The Missing Mentor

[Discussing stories in detail inevitably involves some spoilers.
The ones in this post, however, should be fairly mild.
]

Gandalf, polygon art portrait

Image from desktopimages.org

The wise old mentor is a staple, not only in fantasy, but in all kinds of stories.  From a narrative point of view, though, these mentor figures are rather an inconvenience – which is why they so frequently go missing.

Gandalf the Grey, the very archetype of the mentor in an adventuring party, is kept offstage by other engagements for much of The Hobbit.  In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien goes so far as to have him perish (not permanently, to be sure).

In the Harry Potter stories, Albus Dumbledore tends to be curiously inactive – he’s not around when the crises occur – though this changes over the course of the series, until he’s fully engaged toward the end.

Professor X, of the X-Men, is generally confined to a wheelchair, which keeps him out of the action.  In the first couple of X-Men movies, he’s also hors de combat much of the time.

Gordon Ashe, the main character’s mentor in Andre Norton’s Time Traders­ series, often happens to be sick or injured.

And of course Obi-Wan Kenobi dies about a third of the way through Star Wars:  A New Hope – even if he keeps popping up periodically through the three original episodes as a Force ghost.

Why does a writer introduce these characters, only to shuffle them offstage as soon as possible?  Consider what the mentor contributes:

  1. Power.  The mentor is often a fully-developed version of what the hero is becoming, as in Star Wars.  If not, like Gandalf, he is typically a powerful figure in his own right.
  2. Knowledge.  Gandalf knows how to terminate trolls and how to open the doors of Moria (Frodo helps in the movie, but not the book).  Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) know how to train in karate.  Obi-Wan knows where to find Yoda.
  3. Wisdom.  The mentor often advises the hero about life – not specific information, but how to live in a more global sense.  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”

Here’s where the problems start to arise.  If the mentor is a powerful figure, why isn’t the mentor out fighting the battle, rather than sending the hapless (hero) apprentice?  The more impressive the mentor’s abilities, the harder it is to avoid having the mentor displace the hero.  With the mentor in action, things would be too easy for the main characters.  (There’s a parallel problem in children’s adventure stories – how to get the children away from parents and other caregivers so they have to act on their own.)

Knowledge poses a lesser problem, but a good storyteller still rations the mentor’s advice closely.  It makes for better drama if the hero doesn’t quite know what to do and isn’t fully trained.  (The tagline for the first World of Warcraft game expansion was:  “YOU ARE NOT PREPARED!”)  Luke Skywalker is more thrilling as a brash but vulnerable neophyte facing Darth Vader than he would have been as a fully seasoned Jedi knight.  The writer may prefer to have the hero not fully informed – if only to enable a shocking surprise at the right moment.

The problems are not as severe with the mentor’s third role, as dispenser of wisdom – though it still falls to the hero to implement the teacher’s wise counsel, when the crisis comes.

Authors thus expend a lot of effort to keep mentors out of the action, leaving the heroes on their own to apply what they have learned – or fail to do so.

Gandalf dies in Moria; he returns, but by that time he’s cut off from Frodo and Sam, who most need his guidance.  (“Its name was Cirith Ungol . . . Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them.”  The Two Towers, ch. IV.3)  Gandalf is present, however, for the big battle scenes, and is ready to take on the Witch-King at Minas Tirith.  In effect, Tolkien has held Gandalf’s might in reserve:  as the enemies get bigger and worse over the course of the story, it makes sense to bring the powerful mentor back in, to even the scales.  We see the same kind of progression in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore takes a more direct hand as the story goes on (though he’s removed to make the final battle more challenging).

In the Silver Age comics, the wheelchair was enough to keep Professor Xavier out of the action most of the time.  In the movies, his range and power is vastly expanded, and he has to be rendered comatose to keep him out of the fray.

George Lucas managed to eat his cake and still have it.  He opts for the drastic solution by killing off Obi-Wan for good.  But Obi-Wan’s continuation as a ghost allows him to keep providing occasional advice – not to mention retconned explanations (“From a certain point of view”).

E.E. Smith’s classic Lensman series gives us an entire species, the Arisians, as mentors.  One character, a “fusion” of four Arisians, is actually known as Mentor.  Smith crafts his story to produce fairly subtle and plot-central reasons for keeping the Arisians out of the main conflicts.  At first they need to conceal their existence from their Eddorian adversaries.  Later, they need to keep their vast powers under wraps so as not to undermine the confidence and self-reliance of the Galactic Patrol.  But the Arisians do emerge in time for the climactic battle – which could not be won without both the Arisians and the Patrol (and the Children of the Lens, but that’s another story).

