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21 September 2009 @ 10:08 am
WISE OLD MAN—CHARACTERS AND CLICHÉS  
The first book I turn to when thinking on character archetypes is THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell. And so pulling my beautiful copy off my newly organized bookshelves, I turn to the page on Supernatural Help (Chapter 1, section 3). To quote the beginning of this section:

"For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass."

For those unfamiliar with Joseph Campbell, he basically traces the path a hero takes through virtually all the stories of all the mythologies of the world. So often a hero sets out on a journey, and so often he comes to a place where he needs help.

(And please excuse my use of "he" for our hero. I do mean he/she.)

We've seen these little old men everywhere. Think Gandalf from LORD OF THE RINGS. Think Dumdledore from HARRY POTTER. Think Merlin.
The wise old man is often seen as a hermit. He hides in a cave and the hero must journey long and far to find him.

* And on a sidenote, I just have to point out one of my favorite images of the wise old man from Led Zeppelin (who were huge LOTR fans, btw).
* And can I just mention the similarity between the Led Zeppelin wise old man and the Rider Waite Hermit tarot card?


So can the Wise Old Man be a wise old man anymore? Has he become too cliché?

After Joseph Campbell, I normally turn to THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler. He's basically taken THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, decrypted it, and shown how movie after movie follows this formula. And for the supernatural help, he refers to this person as The Mentor. To quote from Book One of THE WRITER'S JOURNEY:

"An archetype found frequently in dreams, myths, and stories is the Mentor, usually a positive figure who aids or trains the hero."

I do love this quote from the section on The Mentor:

"Although Campbell called these Mentor figures Wise Old Men or Women, they are sometimes neither wise nor old."

So what does this say for our mentor? Our mentor can be young, ignorant, funny, villainous. Our mentor can be confused or fallen. Our mentor may not even be a person. It may be a set of values that the hero discovers and learns to follow.

All that said, can our mentor still be a wise old man? Or has this cliché been done too many times?

What are some of your favorite mentors in kid lit fantasy? And what type of mentor are they?


PJ Hoover

THE FORGOTTEN WORLDS
Book 1: THE EMERALD TABLET
Book 2: THE NAVEL OF THE WORLD (Oct 2009)
Book 3: THE NECROPOLIS (Fall 2010)
www.pjhoover.com
 
 
 
rllafeversrllafevers on September 21st, 2009 06:15 pm (UTC)
Wise Old Men
PJ, I too, love Campbell and Vogler.

And I loved discovering that they mentor figure can come in all shapes and sizes and flavors. Breaks the possibilities wide open.

That said, I still think there is room for the mentor as a wise old man. That's the difference between stereotypes and archetypes; archetypes are True and feel as if they are connected to the very bones of storytelling itself. It also codifies a very important human truth, that the elderly do still have vital information they can provide younguns.

And having said that, I will say it's important to keep a wise old mentor from becoming a stereotype--make him MORE than simply a vehicle for imparting necessary information to your hero. If you make him a flawed, dimensional, layered character, he won't feel like a stereotype.

pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 02:01 am (UTC)
Re: Wise Old Men
Such great thoughts, Robin! I love how you distinguish the stereotype and the archetype. And it is so much about the character development.
anesbetanesbet on September 22nd, 2009 05:18 am (UTC)
Re: Wise Old Men
I also appreciate Robin's archetype vs. stereotype comment -- it's true, too, that sometimes things resonate deeply despite being very common or familiar.

Thinking of odd versions of the "wise old man": Jiminy Cricket (a bug!), Charlotte (a female spider!), Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit (multiple females!).

Thank you for this thought-provoking post, PJ!

Anne
pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Wise Old Men
You're welcome, Anne! It was so helpful for me!
(Deleted comment)
pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)
I love Yoda! I should have mentioned him for sure, but thankfully you did :) Even at "old and wise", he is unique. I've yet to read the Xenogenesis trilogy, but I'll add it to the list!
And just writing this post made me start thinking more about mine. I'm excited anew.
a novel engineerjawastew on September 21st, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
Since I just finished Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, I'm going to pick Haymitch. Too all appearances he's a useless drunkard who's supposed to help coach Katniss on her journey to the games.

As the novel goes forward his character becomes more three dimensional. We begin to understand the stresses that drive him to drink himself into oblivion. A hopeless situation turns into triumph as Katniss begins to see how useful Haymitch actually is.

