Father Tropes In Fiction

George Sheridan Knowles - Page and Monarch forth they went, Forth they went together, Through the rude wind’s wild lament, and the bitter weather 1898

Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.

Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.

Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.

Luke, You Are My Father – when a character in a story finds out who their real parent is. An Arthurian trope. In some versions of Arthurian mythology, Mordred is the son of Arthur and his sister, who was sent away to die as an infant, as he was destined to kill Arthur later on. Which he did when he showed up as an adult. In Northern Lights, Lyra finds out that the man she thought was her uncle is actually her father.

I Am Not Your Father – There will be a reveal that a child’s parents are not the real parents after years of Oblivious Adoption. After a long time, the adoptive parents finally tell him.

Tell Me About My Father – We see the female version of this in Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

The father from Because Of Winn-Dixie

Sins Of Our Fathers – This describes the act of exacting revenge upon the descendants of the one who originally did the wrong.

Standard 50s Father – Mr Dursley from Harry Potter, the father from Freaks and Geeks (though it’s set in 1980). In Tom’s Midnight Garden we have a father figure rather than the father (Tom’s uncle) who is literally a 1950s father because this book was written in the early 1950s.

Mother Nature, Father Science – If a show has men and women both from an academic background, the man will typically have a degree in science, math, or engineering, while the woman will have one in arts or literature. (This may be why so many mad scientists are male.) Even if both characters are scientists, expect the man to research physics or mathematics and the woman to research psychology or biology. This reflects real life, but children’s literature both reflects real life AND influences it, so children do need to see more STEM mums and nurturing dads. (We are starting to see the nurturing dads, usually when the mother has been disappeared in some way.)

Lineage Comes From The Father – This can be a sexist trope: a great deal of the time characters in the Heir Club for Men who insist on having a boy are men, that when a character has a legacy of royalty, villainy or heroics it comes from the father. Even for female characters. The implicit assumption is that if a character is going to inherit something of relevance from their bloodline, it’s going to be from their father’s side, never their mother’s. However, writers can imbue a story with far more nuance than that. Children can turn out like their fathers even when it’s not a good thing. Bill of Big Love was kicked out of home as a young teen and has since appeared to make it okay in regular Utah, middle-class society. But he will never shake his background or his core beliefs learned while growing up within a cult of polygamy. He is more like his horrible birth father than he realises, and pays for it. It seems for a while that his eldest son is following in his footsteps. The audience realises that there is no real ‘supernatural’ type religious calling but that the son is instead influenced by an influx of teenage hormones, and that is the main reason he can see himself with multiple wives. A picture book example of this is Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough. It’s out of print but you can listen to the author read it on YouTube.

Fantasy-Forbidding Father – A father, mother, or guardian (these last two are less common) disapproves of their child or ward reading “fairy stories”, playing fantasy or SF games, sports, and even such “useless” hobbies as astronomy, boxing and being literate. In extreme cases, anything the child likes that isn’t directly and concretely tied to whatever it is their dad does for a living (or that he wants them to do for a living) is seen as an utter waste. The dad may even break, burn or sell anything of this nature their child owns, possibly even punishing or locking them up. In Freaks and Geeks Nick Andopolis has one of these dads — a military Dad who does not approve of his son’s playing the drums. The audience may be able to see both sides in this case, because Nick is genuinely terrible at the drums and doesn’t practice. Many a heroine of a Pony Tale was saddled with parents like these, when they weren’t obstructive in some other way to her dream of becoming an equestrian.

Supernatural-Proof Father – Usually, when a household starts experiencing supernatural events the whole family experiences them.Well, almost everybody. The father, as the head of the family and the most “sensible and grounded” member, is the last person to encounter (or admit encountering) these bizarre events. We have this kind of father in the horror film Insidious, though it turns out that technically he was the first to see the ghosts and has simply repressed his trauma.

Disappeared Dad – Children’s literature is full of Dads who are absent, either because they have left the family unit or because they’re too busy with their work. Bella Swan’s father grants her sufficient space for her to get mixed up in all sorts of supernatural happenings.

Action Dad – This is the father who realizes something is happening, and isn’t going to stand for it, particularly if it poses any kind of threat to his family. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Papa Smurf.

Archnemesis Dad – aloof, remote, and offer scant praise for their children’s achievements. Some expect their kids to act like adults from an early age and offer no guidance. Lord Tywin Lannister, the dwarf’s dad from A Song of Fire and Ice.

Bumbling Dad – Born out of the Sitcom Dysfunctional Family, he’s a deliberate subversion of theStandard ’50s Father. Now so ubiquitous the older trope is nearly forgotten. Homer Simpson, Papa Bear of the Berenstain Bears, Frank Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, maybe Ron Weasley’s dad in Harry Potter.

Human Mother, Non-Human Dad – In the Japanese comic book (and movie) Wolf Children, the mother is fully human, but the father is a werewolf. His children inherit his werewolfishness.

