Refreshing Archetypes: Noble Savage
I live in New Zealand and I can tell you the noble savage is a destructive archetype. It is done way too often for this day and age. Homer getting wisdom from a wisewoman in the wilds of Alaska, the guide in Wonderwoman and in Avatar we see this archetype. The problem with this is to assume they all come from a less technological society. When Europeans first arrived in places like China they had very sophisticated technology. We still use a lot of it today. Schools, paper, gun powder - all of these were long staples and yet the people were considered lesser and had to be saved by the superior forces. Even when it had a benevolent aspect to it, it was toxic. That is where Noble Savage lies. Wanting to show an aspect of aboriginals that the western world can accept we have reduced them to a stereotype instead of something that could be amazing.
Noble Savage done well:
The Last Samurai
There are things about this movie that really grate against me. Like that it is told through a white man's POV. Listen up Hollywood - we can relate to someone who isn't white and male. The reason this one is on the list is because the Samurai aren't seen as highly able in only one aspect. In fact the thing they are hyper able in is the thing about them that is outdated. It is their ideals that aren't outdated and that is what is timeless.
Their holding on to old traditions isn't because they are stupid or couldn't figure out technology instead it is a symbol of loyalty and unity. Technology is seen as the devil in this movie. It makes people violent and immoral.
I hate that Tom Cruise's character can learn in one season what the samurai had spent their whole life perfecting. It reduces the power of their culture but if they dump his character and instead showed this all through Katsumoto's character it would have been a stronger movie. I think others agree as in IMDB Katsumoto has the top position in the character list.
Mercedes Lackey has always been one to humanise what could be considered marginalised groups. Owlsight and the Hawk Brothers are one of these examples. They are the best at magic but because they live in trees and are one with the world people assume they don't know anything. If you have read the whole series you can actually get a feel for their history.
What she does right in this series is that the Hawk Brothers don't need anyone else. They have power and resources. It is the so called civilised people who come to them for help. Yes, they are noble but the savage part is a misnomer as they have a very sophisticated society.
Only those on the outside make assumptions but of course the series goes into their world and we get to see that what looks uncivilised and uncouth; is actually part of a intricate and highly advanced society.
Catch the Lightning
There is a reason that science fiction and fantasy books are on this list. I feel like this is done better in these genres than it is in historical fiction. Mostly because we have a tendency to romanticise the past. But it is also done badly. I still don't like what Tamora Pierce did with her Bazhir but I see it more a product of its time rather than an indictment to the author who I absolutely love reading. Catherine Asaro has a similar flaw to Tamora Pierce in that her characters are more stereotypical.
In Catch the Lightning we get to see the noble savage on earth and how society is what is behind this stereotype so it is more about hanging a lamp on it than saying it is a good thing to be a noble savage. When they get to his home planet this is reinforced by the sad story of his people. They are all clones and they embody the noble savage. They are all body guards to a royal family but because they can't adapt due to the cloning they are slowly dying out. Again these people have technology that blows everything else out of the water. But it has faded over time. In the prequel series set on this same planet we get to see more about the marginalised cultures that have roots in a strong history. Catherine even comes out and directly discusses that a force coming in would only destroy the culture. That is why she is on my list.
The worst thing to do is to romantise aboriginals. Have them with warts and all. Show off the things that they had right before others arrived to disrupt them. By relegating them to a NPC or a character ticked off in the Hero's journey makes them two dimensional. Do your homework. Writing Excuses recommends the best way to reduce the chance of falling into a stereotype is to have more than one character to represent the culture. We are all familiar with the Token Guy in movies.