Hero Fantasy in Children’s Literature

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

Readings: Natalie Babbitt, who has written quite a few novels of her own. Babbitt gives a summary of the work done by a socio-psychologist Joseph Campbell in a seminal work called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which is a monumental work, still in print, first published 1949. Campbell revised it greatly, and then a third edition came out just a few years ago. See also Fantasy and the Classic Hero (1987) in Innocence and experience: essays and conversations on children’s literature, ed. Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire. Boston: Lothrop, Lea and Shepard.

Beagley argues that the term hero doesn’t specify gender, but having said that, there are inherent values so often attached to traditionally masculine virtues. There may be emotional skills though — the ability to cope in a crisis — because in our modern gender construction the male has the physicality and the female has the emotional skills. If we combine them into the characterisation of the person we’d also be looking at someone who displays goodness, kindness, social sacrifice.

But most of the stories we look at still attach this nature to a male character. The female hero is a fairly recent development and is often seen as someone trying to demonstrate these traits against the odds, having to show it the other way round.

Oscar Schindler was an out and out conman and a rogue. He never really ran a successful business but was the shonkiest businessman you ever came across. A womaniser, a cheat, businesses all went belly-up at various times. An absolute charmer, though. Outside of wartime his businesses failed. When he was set up in South America by the people he’d saved his businesses went belly up again, but during the war, charm is what was needed. So his skills were appropriate for the time that was needed. [This theme is explored in the novel King Rat.] Beagley also offers the Australian example of Weary Dunlop. A snob who denied that he came from smalltown Victoria. That type of ‘I am better, do what I say’ type attitude served him very well during the war. He had a charisma, a leader. But outside the war, a lot of people found him a pompous snob.

King Rat
  • Would Frodo have been a hero if someone hadn’t handed him the ring? What about Harry Potter had he not received a letter?
  • The hero must be larger than life.
Harry Potter Letter

What is a hero ‘fantasy’, then? Waiting for a hero to come to you (from the female POV) is arguably also a hero fantasy.

There’s been a concept lately toward the antihero. Take Shrek. Shrek as hero isn’t the knight on a white steed, in fact the whole movie parodies that concept. Artemis Fowl is not who you’d expect, who ought to be villain, same as Shrek, but instead this person is the hero but they end up in the circumstances as the hero.

Normally there is a repetition of form and structure, even if it is Shrek, or even if someone is as nice as Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, there are still patterns of behaviour that occur throughout the story. Historically, all these stories relate back to far earlier ones such as Gilgamesh, The Iliad and Beowulf (from the English speaking tradition). We see something of King Arthur or Odysseus in Harry Potter. Through all of these stories, regardless of setting, the focus is really on that individual person, on the hero.

Other people get the benefit of the hero’s actions — not necessarily the hero.

Most commonly, these stories are quests. The hero must try to find and achieve a particular task. They must work out what the task is and undertake it. Bilbo and Frodo and Harry Potter spend a lot of time wondering what they are supposed to do. The story itself is simply a mechanism that allows us to concentrate on that individual, so the pattern makes it easy to focus on the individual. We’re not wondering about events. We’re wondering about the person in it.

Babbitt looks at the pattern that occurs through these stories, the common structure which allows each author to say what happens to the individual. An individual author develops their own way of telling the story, so this makes the authors work harder. One of the problems with there being so many fantasy stories is the danger of them being so cliche and predictable. Terry Pratchett lampoons just about every fantasy story you’ll ever find in Discworld.

Even the cover art is a ridiculous parody and mishmash of over-the-top fantasy elements.

Carl Jung saw the following patterns of behaviour across culture.

In virtually all hero stories a hero takes a journey and it’s not just a physical journey but a psychological one. Three key stages of the journey, identified by Campbell: Separation (from point of origin, home), Initiation (trials to discover their own heroic capacity), Return (to where they began).

Separation has within it: Call To Adventure, Herald, Threshold.

Initiation: Succession of Trials, Protective Figure, Confrontation (the quest, culmination).

