This post is a re-working of several posts I made in early 2014 about the Sorceress and Teela.
My biggest plotting pet peeve is when characters keep secrets from one another that serve no useful purpose. There’s nothing wrong with the character having a secret or secrets. It drives me crazy when characters keep secrets that do more harm than good and never seem to grasp the idea that they are causing their own problems when they lie to their loved ones. There are PLENTY of good, interesting stories that can be told without this particular cheap plot device.
Today, I want to look at the Sorceress of Grayskull and her daughter, Teela as an example of what I mean. And to be clear: I love the Sorceress. I love Duncan. I am not in any way bashing them. I realize that they were both in a terrible position and there were no easy choices.
- Teela is roughly 20 years old in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. (Her age is never explicitly stated, but Prince Adam is 19, and the series makes a point that Adam and Teela grew up together and saw one another as surrogate siblings. I’m speculating that she’s slightly older, but that’s my own viewpoint.)
- She was adopted as an infant by Duncan, the King’s Man-at-Arms. Duncan is also an inventor, and Teela credits him for both her interest in science and her skills as a warrior.
- She has no memory of her birth parents. She knows that her birth father died and Duncan has given his word to keep her mother’s identity a secret until some obscure point in the future when the mother (or maybe fate?) decides that Teela is “ready” to know.
We learn why, or at least we learn the annoying plot-dictated reasons, in the episode Teela’s Quest. (The episode also gives us a great glimpse into several areas of the show’s mythos, including Queen Marlena’s origins, but that’s another post.)
To summarize, because Youtube keeps deleting the video clips:
- Teela asks Duncan about her birth parents and he basically says he’s given his word not to reveal the secret. Teela goes looking for the answers:
- After Teela’s birth father died, her mother, the Sorceress, went into hiding with her.
- The Sorceress is vulnerable outside of Castle Grayskull. She can’t use her powers beyond the castle walls (deus ex machina notwithstanding) and she can only leave the castle in her true form for short periods of time. Normally, she has to use her avatar, Zoar the Falcon.
- As Zoar, the Sorceress was targetted by Mer-Man (one of the major villains) who wanted to use the falcon as a sacrifice to a demon.
- Duncan stopped Mer-Man, and after the experience, The Sorceress realized that she would be unable to keep Teela safe. Duncan took her in and raised her as his own.
- Teela learns her origin, then has her memory wiped by her mother until she’s “ready” to be the next Sorceress.
If I was reading this or watching it on a current TV show, I would have all kinds of issues with the way this secret is handled, but because I’ve loved these characters since childhood, I never stopped to think about it until I watched MOTU 2002, which aired on Cartoon Network.
Watching this moment on MOTU 2002 completely changed my perception of the situation and the character of the Sorceress.
Later in the episode, Duncan goes on to tell The Sorceress that if she won’t tell Teela the truth, he will. It was the first time I’d realized that both Duncan and the Sorceress had been culpable in lying to Teela for no good reason and how much damage that lie was doing to her.
I want to be absolutely clear about a few things.
- I realize that this is an 80s television show for children, and that the target audience was probably not analyzing the plot or asking deep questions, but I think a lot of stories would benefit if authors asked them.
- I realize that the show writers had to work within what had been established already in previous episodes. I’m NOT bashing their work or suggesting that my ideas are better.
- I love Duncan, the sorceress, and Teela. I love the interactions that they have on the show, and the episodes that focus on them are some of my favorites. I am not knocking them in any way.
I’ve made several fan videos, including this one, about their relationship dynamics:
Hosted by Natacha Guyot of Science Fiction, Transmedia, and Fandom
- I’m just using Teela as an example because I know her story well. The questions I’m asking here are also just examples. The same kinds of questions could be asked about ANY character with a big secret or double life that their loved ones don’t know about.
I realize that characters don’t always make smart, healthy choices with solid reasoning behind them. I’m NOT suggesting that they should. My characters make some of the dumbest, most self-destructive choices I’ve ever heard of.
What I am suggesting is that writers can allow our characters to grow past their secrets in a reasonable amount of time rather than using those secrets as a device to stall development. There are still lots of ways to maintain tension and create new conflict. Reveals don’t have to “ruin” everything.