The mentor isn’t always missing in action.  A writer can engage the mentor figure in the story, if proper caution is employed to dodge the above problems.  For example, the social conditions of The Karate Kid mean that Mr. Miyagi can’t simply obliterate the adversaries.  He has to equip Daniel to fight a duel, in which third parties aren’t allowed to intervene.

Another way of handling it is to have the hero and mentor fighting on separate tracks.  Thus, in The Mask of Zorro (1998), the older Zorro is supposed to be dead and has to stay in disguise for most of the story.  But during the climax he is revealed and takes on his old nemesis, while the new Zorro is saving lives and fighting his own opposite number.

One of the reasons the absent mentor appeals to us, I think, is that it reflects something we experience in real life.  As we grow older, we do leave our mentors behind.  Generally, we outlive them – and sometimes feel inadequate without the advice and assistance of those who seemed towering figures in our youth.  Yet, just as in a story, this is necessary if we are to grow up.  In the end we succeed our mentors, and become the heroes of our own stories — and, in turn, mentors to the next generation.

Advertisements

Star Wars VII: The Old and the New

By now it should be possible to discuss The Force Awakens without issuing a spoiler alert, since everyone in this galaxy has probably seen it.

 

I was tempted to use “Everything old is new again” for the way SW7 harks back to the original movie, but it turns out several commentators have already done that.  Then I thought using the phrase “Back to the Future” might express the sense of familiarity the new movie evokes for old-time fans—but it turns out a number of reviews have already done that too (for example, here, here, and here).  Somebody’s even done a Star Wars-Back to the Future mashup.

The great thing about the Internet is that it’s easy to find out what everyone else is saying.  The depressing thing about the Internet is that, when you set out to say something, someone else has probably said it already.

 

Is the familiarity of Episode VII’s tropes a strength or a weakness?  Is director J.J. Abrams just rehashing old material, or is he providing us with a charming return to our roots?

In this case, I think imitation is the sincerest form of homage.

The familiar moves came off well, by and large.  Heroes with downtrodden humble beginnings – that’s classic storytelling.  Desert planet—Actually, I could have done with a new setting.  But the landscape does express the aridity of Rey’s prior life, and it allows for some nice contrasts.  (“I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole galaxy.”)  And we aren’t there for very long, after all.

Invoking family dysfunctions and mysteries also harks back to the original trilogy, of course.  The angle that struck me particularly (since I’m old enough to appreciate it) is that “Rey Who?” sparks as feverish a storm of fan speculation as Darth Vader’s Empire Strikes Back bombshell.

It’s hard to remember now, when “I am your father” has become a ubiquitous meme, that at the end of ESB we didn’t really know whether Vader was telling the truth.  He probably was; it was too good a narrative twist to pass up.  But those us who were still attached to the image of Luke’s heroic dad spent three years trying out alternative scenarios.

Even more, we debated “There is another.”  We canvassed every conceivable answer to that mystery, and some that were inconceivable.  Same with Rey’s parentage:  I’ve already heard suggestions that are all across the map.

At least, on Disney’s more aggressive release schedule, we’ll only have a year and a half to run this issue into the ground, as opposed to three years back in the 1980s.  Which is a good thing:  by the time Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, we had overthought the matter so much that the actual revelations were almost anticlimactic.

(Of course, the real answer, obviously, is that Rey is Chewbacca’s daughter.  They hit it off so well, and he accompanies her to find Luke at the end.  This explains why Han, Chewie’s old friend, is so protective of her.  She doesn’t look like Chewie, you say?  We can just assume that Wookiees develop all that hair and the growly voice later, post-adolescence.)

By and large, I enjoyed the frequent callouts to Star Wars IV-VI.  The new movie combined the nostalgic recognition of familiar themes with the freshness of new characters and relationships.  Rey and Finn and Poe play off each other well, but not in the same way as Luke and Leia and Han.  Abrams has restarted the story without having to reboot.

 

On the other hand, there were a couple of repetitions that could be dispensed with.

The biggest (in every sense) is the Death Star.  Er, Starkiller Base.  The whole end sequence in SW7 was fun, to be sure.  But we’ve seen this scenario twice already in the original trilogy.  Three desperate attempts to blow up an Ultimate Weapon is enough.  Can we agree, no more Death Stars, no matter how big they are or what fancy names we give them?

