This post contains a slight spoiler for Girl Genius by Phil & Kaja Foglio. If you haven’t already read this webcomic, press that link (it’ll take you to the beginning) and do. I’ll wait. Girl Genius was steampunk before steampunk sold out!
This post also contains a spoiler for the Mage Wind Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. But if you were going to read that, you probably already have.
Oh, and a wee spoiler for Buffy Season 1.
I hereby predict this post’s length will only exceed its spoiler warnings’ by a small margin.
I was reading the latest installment of Girl Genius when it struck me that one plot point in that fine comic is familiar from another story: the evil sorcerous (wyrd scientist?) ancestor who can possess his or her present-day progeny. This was used to great effect in Mercedes Lackey’s Mage Wind trilogy. When the good guys and I found out that the evil mage we were up against had slain the Last (and most powerful) Herald-Mage in a previous incarnation, we thought all was lost. It was a pretty effective way of increasing the creep-factor on an already very creepy foe. In Girl Genius it operates a little differently and over only one generation, but it’s the same general idea. In Buffy, too, a witchly mama did once switch bodies with her child.
I wonder if I’m overlooking (or haven’t read) other examples of this trope in fantasy. In sci-fi, I think the equivalent would be making clones of yourself in order to prolong your life, whatever the clones think — which has definitely been done. I think the fantasy version is more intriguing, and here’s why:
It’s a pop-psych truism that people fear becoming their parents. This trope hooks right into that fear, as well as another potentially unhealthy dynamic: the parents that want their children to be carbon-copies of them. Sure, it’s icky that your pediatric neurosurgeon dad wants you to be a pediatric neurosurgeon. But it would be even ickier if he wanted to steal your body and do his own pediatric neurosurgery with it, destroying or sidelining your spirit and desires, robbing you of your free will and your natural human span. (This is the subtext that the Buffy episode makes into text.)
As if that weren’t enough psychoanalytic reason for this trope to send a shiver up the fantasy fan’s spine, the multi-generational version offers a healthy dollop of the “sins of the father” thing that’s so popular in Judeo-Christian circles. Sure, as people are so fond of pointing out, they didn’t commit genocide, or enslave anyone, or cut down the oak forests of Ireland, or what-have-you. In a fantasy setting, however, your link with those pasts are not theoretical. In any world with sympathetic magic, blood does tell.