The Call To Adventure: Somehow the hero is called. Something happens to identify the hero. In Harry Potter that’s when the letters arrive. In The Hobbit Gandalf turns up. He stirs Frodo’s imagination but he also leaves a mark on the door (a physical thing). Rowan of Rin (Emily Rodda, Australian series), an old lady Sheba challenges young Rowan and gives him a map. In Treasure Island (not exactly a fantasy but might as well be) young Jim Hawkins finds a treasure map. The hero is disrupted, transferred from his place to somewhere unknown. There might be a command to go on a journey. The Pevensey children have to go to another place called Narnia, and that place has danger. But it also has the promise of something positive. Perhaps you can only get there when you’re asleep (Mary Hoffman’s work.) There is something in the hero’s ordinary life that makes them dissatisfied, even if it’s just the feeling that there must be something more out there. In Rowan’s case he is the child of a single mother and looked down upon. This dissatisfaction makes the hero ready for the call. The call is usually accompanied by The Herald (a character). This character comes and leads the hero off. This person could be ugly, beautiful, frightening — there is something distinctive about them. In HP it’s Hagrid. The White Rabbit comes to get Alice. Mr Tumnus takes Lucy. In Rowan it’s an old lady called Sheba. It could be human or non human.

The threshold they cross is usually defined as a physical place. It may be simply a set of circumstances but is usually a physical place. This could represent life and death. Several stories use death as this physical place e.g. Ursula Le Guin in Earthsea. In Garth Nix’s trilogy death is a river with a series of waterfalls. Once you’ve got past the ninth there’s no way back. In Pullman’s Dark Material’s trilogy death is a shadowland and you sail on it in a boat. Platform 93/4 is the threshold in HP. The Wardrobe in Narnia. The journey has now become.

Succession of Trials might be simply learning about where you’re going, observing what’s happening. Lucy just looks at first in the Narnia series, as an observer. With Bilbo, first the trolls, then meeting Gollum and meeting goblins and wolves… it goes on and on, the succession of trials, all of which he gradually learns. These trials represent coming face to face with all of our problems and learning from them. By being exposed to the danger we learn by making mistakes.  The trials are a representation of ‘growing up’, learning lessons.

There is so often a protective figure with them, which may have a long white beard and a nice staff calling himself Gandalf or Dumbledore or Merlin. This figure has power and knowledge and you think well why don’t you just go ahead and do the thing? The hero doesn’t have to do it alone. Often this protective figure is an adult-looking figure. The child doesn’t yet understand how this world works so it looks ‘magic’. The hero at first cannot survive without the protection. Destiny is important. The goal isn’t the main point though — the main point is that they learn from the whole experience.

The Quest is fulfilled. The hero must learn lessons before they can become a mature adult. Usually, the final lesson is within them all the time. With Harry Potter, all the time the answers are not external, but his own capacity to be good, to think. It’s just ‘think’ at the end, figure it out. That’s been set up when Hermione says, We learned this in biology. Ron says, “I’ve learned these skills at chess.” And then it’s Harry’s turn to think. It’s not ‘I’m bigger and stronger and more powerful and I can chop off your head.’ Most of the time it’s the opposite of that. The end reveals some sort of big truth, and there is a decision. The hero must choose. Bilbo and Frodo both have to decide how to use the ring and who gets saved. Harry has to face Voldemort and decide whether the sacrifices his friends have made are worthwhile. Rowan has to face the dragon. Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader. Is the sacrifice of Aslan worthwhile?

The Return Journey: It’s no coincidence that The Hobbit is subtitled ‘There and Back Again.’ In Alice In Wonderland, Alice comes out of the rabbit hole. Harry Potter goes back to the Dursleys…. They are free at the end and it’s their choice to return. They bring knowledge and something worthwhile. That knowledge might help change that other world, but the hero must return home, but move on from the big struggle, go back to normal living. What happens next is left to the reader’s imagination. Harry Potter gets a room rather than the closet under the stairs, and he also gets pictures of his parents, so he’s got this symbolic thing. But the price for growing up is that you have lost childhood. So often the hero has lost innocence. They’re older and wiser without the same carefree happiness, but they do have satisfaction, a different kind of happiness. But if they refuse to go back home, that suggests the journey wasn’t really worthwhile. The circle must be completed.

Obviously there are slight variations on this pattern, but the basics are the same.

See Kal Bashier’s website: How To Structure A Successful Story.

See Also

A list of ‘adventure’ books for children and YA at Reading Matters