We need something different for the third trilogy.  It’s not as if there aren’t other mythic motifs available.  I’ve always felt the third trilogy would work well as a Quest.  Let there be something Our Heroes need to find to set a New Republic or new Jedi Order on the right track.

With the classic quest theme in mind, the fact that Luke set out looking for “the first Jedi temple” is suggestive.  He’s not just on this island as a hideout; he seems to have been looking for something.  What might one be looking for in the Jedi temple that would make a good MacGuffin for Episodes VIII and IX?  The “Holocron,” a Jedi teaching device invented for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, might be a good candidate.  (In a year or so, we can look back and see how far off-track I was—which is the fun of making rash predictions.)

We can analyze all these questions to death while we’re waiting for Episode VIII to come out.  But if we’ve learned from the 1980s experience, we may prefer just to enjoy the anticipation.

The Role of Science Fiction

Science fiction started out as a niche interest for a few eccentrics.  So did Tolkienesque high fantasy, though with a different group of devotees.  Fans had their conventions, their own slang, almost their own culture.  They had that bracing sense of loving something that most people—English teachers, for example—didn’t understand.

No more.  Today, fantasy and science fiction (let’s call them F&SF) have gone mainstream.  Half the movies and books these days have fantastic elements.  These stories may not “feel like” F&SF, but the trans-normal elements have crept slowly into popular culture.  Amy Wallace recently remarked in Wired:  “And now that movies are dominated by space and superheroes, television by dragons and zombies, books by plagues and ghosts, science fiction isn’t a backwater anymore.  It’s mainstream.”  (Nov. 2015 issue, p. 97)

To the dedicated SF fan of years gone by, it’s a little disconcerting.  We wanted to get other people interested in what we loved, of course.  But we didn’t expect this much success.

 

As to which variants are woven into mainstream books and movies, science fiction or fantasy, it isn’t always easy to say.  Harry Potter is fantasy, obviously; it’s got wizards.  The Martian is SF, and “hard science fiction” at that.  It has space travel, and the science rates very high on what TV Tropes calls the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.”

But what do we make of Groundhog Day?  The fantastic premise that sets the story going has no explanation, whether science-fictional (like the particle accelerator in the similar TV movie 12:01), or fantasy-like (as with the Chinese fortune cookie in Freaky Friday).  It’s just there.  The one thing we can say for sure is that Groundhog Day has something going for it that we don’t find in slice-of-life mainstream literature.

Even geeky main characters are in fashion, from Chuck to The Big Bang TheoryThat’s something we 20th-century geeks never expected .

 

What happens, then, when F&SF are added to the mix?  What do these literatures of the fantastic have to offer, over and above the plot and character and background elements we already love in a purely mundane Brooklyn or Titanic?  There’s a lot we can (and will) say about this, but a few things leap out.

Science fiction trains us in recognizing that the future will be different.  It doesn’t predict:  old-time SF oriduced some strikingly accurate foretellings, but just as many complete misses.  But the very variety of imagined futures shows the wide range of possibilities before us.

A science fiction reader naturally thinks in terms of change:  in society, in technology, in markets, in manners.  A people that’s used to both Star Trek and The Hunger Games will be a little more prepared for a future that’s unlike today, whether or not it looks like either of those two worlds.

 

This ought to be a reason for hope.  The future can be better than today.  Of course it can also be worse.  Yet the realization that things can be otherwise should galvanize us, wean us away from fatalism and resignation.

But very often, that’s not what we’re getting.  Today’s visions of what’s to come seem more like excuses for despair than exercises in hope.  Downbeat futures are rampant.  Teen dystopias saturate the market.  And the grown-ups aren’t doing so well either – ask any character in Game of Thrones.

Even universes that used to be more optimistic get overhauled with less liveliness and more gloom.  Compare the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek with the Roddenberry original.  Writers seem compelled to succumb to that scourge of our times, the “gritty reboot.”

 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We do see tales that evoke a more balanced picture of the world.  We can avoid the grimdark pit without falling off the other side into a blind Pollyanna optimism.  And we can have fun doing it.

Imaginative stories help us explore the whole range of possibilities – good, bad, and indifferent.  The open-endedness of science fiction and fantasy may be their greatest charm.

So let’s kick around some of the cool things about stories and storytelling, especially in the fantastic mode; some favorite (or unfavorite) books and movies and music; even some of the deeper roots out of which these stories grow.  It’ll be an adventure!