Analysis

Three Genre-Defining Books With Underutilized Tropes

Some books, such as The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, and the Philip Marlowe series, become so iconic that they spawn entire subgenres. But they also include powerful tropes that are often lost. By underplaying these surprising elements, the new works run the risk of paring down the tropes to stereotypes and thereby lose the chance not only to tell deeper, more interesting stories, but also to inspire readers to be open to a world beyond the obvious.

Spoiler Notice: Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, and the Philip Marlowe series.

1. The Lord of the Rings

The basic plot of The Lord of the Rings involves a fellowship of people in a medieval Europe-inspired setting. This group is tasked with carrying an evil magical ring on a cross-country quest to save the world from an ancient villainous overlord. The fellowship includes prominent skilled warriors and powerful figures: a wise wizard, an elf prince, a mighty dwarf, and the son of the current steward of Gondor – nearly a prince. Even more legendary than those is Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, descendant of storied royalty, rightful owner of a legendary sword, subject of a prophecy, master tracker, skilled warrior and horseman, star-crossed true love of a beautiful elf lady, and wearer of an elf jewel. In contrast, the team also includes Frodo, a comparatively humble Halfling from a peaceful verdant shire backwater that few have even heard of. Accompanying Frodo is his gardener, Sam, and two of his Halfling friends.

Aided by Sam, Frodo eventually bears the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, where it can be destroyed. Meanwhile, Aragorn leads an army against the enemy as a diversion to distract focus until the critical moment. After the day is saved and Aragorn is crowned king of Gondor, he bows to Frodo and the other hobbits, acknowledging their courage and heroism.

Modern epic fantasy uses many tropes that can be traced back to or were popularized by Tolkien, including:

Lord of the Rings was obviously the inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, which itself feeds back into inspiring new fantasy stories. Many of these tropes are still enjoyed widely today, even if they are a little overused. But many Lord of the Rings–style works underemphasize some of the most compelling themes of Tolkien’s classic.

Humble and Gentle Heroes

It is appealing to make a prophesied heir like Aragorn the hero of the story or to compose the heroic team entirely of skilled warrior and mage types with no noncombatants (besides maybe healers). But a major point of Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits are the real heroes – and Aragorn himself understands that, as he shows on multiple occasions:

  1. He never tries to take the burden of carrying the ring from Frodo.
  2. He deliberately stages an entire battle as a diversion to help Frodo and Sam’s efforts, trusting them to save the day.
  3. He bows to the hobbits on his coronation day and inspires his subjects to do the same.

Aragorn plays an important role, but the true heroes of Lord of the Rings are ordinary and peaceful underdogs whose strength comes from their compassion, love of life, stalwart friendship, courage, and lack of greed or ambition. Frodo is no prophesied hero with a grand destiny, fighting prowess, powerful magic, or royal heritage. A terrible burden falls to him by chance, he chooses to shoulder it, and he succeeds because of the support of his best friend, who has an even humbler background. The other hobbits do end up fighting in several major battles, but Frodo and Sam are not warriors and never become such. They save the day not through aggression or violence but by quiet perseverance, endurance, loyalty, and by helping each other.

These traits are often undervalued, even considered “feminine” and “not manly,” but they are admirable and essential. Part of their strength lies in seeming unremarkable. Sauron falls because he underestimates the hobbits and focuses on Aragorn as the only credible threat. This dismissal makes him the right villain for a tale that shows the value of ordinary folk. These elements made the original strong, and more stories that draw influence from Lord of the Rings should include them.

Hopepunk

A major theme of Lord of the Rings is the power of seemingly ordinary people to save the world not by military strength or destiny, but by choice, hope, and quiet resilience. Currently, grimdark fantasy, with its gritty worlds and nihilistic philosophy, is getting the most attention. Dark fantasy certainly has its place and its audience. However, the philosophy of Tolkien is less grimdark and more hopepunk. The term was coined by Alexandra Rowland, who defines hopepunk as conveying “that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act.” Sam’s classic speech is the epitome of hopepunk, as are several of Gandalf’s lines.