Somewhere along the way, someone should question whether the secret is really a good thing.
MOTU dances around the issue of whether or not Teela’s “destiny” as the next Guardian of Castle grayskull would put her in danger if she knew about it too soon. It’s never explicitly stated, but to me the implication seems to be that if Teela knew the truth, she would become more of a target and be “distracted” from her duties as Captain of the Royal Guard.
So let’s take that apart.
How does keeping the secret protect Teela?
I can see keeping it from the villains, at least when Teela was a child. Heroes’ offspring are always getting kidnapped or targeted in some way, so there might be some value in that, but Teela is adopted by the King’s Man-At-Arms. Her father’s position places him smack dab in the middle of all kinds of political intrigue, conflicts with magical supervillians, and serious risk. (And he was Man-At-Arms back then; the Sorceress refers to him as “Man-At-Arms” in The Secret of the Sword here .) So, logically, Teela’s not any safer with Man-At-Arms than she would be with the Sorceress.
In Teela’s Quest, the Oracle says that the Sorceress felt her infant daughter would be better off with a “real home.” The Sorceress has a HUGE MAGICAL CASTLE at her disposal. The show has a recurring theme/plot arc that revolves around villains trying to get into Castle Grayskull. They never manage to do so because the castle’s magic is designed to keep them out, and the Sorceress does a pretty good job of helping keep them out when her champion, He-Man, is occupied elsewhere. How did she not have a home?
Even though there might be some argument for hiding Teela’s identity by having Duncan adopt her, the idea that she’s “safer” as Duncan’s daughter is questionable. I think the risk level is about even.
How does giving her to Man-At-Arms, who has equally complex job responsibilities and lives in an equally high-risk place equate to a better solution than taking her back to Castle Grayskull and raising her there? Is the Royal Palace somehow less of a huge target than the Magic Castle? The palace has guards. The Sorceress has a sentient castle and powerful magic at her command. If I had to choose, I’d pick Mom’s place. Once Teela is old enough to understand the reality of her situation, why does she still need to be kept in the dark? What purpose is being served?
How does keeping the secret make the story better?
The series does focus more on He-Man/Prince Adam, but the identity of Teela’s mother is a recurring issue.
Almost all of the Teela-centric episodes have something to do with one of her parents.
The ones that deal with her mother are an exercise in frustration for me because it’s apparent that she’s never going to learn the truth. There’s no real “plot tension,” just an easy way to amp up the characters’ feelings and make them suffer with no chance of a payoff.
If Teela isn’t “ready” now, when is she going to be?
- Teela is the Captain of the Royal Guard at 20 years old. She is Prince Adam’s personal bodyguard.
- That means she must be an extremely focused individual who is brave, trustworthy, loyal, and dedicated to serving the people of Eternia.
- She’s also a fairly accomplished student of science, which means she’s observant, knows how to think critically, and she’s versatile.
- I can’t think of very many better qualities for a Sorceress of Grayskull. The only thing Teela lacks is patience, but she shouldn’t have to be a carbon copy of the sorceress who came before her, and she might have learned more patience if she’d had her mother around to model patience for her.
- Wouldn’t a prepared initiate who had at least some idea of what she was doing be more effective in the role of the castle’s guardian than an angry young woman who was forced into a role against her will?
- If she doesn’t get to make an informed decision, why not? Is there a purpose to keeping her in the dark? This gets back to the last question. If she isn’t ready now, when is she going to be?
- Sure, there is a tried and true (read: overused) character development path from “confused/angry/uniformed heroine” to “skilled and capable adept,” but that isn’t the only way to tell a story like this.
In the episode Teela’s Triumph, the Sorceress goes missing and Teela is forced to temporarily take on the role of Grayskull’s guardian. I think it’s a great episode. It does a lot to develop Teela’s character and show her resourcefulness and dedication. The self doubt and frustration she experiences are true to life and great catalysts for her, but how much better could that episode have been if Teela had known her mother?
Teela’s Triumph, for your viewing pleasure.
