Wordy Wednesday: The Guiding Figure

It is currently 12:05 AM my time and my programme just got back from spending the day in Stratford-upon-Avon. (Well, most the day. We didn’t leave until like 2:00 PM, so first a group of us went to the Grand Cafe for cream tea, which was obviously touristy and delicious.)

In Stratford-upon-Avon, we got really nasty fake butterbeer at a shady off-brand Harry Potter/Doctor Who-themed store by Shakespeare’s Birthplace, then toured Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, sorta visited Shakespeare’s Grave (we reached it after the church had closed for the day, but we still walked around the grounds a bit), grabbed dinner across from the Thames, then finally saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona (which was excellent).

All this to say: I’m sorry I’m posting technically on Thursday yet againnn, but Wednesdays are crazy here. I love them. But they’re crazy.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

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In class Tuesday, we were discussing the different elements of the medieval journey narrative when we stumbled across the role of what our professor called the “Guiding Figure.” Because we’re studying the Inklings, the immediate examples we talked about were Gandalf and Aslan. Basically: the Guiding Figure is there to keep the protagonist on course throughout his or her journey, both outwardly (the physical journey) and inwardly (the character development). So, for example, Aslan guides the Pevensies across Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe while teaching them Important Life Lessons along the way.

The goal was to discuss the Guiding Figure’s role in only the medieval journey narrative, but of course the trope appears in more types of stories than just that–especially coming-of-age ones (so basically All Young Adult Fiction Ever).

The interesting thing about the Guiding Figure in YA is that s/he’s general not some wizened old wizard who is special purely for being a wizard or, you know, God in lion form. Instead, the Guiding Figure almost always manifests itself in an honest-to-goodness teacher.

This works well in YA, because most YA protagonists are in some sort of situation an older character has already survived and returned to for the pure sake of helping out the new generation, whether it be high school or the Hunger Games. The job of the teacher is to impart wisdom on his/her pupils. Got some life lessons to share amongst all those geometry problems and history texts and hand-to-hand combat strategies? Boom. Guiding Figure.

The Guiding Figure role can be a fun one to fill, because you get kind of an Auto Beloved character out of it. Who doesn’t love Dumbledore’s rambling speeches or Haymitch’s drunken insults-laced-with-advice. Everyone remembers Gandalf and Aslan.

But it’s also a sad role, which was something we discussed in class I’d never thought through before. Because, eventually, the Guiding Figure has to go away.

The journey (whether it be YA or the medieval sort) is not his/hers. It’s the protagonist’s. And in order for the protagonist to fulfill the unwritten contract that is Your Protagonist Must Develop Over the Course of the Story*, the Guiding Figure has to stop being an active influence.

Eventually, they have to stop telling stories. Stop giving advice. Stop leading the way. Then, it’s up to the protagonist to prove that s/he truly learned the lessons taught.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan dies on the Stone Table and it is up to Lucy and Susan to understand his lessons of love, sacrifice, and hope in order to bring him back. In practically all the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore must be otherwise occupied at the point of the climax in order to allow Harry the freedom to exercise the lessons he’s learned and prove his worthiness in learning them in order to defeat whichever annoying, magical being he’s up against this time.

And in the greater arc of the Harry Potter series itself, Dumbledore must die–not because Voldemort’s assigned Draco to or he’s gone and gotten himself cursed anyway, but because Harry must learn to face the world completely torn loose from his Guiding Figure in order to gain the distance to finally make the decisions concerning his own values necessary to defeat Voldemort.

Like in real life, when you eventually have to leave the safe environment that is high school and your childhood home and the friends you’ve known since you were born (you know, if we’re living the same life) in order to grow and figure out who you truly are–away from those assumptions and expectations and safety nets,–eventually Harry must also leave Dumbledore behind. Katniss must leave Haymitch. Lucy must leave Aslan and Frodo must leave Gandalf.

And like when the system shoves you out of high school into the big scary world that is either Holy Crap I’m in College or Even Holier Crap I’m in the Workforce, it’s almost always involuntary within the context of the story. Just something that happens. It’s painful and the protag is not happy to be testing his/her wings. But those are growing pains. The protag will learn to fly.

So where does that leave the Guiding Figure?

Generally: either dead or in a position much more frustrating (and boring) than the protagonist’s.

The Guiding Figure is there every step of the way along the journey, then has to step back and watch everything unfold from a distance when it comes time for the climax. S/he has to watch his/her pupil get hurt, contemplate giving up, experience all manners of traumas. S/he has to simply stand there and hope that the lessons sunk in, s/he’s prepared the protag enough, and things will turn out in favor of their side of whatever conflict the story’s about.

So it’s a sad role.

But it’s a bittersweet sort of sad.

As part of a novel I worked on back around sophomore year of high school, I wrote a letter from the founder (Petra) of the Super Secret Spy School (Petra’s Driving School) my protag (Nora) attended, explaining the concept of being the founder of something.

Being a founder is really similar to being a teacher. They’re both types of Guiding Figures. In the letter, Petra explains that “the founder’s legacy lives on not in being the best, but in providing those who follow with the ability … to be better.”

When the protagonist does succeed in saving the world, it is with the knowledge that it wouldn’t have been possible without the Guiding Figure’s help. And the Guiding Figure knows that all the love and hard work s/he poured into the protagonist has paid off (you know, as long as the Guiding Figure has actually managed to cling to his/her life until this point, because for SOME REASON authors have a tendency of liking the clean cut that comes with murdering their Guiding Figures I’M LOOKING AT YOU JK ROWLING).

A teacher doesn’t take up that position with the hope of earning fame and glory. S/he does it with the hope of inspiring others to earn those things.

And generally, like in the case of Harry Potter, a Guiding Figure’s already had his/her own share of adventures by the time the protagonist comes around. Now it’s just a matter of passing those lessons along and guiding the next generation the next step up the path.

After all, as Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” And as the Guiding Figure of Harry, Dumbledore is able to guide the Boy Who Lived to the sort of conclusion that leaves Harry able to be a Guiding Figure for the next generation. Who will guide the next. And the next.

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Thanks for reading!

 

~Julia

PS. Sorry if this is super long and rambly. I’m exhausted. I’ve now been writing this on and off for four hours now. I’m not even sure if I’m still writing in English. I am terrified of reading this in the morning.

*Sorry I’m giving so many things Important Capitalized Titles in this post. (In my defense, it is now going on three in the morning and I’m actively using half my brain to resist the urge to make tea, since the only kind I have in my room has caffeine. So basically this is the Extent of My Writing Abilities at the moment.)

OH PPS. I FORGOT TO MENTION THAT I AM SEEING JK ROWLING ON FRIDAY DIDN’T I OMG SOMEBODY HOLD ME. (<–Also, grammar. That is another thing I have forgotten.)

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3 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: The Guiding Figure

  1. Good post. I never really thought about the Guiding Figure role in a book before, but it is definitely a regular element in most. Just reading this, it struck me that Parenting is very much this concept of the Guiding Figure.

    Like

  2. Wow, this is amazing. I never stopped to think about Guiding Figures all that much.
    Having just graduated from high school, I can empathize with SO MUCH of this and I loved reading this post.

    Like

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