Lord of the Rings says that hope is not weakness or naivete but actually strength and wisdom. I’m not saying that no modern fantasy books contain those themes, but it would be nice if more Lord of the Rings–style fantasy emulated those elements and emphasized the importance of unexpected and underestimated figures, the strength of gentleness, and the heroism of choice, in addition to including the flashy elements.

The Power of Asking for Help

While many epic fantasy stories focus on making the central hero grow more powerful as an individual, in Lord of the Rings, protagonists learn to overcome threats by receiving and offering help. Nothing important is achieved alone. As Frodo himself says when he recalls his own tale, “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” In turn, the two of them wouldn’t have succeeded without everyone else. That’s why they’re called the “fellowship” of the ring. Again and again, unlikely alliances between conventional and unconventional heroes begin with someone risking everything to give aid to another.

  • Merry and Pippin build a friendship with Treebeard and through that draw his attention to his own interest in their cause, and together they bring down Sarumon.
  • Antagonist Denethor puts his kingdom at risk when he is too proud to ask for help by lighting the distress beacons, but the heroes do it anyway. Because they do, Theoden overcomes his reluctance to help a neighbor who didn’t help him earlier. As soon as he hears they’ve actually asked for help, he doesn’t hesitate. When “Gondor calls for aid … Rohan will answer.”
  • When Faramir’s father is about to unknowingly burn him alive, Pippin realizes Faramir needs help. However, Pippin can’t rescue Faramir alone, so he gets Gandalf to help, too, and together they rescue him.
  • Merry needs a horse to get to the battle, and Eowyn recognizes his need and helps him ride with her. When she faces the Witch King, he recognizes her need and stabs the wraith in the leg, and together they defeat him.
  • Aragorn recognizes that Sam and Frodo need help to complete their mission in secrecy, so he stages a diversion, allowing them to slip past the enemy’s notice.
  • Frodo falters at the final threshold, and Sam helps him get there, speaking the immortal line “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

In Lord of the Rings, reliance on others doesn’t diminish success – it ensures success. The framing and events of the story all convey the message that needing help isn’t a weakness, asking for help is a strength, and knowing when to offer help is heroism. This teaches us that it’s all right to need support, that it’s noble to help each other, and that no one should have to face danger on their own. And that is a lesson worth reinforcing, especially in this day and age.

2. Pride and Prejudice

The plot of this classic goes like this: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy meet at a party, where Darcy is sullen, antisocial, and insulting toward her family in general and her in particular. However, Elizabeth’s older sister and Darcy’s best friend are smitten, so Elizabeth and Darcy are forced to see each other frequently. With a little time, he secretly falls in love with her.

Elizabeth still dislikes Darcy. Making matters worse, a family friend, Wickham, relates how Darcy has wronged him. Then Darcy deliberately breaks up the budding relationship between his friend and Elizabeth’s older sister, increasing her dislike. So when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, insulting her in the process, she rejects him, calling him out for his rudeness and his cruelty to Wickham and her older sister.

Afterward, Darcy sends a letter explaining his treatment of Wickham and the misunderstanding that compelled him to interfere in her older sister’s happiness and apologizes for his rudeness. Meanwhile, Wickham runs away with Elizabeth’s younger sister, endangering her reputation. Darcy rescues the younger sister from social ruin and helps get his friend and Elizabeth’s older sister back together. Despite his attempts to conceal those reparative actions, Elizabeth finds out, and they reconcile and wed.

Modern romance novels owe much to Pride and Prejudice. Not every book in the genre is the same, of course, but a popular formula closely mirrors elements from Austen’s work:

  • The heroine and eventual love interest quickly develop an exaggerated aversion to each other because the eventual love interest acts like a jerk.
  • They are nevertheless thrown together by circumstance.
  • They have a contentious continuing relationship.
  • The eventual love interest commits a mistake that messes up their relationship.
  • He has to do something dramatic to apologize and fix his mistake (this step is known as “the grovel”).
  • She forgives him and they live Happily Ever After (HEA), or at least Happily for Now (HFN).

These tropes cross subgenres, from historical to contemporary and speculative, too. Speculative fiction romance novels often have an external plot obstacle instead, but they could easily use this form as well. The particularities of Pride and Prejudice make all of these elements effective and compelling, but when new particulars are plugged into the formula, they don’t always work as well as they do in Austen’s classic.

