“Using defensive spells? Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class? I do not wish to criticise the way things have been run in this school, but you have been exposed to some very irresponsible wizards in this class, very irresponsible indeed – not to mention, extremely dangerous half-breeds.“—Dolores Umbridge, teaching defence against the dark arts, from the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.
Often in Fantasy novels and especially in Fantasy games the main characters simply overcome every obstacle they encounter through magic, stealth, or force. It simply makes for an engaging read when characters take direct action against any threats and bumps on the road they might encounter. Expediency is naturally important when the world is in danger.
Red Tape is, by definition, is the enemy of expediency. Excessive bureaucracy, overbearing formal rules, and rigid adherence to “by the book” conduct in the face of extenuating circumstances are all examples of Red Tape. Instead of explaining in detail I will illustrate with a few of my favourite examples.
1) Lord of the Rings – The Entmoot: The Entmoot is a classic example of well meaning adherence to a formal structure as an obstacle. Marry and Pippin want the help of the Ents, or at the very least to be on their way. The Ents need to identify these trespassers on their land and decide what they want to do with them. The Ents are portrayed sleepy, docile creatures who prefer to deliberate very thoroughly before taking action. The problem in this case is that events are moving quickly and their long discussion presents a serious time commitment that the two Hobbits can ill afford. In the end I enjoyed the presentation of the entmoot in the movies, with the Hobbits circumventing the moot’s decision by luring treebeard to a place where Saruman had destroyed part of Fanghorn, confronting him with evidence that the Ents could not ignore.
2) Lord of the Rings – Wormtongue: Wormtongue would not make an interesting combat obstacle. He was never a worthy foe on the field of action. However his plotting and conniving paralyze Rohan, paving the way for Saruman to grow in power and then overcome the Kingdom. Using his position, Wormtongue prevents the horsemen of Rohan from joining the wars against the orcs. He engages in a campaign of denial about the attacks going on throughout the land. He stifles any opposition to Saruman through legal means and gradually separates king Theodan from any useful advisors who might be able to coax him into action. Interestingly, Wormtongue is so effective at this that he is only overcome by the appearance of Gandalf the White, who uses a combination of guile and force to cut through the red tape. Of course, by this time, Wormtongue had nearly crippled the kingdom already.
3) Arthurian Myth – Mordred : Mordred uses the ties of kinship and the laws of hospitality and chilvary to survive and prosper. In particular he uses the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere to cripple the round table. T H White has the best account of this, reasoning that the affair between the two had gone on for years and yet only Mordred’s rigid use of the law forced it to a head, thus sundering the round table. Mordred also uses the laws of chivalry and kinship to survive against his peers, pretty much everyone knows he is bad news in all accounts, but they are never able to pin anything on him because he acts in accordance with the system of laws and kinship that governs them.
4) The Name of the Wind – The University: Patrick Rothfuss uses the rules of the University as a very interesting set of obstacles for K’vothe. The admissions exams are a prime example of this (spoiler alert), with Kvothe being forced to justify his actions and his greatness or have his tuition be set so high that he can no longer attend. In fact, the entire structure of the University acts as an obstacle to K’vothe’s quest to find the Chandrian and gain enough power to challenge them. The University (rightly) desires to keep dangerous knowledge out of the wrong hands. K’vothe is thus forced to spend years navigating the systems and structure of the University to find the knowledge that he is seeking.
5) Harry Potter – Dolores Umbridge: (spoiler alert) Umbridge is perhaps the best example of a person using the rules to crush and abuse her enemies. She never really gets violent in the same way that the Deatheaters do, but instead relies on occupying positions of power where she can use regulations to her advantage. In her own way she is as vile as Voldemort, and provides a villain that is much more realistic to the modern experience than a dark lord: someone whose every act is tinged with viciousness, but whose actions are supported by the law. In a way, our complacency in the face of people like Umbridge, who infiltrate our places of power and turn them to their own ends is the underlying villain of the whole Harry Potter series. Most of the magic community wanted so desperately to denie the return of Voldemort, to the point where they allowed people Umbridge into positions of strength to reinforce that denial. Had they been willing to confront him earlier, the cost would have been far less — a rather profound statement for a “children’s series”.
Armed with these examples, we can see that Red Tape can be a passive obstacle to be overcome, such as the Entmoot or the University in The Name of The Wind or a weapon to be wielded by the likes of Wormtongue, Mordred, and Umbridge. Characters who rely on force, but are essentially good, are constrained by their respect for the law when dealing with this kind of obstacle. A Conan or an Elric would make short work of ol’ grima, but Lancelot cannot simply gut Mordred without upsetting the social order he is trying to defend. (Which gets me thinking… maybe grimdark really isn’t that stifling if it allows us to fantasize about casting off the rules… but that needs more analysis.) In the end the Red Tape challenge is worth including, especially if it is paced well, in any modern tale because all of us have come in conflict with the rules of our workplaces, governments, religions, and so on in our daily lives and can understand how these can be serious obstacles. The key is to make the reader feel the protagonist’s frustration; our instinctive dislike of those who use the rules as weapons against us compels our interests in them as villains.