Heroes Need Mentors Too

May 14, 2009

“The language describes the true nature of things, not the superficial aspects that everyone sees.” – Eragon

“I’ve told you. A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.” – A Wind in the Door

I have a high standard for fantasy, formed by my early exposure to the creative stylings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, followed by C.S. Lewis, Star Wars, Ursula LeGuin, and J.K. Rowling, then Philip Pullman. After years of recommendations for Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, I picked up the book at a library book sale and, three months later, have finally begun to read it. 

This is not a book review. This is not a critical comparison to earlier authors. As I read, what I notice more and more are the commonalities in fantasy, and I have begun to wonder if they are, in fact, inevitable.

  • High fantasy is concerned with the purity of language and its deterioration over time.
  • Fantasy acknowledges a connection between name and being.
  • Young heroes must break decisively with their past, often through violence done to a loved one.
  • Young heroes require tutelage from an older, more experienced person, often a father-figure.
  • A period of respite, often traveling, trains the hero, through minor conflicts, for a final confrontation. 
  • A defining moment in the hero’s journey occurs when the guide steps aside or is killed.

The pattern is not rigid or complete, and there are certainly exceptions; however, many of these characteristics are present in some form. But why? I have spent some time researching and writing about the question of language, so this time, I was particularly interested in the role of the teacher. 

Fantasy is built on the premise of worlds fundamentally different from our own. For the sake of continuity and immersion, the author cannot step in and define the rules of his or her world. To do so would acknowledge them as creations and thus alienate the reader, making suspension of disbelief nearly impossible.

The teacher, however, can do what the author cannot. Sometimes the hero, as in Harry Potter, is actually in school to learn about his new world. Sometimes, as in The Golden Compass, the hero has a variety of tutors. And sometimes, facilitated by a physical journey toward the climactic conflict, a single mentor completes the task.

What if there were no teacher?

First, the hero would have to uncover the metaphysics of the world experientially or empirically. S/he could never be certain that a spell or type of magic would work. Imagine Eragon exclaiming, “Go fire, go. Fly!” Like Spiderman in Spider-Man 2, when his powers deserted him, the hero would be left to seek counsel for “a friend” at the local psychologist’s office.

Without established wisdom, the hero would never know if evil could be destroyed, or how to do it. There could be no comfort of final victory for the reader either, rendering the story similar to an endless cycle of comic book villains and summer popcorn flick sequels. 

Apparently, heroes need mentors too.