The Jerk Love Interest

Some adaptations misinterpret the appeal of Mr. Darcy as an attractive jerk. In actuality, his appeal lies in:

  1. The revelation that his rudeness was mainly social awkwardness and he is kind in other areas of his life
  2. His willingness to listen to the heroine, change his behavior, and do the work to make amends for the harm he caused

Basically, he’s not as much of a jerk as he seemed, and he works to change his behavior. Modern romance stories don’t work as well if the hero is actually just a mean person who never makes any effort to improve.

The Love Interest’s Mistake

Some Pride and Prejudice–style romances use a mistake that is either more minor, in which case it doesn’t justify the heroine’s negative response, or more major, making redemption more difficult. Darcy’s mistake works because:

  1. He was justified in his treatment of Wickham, once you know the full story.
  2. He misunderstood Elizabeth’s sister’s intentions. Since she is shy and equally polite to everyone, he thought she had no real feelings for his friend and was just after his wealth and position. He therefore acted out of concern for his friend.
  3. He’s not entirely wrong about his assessment of Elizabeth’s mother and younger sisters – they do overstep the etiquette of the time by being so publicly loud about their attempts to find advantageous matches. Even Elizabeth is embarrassed by them.

Of his largest mistakes, two turn out to not be as big as they seemed, and the other he acted with misguided good intentions. Derivative plots don’t work as well if the mistake is genuinely selfish or malicious, predictably harmful, or conversely, too mild to have as much dramatic impact. Sometimes the mistake is merely breaking up with the heroine, which is not as complicated or as interesting.

The Grovel

A standard trope in modern romance novels is “the grovel” – the moment after the love interest makes a mistake and must apologize, often through some dramatic gesture. I have yet to see an Austen-inspired romance story with a grovel as good as Darcy’s. He makes a true apology. He values Elizabeth’s opinion, takes her criticisms to heart, and reevaluates himself. Most importantly, he accepts her rejection at face value and does not try to win her back. Then he takes concrete steps to fix the wrong he has caused, reuniting the estranged couple they both care about. He puts aside his grudge with Wickham to protect someone Elizabeth cares about. He starts acting more polite.

Darcy changes his behavior and fixes his mistakes not in an attempt to win Elizabeth but because he believes it’s the right thing to do. He only approaches Elizabeth again when he hears from a third party that her opinion of him has changed for the better, and even then, he gives her the option to “silence him on the subject forever.” Grovels in modern romance novels fail if they:

  • Don’t actually fix or address the mistake
  • Are worse than the actual mistake, or are a mistake in and of themselves, such as an embarrassing and unwanted public gesture
  • Pressure the heroine into a reconciliation after she has already given a firm “no”

Pride and Prejudice inspired a specific structure of romance novel wherein a love interest makes a mistake and has to fix it dramatically. But some adaptations misinterpret the appeal of the Mr. Darcy character as an attractive jerk rather than as someone whose appeal lies in his character development and deliberate efforts to change. They miss that the dramatic fix must fit the mistake to redeem their hero. It would be nice to see more romance books emulate the nuance and thoughtfulness of the original.

3. The Philip Marlowe Series

Philip Marlowe, star of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and all the books in between, is the quintessential hard-boiled detective. The books are written in first person, and the narrator sometimes seems to be speaking directly to the reader, explaining details of his job. Marlowe is snarky, wisecracking, and irreverent. He talks back to his wealthy clients, to the police, and to criminal bosses. He drinks whiskey and smokes constantly. He lives a loner life out of a cramped office and a small flat.

As a private detective, mysterious clients hire him to find missing items, deal with blackmailers and debt holders, and solve murders. Sinister figures burst through his door with loaded guns. McGuffins turn up in the mail. Clues lead to the seedy underbelly of a city. Casinos, mansions, fine jeweler offices, nightclubs, fronts for criminal enterprises, and the mean city streets are his territory. He gets in fistfights, gunfights, and standoffs. He gets drugged, kidnapped, and locked up by the cops. Both sides are out to get him. No genius puzzle solver or master of deduction, he stumbles along after clues, following convoluted plots to their conclusions.

