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Literature / Expecting Someone Taller

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"Finally," said Ingolf, "cut my arm and lick some of the blood."
"I'd rather not," said Malcolm, firmly.
"If you do, you'll be able to understand the language of the birds."
"I don't particularly want to be able to understand the language of the birds," said Malcolm.
"You'll understand the language of the birds and like it, my lad," said Ingolf, severely.

Expecting Someone Taller is a comic fantasy novel by Tom Holt, and, very loosely, a sequel to Wagner's epic opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, set in the modern day. (Don't worry, you don't need to know opera to appreciate the novel.)

Nerdy clerk Malcolm Fisher is driving home one night when his car hits a badger. Stopping to check for damage to the car, he's shocked when the dying badger speaks to him. The badger explains that its name is Ingolf, and it's really the brother of Fafner, the giant who became a dragon in the opera. Malcolm, who knows nothing about Germanic Mythology or opera, is perplexed when the badger hands him a ring, and tells him that he's now the ruler of the world. "Still, I was expecting someone taller."

After listening to a brief synopsis of the historical events that led up to this (i.e. the plot of the opera), the bemused Malcolm takes the ring (which also has the power to summon limitless amounts of gold), as well as something called the Tarnhelm, which lets him change his shape, turn invisible, and teleport, and heads home to think things over. However, Wotan, the King of the Gods, still wants the ring, and soon begins to make trouble for Malcolm. In fact, the next thing he knows, he's got magical Rhinemaidens in his garden trying to seduce him, and dwarfs at the door begging for the ring back. Everyone wants this ring! Could a second Götterdämmerung be in the works?