Jock Dad, Nerd SonBill, from Freaks and Geeks (in relation to his mother’s boyfriend, who is also his P.E. teacher.

Overprotective Dad – Kat’s father from 10 Things I Hate About You.

Papa Wolf – when bumbling Dad turns into action Dad. The dad on The River Wild, in which the last line is given to the young son: something along the lines of “My mother is really brave but my father saved the day”, just to remind a conservative audience that the character arc really belongs to the man, even though the film ostensibly follows the path (“river”) of the mother.

Parent Ex Machina – This is when a mother or fatherly figure swoops in to save the day, much as a god did in old dramas. This is an absolute no-no in writing fiction for children. Cheryl Klein advises in her book Second Sight, if you find yourself with a plot that a child wouldn’t be able to solve because of their age, you can do something to fix it: Turn the unsolvable plot into a subplot while giving the child protagonist more autonomy in the main plot. Children must be the fully fledged protagonists of their own stories.

Team Dad – More often than not the disciplinarian, lead-by-example-kind of character in contrast to the warm, nurturing tendencies of a Team Mom. The Team Dad is almost always the oldest member of The Team and if he isn’t The Leader, then he’s definitely The Mentor, and in family-based teams, he is the father (or at least the big brother) of at least one member. This character doesn’t have to be an actual Dad and doesn’t actually have to be male — though usually is. A good example from kidlit is Julian from the Famous Five series, or Dick from The Faraway Tree series — Enid Blyton loved Team Dad boys. Open page one of The Wishing Chair and highlight the mansplaining dished out to Molly from her brother, who looks the same age as she is.

Veteran DadPark’s father from Eleanor & Park. The gay dad across the road in American Beauty.

The Influence Of King Arthur

Was King Arthur A Real Person?

King Arthur is a fabled British leader, said in medieval tales and chronicles to have ruled over England and defended it against Saxon invaders following the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century. But at the start of the Dark Ages, when the island was under constant threat of invasion, and at various other troubled moments in their history, the inhabitants of Britain longed for a strong leader who could  unite their fragmented regions under one rule and enable them to defend themselves. Hence the legend of King Arthur, the saviour king, was hugely appealing, its popularity spreading over the years, thanks especially to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History Regnum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of England’), written in about 1136, and to Thomas Malory’s Le MOrte d’Arthur, published in 1485.

Largely thanks to Malory, the legend of King Arthur was integral to the medieval conception of English history, but with the waning of the Middle Ages came a lessening of belief in the story. While the stories continued to be popular, their truth was disputed. The sixteenth-century humanist scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the idea of a post-Roman Arthurian empire, calling it a fabrication — much to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel, in a discussion about the nursery rhyme Good King Arthur.

Features Of Arthurian Stories

Arthurian retellings are generally considered Historical Fantasy (or myth, depending) because there is a lot of magic, so the events aren’t anywhere near believable.

One of the most popular contemporary King Arthur series is the Avalon series by Marion Bradley. Neopaganism also gave King Arthur stories a modern resurgence.

Arthurian Settings

Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)
Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)

The Wild is any place knights have to go to prove themselves, usually to the woods or to the mountains.

These settings stopped being so useful after a while, because Victorian writers transformed woods and mountains into pleasant settings. So now storytellers writing Arthurian tales decided to give their heroes less naturalistic settings.

One example is The Dark Tower in a poem/ballad written Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (a Victorian fairy poem, and O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Things Associated With King Arthur

  • The search for the Holy Grail — the Holy Grail is a sacred cup thought to have been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Sir Galahad found it but died on his way back home (to cut a long story short). The Holy Grail is related to the category of fairy tale known as Fairy Cup Legends.
  • The magic sword of Excalibur — before he expired Arthur threw his sword into the lake. A hand appeared in the waves and caught it.
  • The Knights of the Round Table
  • Merlin (his ally)
  • Camelot (a perfect community created by himself)
  • Guinevere (Arthur’s wife)
  • Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s older half sister) — the aristocratic evolution of the category of fairy who leaves a silver coin in the shoes of tidy maids. Arthur’s enemy, basically. This character was re-visioned as a feminist in the 1970s by Marion Bradley in Mists of Avalon. However battered and bruised she gets, she rises again like a Phoenix, the O.G. Strong Female Character. But she isn’t especially skilful, just resilient. For example, her spells rarely work. In The Once and Future King series by T.H. White Morgan le Fay is a witch archetype out of Hansel and Gretel, who tries to build a castle out of milk and pork hoping to attract children.
  • Sir Lancelot (one of Arthur’s knights and Guinevere’s lover)
  • Brave Sir Galahad (the best and purest of King Arthur’s circle, the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot)
  • Elaine (Galahad’s mum, daughter of King Pelles, employs a sorceress to help her appear in the likeness of Queen Guinevere to trick Lancelot into bed with her)
  • Mordred — Arthur’s nephew. Mordred murdered Arthur by sword.
  • The Isle of Avalon — After Arthur was killed a barge happened to pass by on a lake. Three women, one of whom is Morgan le Fay, take him to the Isle of Avalon. Some legends say Arthur died on Avalon. Other legends say he’s sleeping in a cave somewhere. He’ll wake up at England’s greatest need. (If not for Brexit, when, though?)
John Mulcaster Carrick - Le Mort d'Arthur
John Mulcaster Carrick – Le Mort d’Arthur
Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin  (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927
Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) "The Death of Arthur", 1910
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) “The Death of Arthur”, 1910

THE GRAIL LEGENDS

The best known of these is probably ‘The Holy Grail’ by Robert de Boron, but since the grail is such an important symbol in the Arthurian stories, there are more than one.