I want to go back and look at the backstory elements and relationships that are established in Teela’s Quest. Pretend for a second that we’re viewing them as potential plot instead of backstory.
- Let’s start with the Sorceress’s husband. In Teela’s Quest, Duncan says that Teela’s birth father “gave his life in battle so that Eternians could live in peace.(6:15 )”.
- From that, it would make plenty of sense for the Sorceress to be grieving and decide to go into hiding with her daughter once the immediate threat had been put to rest. Maybe she was pregnant and specifically went into hiding so that no one would know who her child was when it was born.
This immediately sets up a problem. The Sorceress has responsibilities to Castle Grayskull and she’s vulnerable outside of it. There are lots of things a writer could do with that.
— Something happens back at Grayskull and she realizes that she can’t just run away.
— She gets into trouble from some higher authority for ignoring her duties and running away.
—Mer-Man shows up like in canon, and something about that encounter causes her to realize that she has a responsibility to the Castle and she needs to find a way to meet it while protecting her daughter.
— If I were doing it, I would use a combination of those.
Whatever we decide to do with it, we can acknowledge that the Sorceress ran away from her responsibilities to hide in the mountains and still have her be a sympathetic character. She’s grieving for her husband. She’s trying to protect her daughter. Those are reasonable, understandable reactions for any person to have in her situation. She doesn’t have to be making well thought out, rational decisions. She doesn’t have to be making particularly good decisions. She doesn’t have to be a martyr and give up her child either.
One way or another, Man-at-Arms comes along. We’ve established that the Sorceress has a problem. She needs to hide her daughter’s identity, and she’s having trouble balancing her responsibilities. She and Man-at-Arms can come up with an adoption scheme, but instead of falling back on a cliché and forcing the Sorceress to abandon her child, let’s look at some effective ways to use this as a plot element.
— They could agree to have Teela spend time with the Sorceress at Castle Grayskull and/or that the Sorceress could come visit her elsewhere. (The way Zoar flies a
round watching over Teela doesn’t count. Sorceress is capable of appearing outside of the castle in her true form for short periods, and she’s close friends with Man-At-Arms. To me it’s more weird/noticeable that Teela doesn’t visit her or know much about her.) This would add tension, not lessen it, because there would be some measure of risk about the secret being discovered by the villains.
— When Teela is old enough to start asking questions about her mother, she ought to be old enough to understand the secret. Duncan could explain that her mother gave her up to protect her, and Teela could (should) insist that she has a right to make her own choices. Maybe they tell her the truth at this point, or maybe…
—She finds out from the Oracle the same way she did in canon, but she doesn’t lose her memory.
In any of these scenarios, there’s nothing to say that Teela can’t still be the same person, filling the same job roles that she’s been filling. She doesn’t have to stop being Captain of the Guard or give up her own life just because she’s supposed to be destined to take her mother’s place. If we wanted to go that route, there could be tension and conflict between the needs of the Castle or the sorceress and Teela’s desire to continue in her role as Captain of the guard.
Ultimately, the Sorceress is immortal. She’s not going anywhere. Her predecessor, Kodak Ungor, was so ancient when she stepped down that she looked like an old woman. Teela’s mom looks like she’s in her twenties. So, there’s plenty of time for Teela to do what she wants to do and make up her own mind whether or not she wants to be the next Sorceress. By empowering Teela to make that choice for herself, we add tension and we give the decision more weight.
If the Sorceress has an active role in Teela’s life, then there’s more opportunity for conflict between her need to be present for her daughter and her duties to Castle Grayskull. She could be trying to balance those responsibilities or stressed about getting into trouble. If Duncan can manage to be a single parent while serving the king and queen, there ought to be room for the Sorceress to do the same thing.
Duncan doesn’t get a free pass here either. Most fans I know will agree with me when I say that Man-At-Arms obviously cares a great deal for Adam and Teela. His role in the show is a cross between “wise old mentor” and a father figure for everyone. He’s smart. He’s analytical. He loves Teela more than anything else in the world. And yet, we see him consistently lie to her about her mother and about Adam’s secret identity. At some point, he ought to have been asking himself where his duty to his daughter took precedence over his duty to Castle Grayskull.
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