Tropes found in this work:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: Malcolm has no idea how to be a secret ruler of the world—which turns out to be exactly the quality that's needed for an ideal ruler.
  • Artifact of Doom: The Ring of the Nibelung, which comes with a curse that all who bear it will come to a tragic and untimely death.
    Ingolf: Yet it is fated that when the Middle Age of the world is drawing to a close, a foolish, godlike boy who does not understand the nature of the Ring will break the power of Alberich's curse and thereby redeem the world.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Gods, much as in the opera, are severely dysfunctional. Wotan and the Valkyries, in particular, have a passive-agressive thing going where he refuses to wipe his feet before entering Valhalla, or to clean up after himself, and they bitch about how insensitive and uncaring he is, and everyone's happy.
  • The Chosen Zero: Malcolm is about as far as it's possible to be from what anyone expected the One Chosen by the Fates to bear the Ring and rule the world to be like. He's not strong, brave, handsome, skilled, or even particularly intelligent, and he has absolutely no desire to be in this position. About the only thing he has going for him is that he's a nice guy. The first ring-bearer with that quality, in fact.
  • Clever Crows: Wotan's assistants and chief spies are a pair of ravens, called Thought and Memory. Each partially inverts the trope in its own way: one raven is very clever, but has trouble keeping track of the details, while the other generally knows what's going on, but isn't quite sure what to make of it.
  • Divine Date: Malcolm gets engaged to a girl who is (though he doesn't know it) a Valkyrie—one of the daughters of Wotan.
    Why is every woman I meet lately a goddess?
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Unsurprisingly, the book uses this trope, or at least a variation. When nerdy clerk Malcolm Fisher runs over a badger and wins The Ring of the Nibelung, and with it, rulership of the world, everyone is shocked that such a pathetic wet fish could possibly be the hero of prophecy. The dying badger (who is actually a frost giant in disguise) even drops the title/trope name.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Wotan. It's very intimidating.
  • Fell Asleep Driving: Malcolm worries he may have done this, and is dreaming, when the badger he just ran over starts talking to him. He's not exactly reassured when he recalls that most people this happens to end up crashing.
  • Fisher King: Malcolm discovers that owning the ring and being the secret ruler of the world means that his moods and attitudes have a global impact. Fortunately, he's a nice guy (the first one ever to bear the ring), and so he takes great effort to avoid anything that might upset him or make him angry.
  • Foreshadowing: Mother Earth reveals to Malcolm that about one person in two thousand is actually a minor god or spirit of some sort, and that most of them are mortal and unaware of their divinity. As it turns out, unbeknown to either of them at this point, Malcolm himself is one of these people: he, his mother and sister are the last three Volsungs, descendants of Wotan and Mother Earth's grandson Siegfried.
  • God's Hands Are Tied: Why Wotan cannot just kill Malcolm and take the Ring for himself.
  • Hat of Power: The Tarnhelm, which grants the wearer invisibility, shape-shifting, and teleportation.
  • Heroic BSoD: After Malcolm is tipped off to the Honey Trap and his fiance disappears, he goes into a prolonged BSOD where nothing, even ruling the world, matters to him.
  • Honey Trap: Wotan sets one of these for Malcolm Fisher, sending his daughter, the Valkyrie Ortlinde to try to seduce Malcolm into giving up the ring.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: At the beginning, Malcolm receives the Tarnhelm and the Ring of the Nibelungs from Ingolf, the last of the Frost Giants, cleverly disguised as a badger who he's just run over with his car. Not being educated in Norse mythology or even having seen the opera poor Malcolm has no clue what he's getting himself into.
  • Invisibility Cloak: The Tarnhelm has this power as one of its functions.
  • Love at First Sight: Malcolm is all-too prone to this. When beautiful Rhinemaidens and Valkyries start showing up, sniffing around after the ring, it's almost more than he can bear.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Most of Malcolm's romantic entanglements after receiving the Ring fall into this category, especially his eventual engagement to the Valkyrie Ortlinde.
  • Pantheon Sitcom: It's Wagner's version of the Germanic Gods as one big, messed-up family.
  • Public Domain Artifact: The Ring and the Tarnhelm both derive from Germanic mythology (although they were fairly obscure until Wagner made them the centerpiece of his opera).
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: The blood of Ingolf has given Malcolm the power to talk to birds—a power he finds extremely useless, as birds are shallow, boring, and not much concerned with matters beyond food and mating. It does lead to a couple of important conversations, though: one bird alerts Malcolm to the Honey Trap, another helps him break out of the Heroic BSoD.
  • The Unfavorite: Like most of Holt's male leads, Malcolm is a total wimp, and his parents unabashedly compare him to his super-perfect sister Bridget. Becoming the heir to practically unlimited power makes Malcolm immediately think that it was originally meant for Bridget. In fact, Malcolm's lack of self-esteem and desire to do good make him the perfect person to inherit said power; Bridget would totally mess it up.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The Tarnhelm gives Malcolm this power. He tries a bunch of different shapes just to see what it's like, then finally settles on being "the most handsome man in the world." Unfortunately for him, that turns out to be Seigfried, tragic hero of the opera. Which makes him a bit obvious to the people looking for the Ring.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman:
    • Apparently the most beautiful woman who ever lived was the Valkyrie Brunnhilde (which causes some awkwardness for Malcolm after he asks the Tarnhelm to turn him into the world's most beautiful woman, and he doesn't learn whose form he had assumed until later). Seeing as she died a thousand years earlier, though, the most beautiful living woman is apparently her sister Ortlinde, although all of the Valkyries are indicated to be more or less equally supernaturally stunning.
    • The Rhinedaughters are apparently their closest competition, though due to their extreme vanity each one insists she's far prettier than the other two (or than the Valkyries, for that matter). It's hinted, though, that their beauty is at least partially down to a Glamour, which briefly fails when Malcolm makes it clear he's not going to give Woglinde the Ring.
    • Liz Ayres is supposedly the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, to the point that when she is introduced to "Manfred Finger" (Malcolm in Siegfried's form), the narration describes them as exchanging "the two brightest smiles in the world". Though this is probably just Malcolm's own opinion.