  • The Story Of The Grail by Chrétien de Troyes (a poem). It was never finished, actually.
  • Various continuations of that poem written by other people
  • A German story called Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
  • There’s a Welsh story
  • etc

Basic Plot of a Grail Legend

  • Joseph of Arimathea acquires the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon his removal from the cross.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison, where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup.
  • Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

SYMBOLISM OF ARTHURIAN STORIES

The Grail Legends are full of sexual symbolism.

A knight, usually a very young one whose “manhood” is barely established, sallies forth bearing his lance, which will certainly do until a phallic symbol comes along. The knight becomes the emblem of pure, if untested, maleness in search of a chalice, the Holy Grail, which hit you think about it is a symbol of female sexuality as understood once upon a time: the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And the reason for seeking to bring together the lance and the chalice? Fertility. (Freud gets help here from Jessie L. Weston, Sir James Frazer and Carl Jung, all of whom explain a great deal about mythic thinking, fertility myths, and archetypes.) Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the ageing king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols. Perhaps he can no longer use his lance, so he sends the young man. It isn’t wanton or wild sex, but it’s still sex.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Problems With The King Arthur Story

King Arthur stories are part of the reason why the male hero has been central since the fifth century. Before that, females were often the main characters in stories, because they were thought to have produced the world.

The Centrality of the Adventure Story, Marjery Hourihan

Examples Of Arthurian Stories

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Shrek The Third
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Star Wars
  • Forrest Gump
  • Ulysses
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — The other Narnia books are Biblical but this one has a distinct Arthurian feel.

The alternative world of Narnia into which CS Lewis’s four children repeatedly escape is beautiful and magical but fraught with danger. Like Nesbit, he explores the possible consequences of magic, but he also provides spiritual balm in the figure of Aslan, the talking lion.

There are many examples of this guiding, protective, mysterious figure in the literature of this Second Golden Age. Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series has a wise, magical old teacher in Merriman Lyon – or Merlin, as he turns out to be. Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan have the wizard Cadellin, and Frodo Baggins’s Companions have Gandalf. All of these draw on national myth, both Celtic, Norse and Arthurian, but above all they draw on the European concept of God, and it’s no surprise to find the same figure popping up more recently in Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore. And no wonder we needed him. In the 1960s, it wasn’t enough for a child to find her father or restore the family fortune. This time, we were told, we needed to save the world. By the time you get to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s not just this world which needs saving, but the multiverse.

Amanda Craig

King Arthur and Westerns

In the characters of the American Western film, [Frank] McConnel notes that we can see, with very little stretching, the heirs to the Arthurian legends. In westerns, the king or founder, is represented by the figure of the frontiersman or the cattle baron who carves out from an inhospitable landscape a space that human beings can live in. Examples are provided by the frontiersman of John Wayne and especially the film Red River. It is a vision created by film director John Ford. Here is the city as it was founded and the audience is left to imagine the way things must have come to be the way they are.

Symbolism of Place

Subverting The Myth of King Arthur

WHEN good king Arthur ruled this land, He was a goodly king; He stole three pecks of barley-meal, To make a bag-pudding.
A bag-pudding the king did make,
And stuffed it well with plums: And in it put great lumps of fat,
As big as my two thumbs.
The king and queen did eat thereof,
And noblemen beside; And what they could not eat at night,
The queen next morning fried.

Of the above nursery rhyme Jack writes:

This nursery rhyme, with its down-to-earth king and queen, would seem to stem from this period [the 16th century]. After all, far from being a heroic figure of high chivalry — as portrayed by Malory — this goodly king is now a thief. Arthur’s famous banquets, where no one could eat until a marvel had occurred (from headless knights and damsels in distress to visions of the Holy Grail), have turned into a slapstick pudding-making and -eating session. Guinevere, rather than being the mysterious, beautiful queen and object of forbidden love, is demoted to a penny-pinching housewife, thriftily frying up the remains of the pudding for breakfast. It’s hard not to feel that the author of the rhyme must have heard the Arthurian legends one time too many. Opening with When good King Arthur ruled this land, this rhyme mocks both the high-flown poetry of Le Morte d’Arthur and wistfulness for ye goode olde days that almost certainly never were.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel

Header image: William Bell Scott – King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment – 1846-62

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