with the eponymous fellowship in Fellowship of the Ring, however, the concept of the team is buried much deeper in fantasy’s DNA when one considers King Arthur and his knights or Robin Hood and his band of merry men. And being as groups are on our mind lately with the birth of Sigil Independent, a new guild of self-published fantasy authors, we thought we’d dig into the question of the best fantasy group: Thor and Loki or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
As always, I’m joined by fellow fantasy author, Sigil Independent member, SPFBO semifinalist, and all-round academic extraordinaire, Daniel E. Olesen, to put this issue to bed.
Daniel: It’s a known fact that things were always better in the old days, or that the older something is, the grander. Just think about wine or VHS, for example. With that in mind, the best fantasy team (or rather duo) is naturally one of the oldest. There are a couple of contenders, but in my completely unbiased, Scandinavian opinion, Thor and Loki take the prize.
They’re a classic duo combining brawns and brain, the straight-laced do-gooder and the self-serving trickster. As each other’s opposites, they’re perfectly suited to handle any kind of adventure or challenge thrown their way, whether it is slaying some Jotun fools or dressing up as women to get Thor’s hammer back from those same lovestruck Jotun fools.
This is a tale as old as time of the perfect bromance. Through his wacky hijinks, Loki is even responsible for Thor getting his signature hammer. On another occasion, he got Thor’s wife some sweet bling in the form of living, golden hair. Reversely, Thor never killed Loki all those times he screwed over the gods and deserved it. How can four oversized turtles with bad dietary habits and a pet rat compare?
Matt: It’s funny that you bring up Thor and Loki the same week that Thor 3 comes out on video here in the states. Mind you, I can’t fault you for your selection either since the very first comic book I ever bought (after walking several miles to the nearest store once my parents went out of town for the first time) was Marvel’s Thor… the one he kills Loki for screwing over the gods so many times to be precise. But I won’t pretend what happened on those brightly printed pages were mythical canon, yet my selection of the ninja turtles probably won’t be a surprise either considering my comic book affection.
And though they were born within the world of comics, I’ll be addressing these four oversized turtles in their cartoon iteration since that’s what we’re all probably most familiar with. So though Thor/ Loki provide an excellent dichotomy of opposites in the brain/ brawn department, the turtles double that dichotomy. You have your straight-man leader Leonardo who represents authority/ the superego, which butts heads against Raphael's anger/ id/ emotion, which represents the heart. Donatello is clearly the head/ ego, while Michelangelo is the odd one/ wildcard that always injects chaos into the mix.
It’s this combination of four distinct archetypes that are eternally at odds despite a shared goal that breeds constant conflict, which, as we all know, is the heart of any story. So while I have to agree your Thor/ Loki selection was inspired, it’s just that the ninja turtles is a better one.
Daniel: I see your Freudian gambit and would like to counter with a Jungian riposte. Your penchant for structure is well-known, but I think the Austrian fails you here. You have four characters, but only three of them will fit onto your model.
Furthermore, that model does not lend itself well to dichotomy. You don’t have a clear separation of everything into two opposites - you have two poles with a mediating layer in between. That is a spectrum. Instead, we should go Swiss and reach for archetypes, namely the four Greek tempers: melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic. The melancholic character is sensitive, brooding but clear-sighted and with a strong sense of responsibility. The sanguine character is happy-go-lucky, easy-going and easily excitable, but may quickly lose interest in their pursuits. The choleric character is quick to anger and strong emotions, but also strong-willed and confident. The phlegmatic character is calm nearly to the point of passivity and subdued in their emotions. Leonardo. Michelangelo. Raphael. Donatello.
I believe this is the best analysis of the turtles - it explains their weaknesses and strengths, and it works well for the narrative, because their weaknesses puts them at odds with each other. This is why Raphael quarrels with Leonardo and questions him; they are the two leader archetypes, but their leadership style are opposites, and Raphael’s temper (in both senses of the word) makes him quick to challenge Leonardo.
That works well for the story, but that doesn’t make them a good team, though. With my duo, their differences complement each other, whereas with the turtles, it leads to strife.
Matt: Okay, I admit, that riposte landed and stung something fierce. It’s not often that someone gets to undermine my understanding of my chosen field of study in college AND offer a better understanding of my point through the four humo(u)rs. I have been thoroughly out-nerded. Damn.
But you also undermine your own point by saying this inherent conflict creates strife in the turtles while Thor and Loki’s differences make them a complementary team. Mainly because Thor and Loki aren’t a team: They’re an ineffectual psychopath and his manipulated mark.
Now I’m sure my knowledge of Norse myth pales in comparison to your own, but doesn’t pretty much every Thor/ Loki team up go a little something like this?: Loki causes mischief which upsets the natural order, meaning he and Thor have to now work together set things right.
This pretty much means the master manipulator can’t actually manipulate anyone exactly as he wanted or else things would be fine and dandy for Loki and he wouldn’t need Thor to help him out to set things right. So while this structure makes for some interesting tales, it exposes Loki’s first sin: That of being over his head.
And these aren’t little picidillios either. In the story of Balder Loki maliciously tricks a blind man to kill his own brother and thus herald the start of the end of the world with Ragnarok. What’s more, Loki’s blind catspaw is then murdered by his other brother in retaliation after Loki ensures Balder cannot be resurrected. For that, Thor caught Loki and left him under the Earth with venom continually dripping into his eyes for all eternity, which does not sound like a team at all to me. Unless you count Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling as a team.
And if you do, remind me never to be on the same team with you.
Daniel: I would say it varies how the Thor and Loki dynamic plays out. Usually, they’re travelling, and hilarity ensues. Sometimes it is Loki’s fault, sometimes not. I don’t think that necessarily undermines them as a team. If the turtles were so great at their chosen profession, why do they keep having to fight the same enemies over and over? At least T & L always closes the deal.
I have to admit that the dynamic duo eventually crashes and burns as you described. But I’ll take soaring heights and the fall of the mighty over static mediocrity. Perhaps that is even a rule in itself - the more potent the team-up, the more inevitable is the cataclysmic end. Not that I anticipate such a thing to ever happen to you and me. Relax, take a seat, I’ll bring you a cup of mead…
Matt: Yeah, right after I wrote it I realized that we are literally on the same team in Sigil Independent, which meant I was undermining my own argument. Again.
And perhaps you do also have a point in that, without an actual endpoint being aimed at, an unending, episodic existence is all one can hope for as the authors wring out every cent from the status quo of their creation. Even though Shredder was killed in the original TMNT comic, once the authors realized the hit they had on their hands they brought him back to create this groundhog day-like existence for the turtles for the last 30+ years.
But you also have to give me that, even though they’ve never definitively “won” as a team, at least none of the ninja turtles is personally responsible for the apocalypse.
And that’s got to count for something, right?
Daniel: I’ll be honest, I don’t recall with certainty if Loki’s actions and imprisonment are directly or indirectly the cause of ragnarok, but I suppose, in any case, Loki still fights against the gods in the last battle, so he is definitely cheering for that team.
… Fine, I’ll concede that not bringing about the apocalypse should count positively in someone’s favour.