The Big Sleep and other Philip Marlowe books defined the subgenre of noir mystery, which very often influences modern urban fantasy. Common elements include:

  • The basic setup of a solo private eye
  • Mysterious and sometimes dubious clients
  • Conversational first-person narrator
  • Talking back to authority figures
  • All of the snark
  • McGuffins
  • A gritty urban city setting
  • Underworld criminal locations
  • Contention with the police
  • Street fighting
  • Trench coats and fedoras
  • Exciting, convoluted plots with lots of action
  • Murder, kidnapping, theft, blackmail, gambling, extortion, poison, bribes, corruption, the usual crimes
  • Femmes fatales

While everyone knows the archetype of the back-talking detective who stands up to authority, many people miss the flip side of the originator: Marlowe is not only disrespectful toward authorities but conversely kind and gentle to those with less power.

Punching Up, Never Down

It is true that Marlowe is brash, snarky, and back-talking. However, his disrespect is limited to authority figures, even when it may not be in his own best interests. He talks back to his rich clients, to the police, to big-time criminals, club owners, and murderers. All of this is frequently adapted in new urban hard-boiled detectives.

But many works miss how Marlowe’s behavior changes entirely when he is faced with people who have no power. He is friendly to cab drivers, cashiers, clerks, secretaries. In The High Window, he sits beside a homeless man and speaks to him with respect, recognizing his humanity as no one else has. Cops and criminals overlook these figures, but Marlowe recognizes their importance and value. He gets many of his best clues from these interactions, but he never feels manipulative. This respect for the powerless is simply part of who he is, and in return, people share important information they kept from those who overlooked them.

I’m not saying no modern urban detectives are kind to underdogs, but this trait is not seen as intrinsically part of the hard-boiled archetype, and perhaps it should be. It is just as essential to making Marlowe a compelling character as his rudeness. More stories, urban fantasy and mundane mysteries alike, could emulate that appeal by placing equal emphasis on this gentler trait in their snarky detectives and showing it for the strength it is.

Treatment of Women

Despite the historical time period, Marlowe is generally not sexist or misogynistic in his treatment of women. He’ll disrespect a cruel rich lady the same way he would a cruel rich man. When a femme fatale flirts with him, he’ll flirt back, giving as good as he gets and matching her. When faced with less powerful women – the young, innocent, kind, naive, mistreated, abused – he is gentle, protective, and never ever takes advantage of them. In fact, he goes to great lengths not to, even when they express interest in him. In The Big Sleep, he rescues a drugged teenager from a dubious pornography photo shoot, takes her home safe to her sister, and does his best to protect her reputation. In The High Window, he soothes a panicking and abused secretary who works for his client, gently takes care of her, gives her a safe shelter, and transports her safely to her parents and away from her abuser.

Marlowe doesn’t do these things out of a desire to impress or win them over, nor to seem like a hero. In fact, he often conceals these actions from others. He merely does it because it’s the right thing to do. Again, I am not saying that all modern hard-boiled detectives are sexist, but a positive respect for women is not often included in the archetype, and, again, it should be. Readers who suffer under sexism shouldn’t have to put up with it from protagonists who are supposed to be likable, and everyone could use more examples of positive masculinity.

Violence as a Last Resort

Marlowe will punch or shoot someone if he needs to, but it’s not his first choice. Whenever possible, he tries to diffuse situations. When violence happens, he is often defending himself or someone else. He doesn’t torture or beat up suspects for information. During one scene in The Big Sleep, he ends up collecting the guns from everyone in the room to keep them from shooting each other.

This avoidance of violence is another trait that could be emphasized more. Again, as we saw in Lord of the Rings, and in the words of King Arthur from Camelot, “violence is not strength, and compassion is not weakness.” Also, when we limit violence as a tool, it forces us to come up with more creative ways to address a problem. There’s nothing wrong with a fight when necessary, and books in this genre certainly warrant the excitement. However, new works could make their heroes more heroic by employing more of those nonviolent solutions, or at least attempts at them, with violence as a last resort. The world is a violent place, and fiction can teach us to make it less so.


