The Parable of the Spear Carrier

Chappy talks empathy, and the parable of the Spear Carrier in his discussion of Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage


Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage is a typical teen or late YA science fiction tale from the late 60s.  Rather like Heinlein’s juvenile fictions its basic plot is that of a coming of age story centered on a ceremonial transition between childhood and adulthood combined with an intro to ethics reader.  The rite serves a dual purpose of weeding out the weak leaving the remaining human stock stronger and also creating an artificial population pressure.  Reading it today reveals some tarnish of time and, as is typical of all science fiction, it doesn’t do a very good job of predicting the future.

Population and genetics form rather a large part of the conflict in the story, which won a Nebula award in 1968 and was nominated for a Hugo in 1969.  Some of those ideas as expressed in the novel are a bit quaint, like the tales of Old Earth with its over-crowded cities and total population of 8 billions.  A strange idea from our vantage point of 7 billion people and plenty of hiking space.  And one that could have been improved with a calculator and an atlas—divide the population by the square miles of land…

For all its shortcomings, the book is pretty good at balancing the ideas of a female (gasp) teenager (gasp) who is both intelligent and capable.  Who articulates and formulates her own philosophies and ideas—and then edits them and improves them as she matures.   Certainly in the late 60s that choice of protagonist would bear little resemblance to the average reader of science fiction.

The heroine gives voice to a central theme of the novel, that of the Spear Carrier.   The term refers to a concept of empathy and self Panshin borrowed from the theater that is often a large part of adolescent growth, but less often given consideration in YA literature.

I’ll just let Mia, the protagonist, describe it:

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a spear carrier in somebody else’s story. A spear carrier is somebody who stands in the hall when Caesar passes, comes to attention and thumps his spear. A spear carrier is the anonymous character cut down by the hero as he advances to save the menaced heroine. A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue.   In a story, spear carriers never suddenly assert themselves by throwing their spear aside and saying, “I resign. I don’t want to be used.” They are there to be used, either for atmosphere or as minor obstacles in the path of the hero. The trouble is that each of us is his own hero, existing in a world of spear carriers. We take no joy in being used and discarded. I was finding then, that wet, chilly, unhappy night that I took no joy in seeing other people used and discarded.


T.S. Elliot’s Prufock describes our Spear Carrier more lyrically, though Prufrock believed himself trapped in that unwanted position:


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –

Almost, at times, the Fool


Star Trek fans know them as Red Shirts.


Another way to look at these nameless faceless characters in the real world might be to consider the Apollo 11 project. Two men walked on the moon for the first time shortly after this book was published.  One man waited in space to bring them home.  17,000 employees labored at the Kennedy Space Center.  500 designers and seamstresses had worked on their space suits.  And on and on, until you understand that more than 400,000 people from 21 companies were part of the story that led to Neil Armstrong standing on the moon.   Do you have to know the stories of each one to appreciate the event?  Of course not, but when you understand the sheer magnitude of the act as evidenced by all the 400,000 spear carriers and imagine them huddled around a black and white TV watching the lunar landing as part of their own story, as part of their own triumph—well you see just how powerful the simple narrative of a seamstress can become.

Alexei Panshin’s reason for focusing on the Spear Carrier might be to merely introduce some basic thematic plot points by which to measure Mia’s perspective growth as the story progresses, but it might also be a glimpse into the toolbox of a master storyteller who is also a story critic.

Panshin is better known for his sci-fi criticism, particularly of Robert Heinlein’s works, than he is for his own stories.  Yet, his stories may be the key to understanding his criticism, and understanding his criticism could help us read stories more fully and write stories more completely.   Can we understand why it is important when a single Storm Trooper takes off his helmet and become a face instead of a mask?  And what happens when a spear carrier becomes conscious of their role?  Do they become depressed like Prufrock or do they become the hero of their own tale?

Rite of Passage’s theme isn’t spoon fed to the reader, it is shoveled during the scenes where the children are taught by a mentor.  It is crafted in try-fail cycles of youth.   It is spelled out in the aftermath of the plot in the starkest terms—in a universe consumed with the fear of overpopulation individuals stand out in the midst of chaos.  Yet, time and time again Panshin reminds us that each character is an individual moving along parallel to our story.

We don’t have to know exactly what their story is but if we understand that each character has a story, then the scene where they cower behind a rock instead of charging has more depth.  The better a character is known the more that character’s actions have meaning and the more striking a death or failure becomes.  Of course, we don’t have to have any of these things spelled out for us.  A clever author can make us understand the depth of minor characters with only a few words or actions.

Most of the time Panshin isn’t one of those clever writers hence the preaching.

He’s good enough for this book though.  It’s written in first person from the perspective of a young adult reminiscing about her growth from childhood, through the rite of passage to adulthood.  The Ritual of Adulthood is very Jungian in the experience of death (threat) and growth (overcoming) and re-birth (entering adulthood).  The colony worlds even substitute for the land of the dead in mythology.

Like any good Jungian stereotype, though, you don’t have to have words to describe how you are made to feel as long as you feel them.  For that much, Panshin works.

Our protagonist ruminates about it at the end of the story preaching in case you missed it:

Five years have passed since then and I still don’t fully understand. There is a lesson that I learned at twelve— the world does not end at the edge of a quad. There are people outside. The world does not end on the Fourth Level. There are people elsewhere. It took me two years to learn to apply the lesson— that neither does the world end with the Ship. If you want to accept life, you have to accept the whole bloody universe. The universe is filled with people, and there is not a single solitary spear carrier among them.


Not a bad lesson to learn and one that separates great stories from merely good ones.

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