November 22, 2011

A Few Good Mentors

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director

If you mention Homer’s Odyssey to today’s audience, there’s a good chance many of them will think it’s an episode of The Simpsons. But it is that Greek classic and its companion work The Iliad written in the 8th century which introduced the character who would become the namesake for all mentors to come. 

“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” This is never truer than in the movies, where we’ve observed countless heroes consulting with that one person who puts them on the path to their ultimate success. This figure may be in the story only briefly, or they may be a trusted companion who gets more than a single scene in which to convey their wisdom to the hero, teach them a new skill, or give them a special item they will use at a critical point in their adventure.

In The Odyssey, Mentor at times was actually the goddess Athena.  Similarly, in The Iliad, Mentor was targeted for some earthbound time-share by the god Apollo. Following this Grecian formula, mentors throughout the literary ages have often been gifted with supernatural powers.

Wizards in particular populate great epics. Merlin, Gandalf and Dumbledore have all been magical advisors to younger wards who have a destiny to fulfill. Meanwhile, their fairer-sex counterparts, fairies, have accommodated the gentler needs of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.

Science fiction mentors can also possess abilities beyond those of mere mortals, from The Matrix’s Morpheus to the little green Jedi master who sounds like Miss Piggy. In such a futuristic setting we readily suspend disbelief and buy their mysterious, godlike qualities.

But because most novels take place in the real world, a typical mentor is a bit more down-to-earth; simply very good at what they do and more experienced than our hero.  You gotta love Doc Brown from Back to the Future, whose absent-minded professor qualities made him both funny and approachable. And who doesn’t get a kick out of The Karate Kid‘s Mr Miyagi?

Not that all mentors are looking out for our hero’s best interests. Melanie Griffith’s boss in Working Girl, Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, and Tom Cruise’s bosses in The Firm all were out for themselves rather than their younger underlings. But even in these dysfunctional pairings, the hero ends up gaining just as much by learning what not to do. Take Private Benjamin. Judy’s commanding officer was bent on seeing her fail, but as in so many Army tales, this only helped Judy find the inner strength to prevail.
Being Thanksgiving week, I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank the many fictional mentors who’ve given ruby slippers to lost little girls, helped jungle boys escape from singing orangutans, and taught home run honeys that there’s no crying in baseball.

These are a few of my favorite mentors. Who are yours?

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