What do you know – some of these underemphasized tropes overlap. All three of these original works emphasize the importance of kindness, gentleness, and compassion. All of these are stereotypically “weak” and “feminine” traits. Notably, only one of these three books was written by a woman, and most of the characters discussed here are male, yet they don’t reinforce toxic masculinity by buying into the idea that men have to be unfailingly tough with no mitigating “softer” traits. Not only that, but these softer traits are what make them deep, rounded, compelling, and heroic in the first place. We can learn to include and place greater emphasis on these themes, and our stories will be the better for it. And maybe they will teach us to be better, too.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    Great article!

  2. SunlessNick

    Humble and Gentle Heroes

    A lot of works seem to think this is covered by “from a farm.”

    • Cay Reet

      Because we all know there’s no jerks on farms. /sarcasm

    • Alverant

      My dad was “from a farm” and he’s a great person. My mother’s side of the family has a lot of people “from a farm” and it’s a good range from “total jerk” to “always welcome in my home”.

    • Dinwar

      It’s a bit more complex than that.

      In order to display the fantastic elements of a story you need to give the readers something to relate to at the start. The Shire was rural England, something everyone Tolkien’s intended audience would be familiar with. He added increasingly fantastic elements to the story slowly, using the hobbits as a way to explain things. It’s not out of place in the story for Gimli to describe the history of Moria–he’s frankly geeking out a bit, and the hobbits have no idea what’s going on so it makes sense to explain it. If the story had just started in the dwarf mine, the author would have to waste half the first chapter explaining what was going on.

      Something similar happens in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Cimorine is a princess, sure, but it’s shown that her education was limited. So it makes sense that Morwin and Kazul would have to explain certain things going on to her. It’s exposition–but it’s logical, sensible, and advances the plot, so it doesn’t feel cheap. Contrast that with the second book, which starts with the King of the Enchanted Forest meandering about. There’s a lot of back story needed, because the author needs to explain who this person is, why he reacts the way he does to what’s going on, and what he’s capable of. It makes sense that Cimorine can slog through a dense reference book; Mendenbar getting annoyed with the Forest is something the reader is expected to just take on faith.

      Starting someone off in a rural, insular, and ignorant society is an easy way for the author to explain the fantastic elements to the audience without directly addressing the audience. A lot of authors are bad at it, but that doesn’t negate the utility of the trope.

      • Cay Reet

        I think what Sunless Nick meant was less ‘all stories start on farms’ and more ‘writers replace humble and gentle as traits for the heroes with ‘they grew up on a farm’ as a shortcut.’

        Introducing a new world (as you do in fantasy when you’re building your own worlds) is, indeed, best done in a rural environment which is isolated to a degree and allowes for the writer to lay down the basics and to create characters which don’t know much about the world at large, so they can later on be educated or ask questions in lieu of the reader.

        • SunlessNick

          Pretty much, yeah. The way growing up on a farm is treated as inherently making the protagonist humble and virtuous, regardless of whether they then do anything to display those traits.

  3. LeeEsq

    One of the adaptations of the Philip Marlow novels attempted to mimic the first person narration of the book by having us view the entire experience through Philip Marlow’s viewpoint by using a camera. It did not work.

    • Kruppe

      The Lady in the Lake, yes?

  4. Ems

    100% on the Mr Darcy stuff. The appeal of him isn’t that he’s a jerk at first, it’s his willingness to change and be better with no expectation of gaining Lizzie’s love for it. Modern attempts to recapture him often seem to think Lizzie just learned to love the standoffish behavior, rather than her falling for the kinder side of his personality that came out as well as his earlier behavior becoming more contextualized in her eyes.

  5. Innocent Bystander

    Shout out to “PS I Like You” by Kasie West. I read this book and first thought “oh no, not another jerk love interest.” But the story felt really close to P&P by having the couple’s initial antagonism stem from misunderstandings on both ends and knee-jerk reactions escalating it to the point it gets to.

    The stuff about Philip Marlowe makes me want to read the books now.

    • Cay Reet

      Me, too. While I’m aware of the noir detective as a genre, I’m really curious about the sides of Philip Marlowe which are not found in a lot of the others.