Edit: I forgot to mention that, yes, I still think there's plenty of room for the "wise man" figure! My favorite, as a huge, huge Star Wars fan, is Yoda ("Wars not make one great!"). ;)

Edited at 2009-09-21 08:20 pm (UTC)
pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
Haymitch is a great and unique mentor, isn't he. And you're right on about how we really start to understand why he is the way he is - even more so in Catching Fire. Have you read it?
Thanks!
a novel engineerjawastew on September 22nd, 2009 02:36 am (UTC)
Not yet! My copy should be here shortly. I'm very excited to get into it, the ending was such a cliff-hanger! :)
pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 03:33 am (UTC)
It's fantastic! I hope you enjoy it!
Helen Harveyellierany on September 21st, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
But when Tolkein created Gandalf what he was really doing was making use of, an archetype, yes, but one that was particularly important to the Anglo-Saxons. Because he totally dug Anglo-Saxons, what with being an Anglo-Saxon scholar and all.

The old wise man is the voice of a number of Englo-Saxon poems, in which he laments his exile, and the transitoriness of life, and human creations, and then goes on a bit about the terrible ways people die, and how misery must be endured, and how its best not to be too boastful, or get too drunk, and tends to finish off with a message about the heavenly reward if you stick it out. The most famous examples are The Wanderer and The Seafarer in the Old English manuscript known as the Exeter book. I've been trying to find translations on the web. There are lots, but none that are particularly good.

Anyway, the point is, if it's been going for a good 1000 years, I don't think a little thing like Dumbledore turning him into a cliche (Gandalf was almost original; Dumbledore, whether JK knew it or not, was Gandalf 2) is ultimately going to knock him off his perch.

Besides which, the old, wise man is a pretty common imaginative personification of God. So I'd say the archetype is pretty well ingrained.
pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
I love how you express that the wise old man's been around for a while and will stay around a while longer. This is great advice to keep us thinking in the macro and not the micro!
A Deserving Porcupine: l-spacerockinlibrarian on September 21st, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the Writer's Journey suggestion! This topic-- mythology and the archetypes tying stories together-- is a particular obsession of mine (here's me going on and on about it last year after having just read Hero With a Thousand Faces), but I'd never heard of this book. I was shocked and delighted to see that we actually have it here in our library, until I went to find it only to discover that it's not on the shelves where it's supposed to be... we have that problem a lot here unfortunately.... Hooray for Interlibrary Loan!

--just a stalker, not a proper Inkpot type :)
pjhooverpjhoover on September 22nd, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
Sounds like you're a perfect proper Inkpot, rockinlibrarian! I love The Writer's Journey. It really makes Joseph Campbell so much more approachable. I'll second your yay for interlibrary loan :)
thespectacleblog.wordpress.com on September 22nd, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC)
I recently re-watched the first Harry Potter movie and remembered how disappointing Harris' portrayal of Dumbledore is--just a wise old man. Nothing more.

What I love about Rowling's Dumbledore is that he's got some surprising facets. I'm glad later directors brought those more interesting aspects into the HP movies, because I am seriously sick of the wise old man character.

Paker P
pjhooverpjhoover on September 23rd, 2009 12:52 am (UTC)
Oh, you are so right, Parker! The movie does portray him totally this way. Which brings up the point of whether it is okay in the movie because it is less common in movies. Or is it?
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on September 23rd, 2009 04:57 am (UTC)
Great post PJ! I just have to say right off that I LOVED that Zeppelin picture - wow! did that bring on a flashback! And I have a set of Rider Waite tarot cards and never noticed that similarity before - fun stuff!

Anyway - thought provoking conversation here - and I like Robin's differentiation between archetypes and stereotypes. I also agree there's always a place for the wise old man / woman. Age typically bespeaks experience and wisdom and therefore can have a place across a wide range of stories. But as noted, the character development is what determines whether the wise old man just gives advice or whether he lives and breaths.
pjhooverpjhoover on September 23rd, 2009 03:09 pm (UTC)
We have similar tastes, I think, Kiki. I loved that Led Zeppelin album :)
You're so right that age typically shows experience. I sometimes think about how little I knew ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. I have grown some it seems.
ext_186314 on September 24th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
Still OK
I think Ms. Rowling has proven that the wise old man still works. That said, it is very much cliche and I shall desperately attempt to avoid using it.
pjhooverpjhoover on September 24th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Still OK
Exactly what you said, Struggling writer!