  6. Dinwar

    Something I’ve found is that early works in a genre are less constricted than later versions. Tolkien’s works are surprisingly subtle and engage in a lot of things we’d call lampshading now. Early sci-fi does this as well–Dune can be thought of as a deconstruction of modern sci-fi tropes in a lot of ways, despite predating modern sci-fi.

    I think it’s related to something paleontologists call “chanellization”. Early forms of life are WEIRD–if we didn’t have the physical evidence of Cambrian and Precambrian life, no one would believe that such life forms could exist. Over time, disparity between forms reduced, with most phyla and classes developing relatively strict archetypes. There are a lot of reasons for this in biology (later adaptations rely on the existence of earlier ones, for example, limiting alterations to those traits). The same thing happens in writing. Early writers were WEIRD. The authors were intentionally throwing off the rules and doing things no one had done before (or at least, things which were never popularized before). Over time, writers picked up a handful of aspects of the stories and used those to make their own stories–and once that goes through a few iterations you get codified tropes defining the genre.

    Amber is a fantasy series had a full-scale assault by an army with automatic weapons. Modern fantasy, in contrast, is just discovering the Renaissance. The politics in Tolkien’s work were violent, dark, and complex–the very thing that GRRM is praised for. Dune is a complex space opera where the main protagonists are the bad guys–something that gets praised as new and innovative these days. All of this is because later writers picked other tropes to pull from these works to make the genres. Earlier writers didn’t have those crutches, so they went in strange, and sometimes wonderful, directions.

  7. guest

    just to note: in the “Lord of the Rings” books, the distress beacons are lit while Gandalf and Pippin are still en route to Minas Tirith. There’s no indication that anyone other than Denethor ordered it.

  8. Lucy

    This is a great list, and I agree with everything you’ve got here. The fact that so many LotR inspired stories just ditch the hobbit characters completely is something that has always frustrated me.
    Another thing to add to the list for Pride and Prejudice is that the theming is really, really strong, from the title onwards – something that doesn’t get noticed so much when the book is looked at solely through the lens of the romance.
    For instance, Darcy’s mistake of judging Elizabeth’s family may not be so bad in the sense that her mother and younger sisters can be pretty awful – however, it’s made much worse by the fact he believed he usually kept much better company. When Elizabeth meets his aunt it’s made clear that she is equally dreadful, if not worse – I mean, this is a woman who will bluntly ask the age of someone she’s only just met, at the dinner table, in front of a bunch of her other guests … something that would be considered a bit of a faux pas even today – but her behaviour is either indulged or not even noticed, simply because she is rich and therefore everything she does must be okay.
    Seeing his aunt’s behaviour through Elizabeth’s eyes, Darcy is forced to acknowledge that he judged Elizabeth’s family harshly not because they were rude, but because he wasn’t personally related to them and because they were poor … so, you know … pride and prejudice.
    I think romances that also maintain a strong focus on a theme outside the romance story itself are usually more successful as a result, because it adds depth to the story as a whole.

  9. Silverware

    I’ve read so many stories where the love interest is made a complete total asshole, to the point of verbally and/or physically abusing the heroine. Like, dude. That’s so unsexy.

    I found that the romance works better if the main characters are pretty decent people who are attracted to each other, and their initial dislike isn’t because one of them being an abusive jerk. For example, “Your father was the monster who destroyed my family, and I hate you because you’re his son” is a more compelling conflict, imo. Or “We get along so well it’s like we’re made for each other, but oh shit! We’re from opposing political parties!”

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, making the adversity between them something indirect (depending on a group they belong to) makes it easy to have tension between the main characters of a romance story without the need to make one of them unlikeable.

    • Steelbright

      This isn’t referencing any KJ Charles plots by chance, is it? Not that there aren’t many books with such functions but an exampleu immediately sprang to my mind, so now I want to know!!

      • Cay Reet

        KJ Charles does that pretty well, yes.

  10. Raillery

    This as such an interesting topic! Again, just some of the many elements hidden right under your nose.

    If there happens to be more article-worthy material out there, I would love to see an “X More Genre-Defining Books [or Films] With Underutilized Tropes” in the future.

  11. Dave L

    I mentioned this post in a comment on Sean Carlin’s blog http://www.seanpcarlin.com/hero-detective/

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