Will the real protagonist please stand up?
New guest blogger NUTS4R2 looks at the archetypal heroes of classic fiction.
There are certain questions which plague my mind in the small hours of the night. The otherworldly realm between sleep and the alarm clock when one desperately needs to return to darkness but the forward motion of the brain makes it impossible… giving one’s face a corpse’s pallor and stubbornly rendering one’s waking hours of gainful employment something akin to the slow shuffle of a zombie through a graveyard. The sleepless voids in which man’s darkest questions are unleashed often bring up enquiries which I find myself unable to answer and so, this possibly semi-regular post may be the place where I stir certain questions around in my brain and see if I can come up with an outcome which, at the very least, makes some sense to me.
This week my waking thoughts were of the difference between archetypes of main protagonists or, for want of a less buzzworthy term… heroes. Are the literary types of men and women who populate the fictional adventures of such titans as Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, William Hope Hodgson, George Lucas, Kenneth Robeson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dennis Wheatley or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name a few, all made of the same stuff… asides from the ‘right stuff’? Are there similarities between them which might be called upon as examples of the ‘ingredients’ of a character of good standing? Are there rules and, indeed, if there are rules… would they be of deliberate conformity or are they just manifestations of only a few routes the human mind can conceive to bring a certain kind of character together in as credible a manner as possible if a writer or director, say, were wanting to bring home the bacon and survive off them?
Now, I’m not going to go all Joseph Campbell on you here, I reckon. I’ve never read The Hero With A Thousand Faces (don’t worry… it’s on my hit list of future reads) but I’m not concerned here with the hero’s journey as much as I am with identifying the different versions that these literary or cinematic (or a thrilling combination of the two) protectors of a certain kind of justice have manifested themselves in over the years. I reckon I can boil it down to two main types of heroes and both of each type can be seen to have different reactions and outcomes to the kinds of adventures they might find themselves in. The first of my two types would rarely, unless being written about in the form of a parody or post-modern extension of a specific character, cross paths with the ‘enhanced world’ of the second type of hero in anything other than possibly making an appearance in the realm inhabited by that second type.
Okay… so, I’m going to use examples of those authors and creators I’ve used above to demonstrate how I can split the classic hero into two distinct sub-types.
The first type, that which I often refer to as the Scooby Doo hero, is the rigid man of science. He is an expert, highly competent in his specific field or is someone less knowledgeable but firmly entrenched in the scientific world. Everything within his adventure will make absolutely perfect sense, even if it doesn’t at first appear to be the case, with the caveat that such explanations given to render any pursuit of the supernatural would be limited to the speculative science of the era in which he is being written… as opposed to the era in which he is set. If a specific story is set in the past, for example… in which case, hindsight might come into play if a character is set in, say, the 1930s but is being written about with the scientific knowledge of a writer from contemporary times.
These kinds of heroes can be found in persons such as both of Arthur Conan Doyle’s two characters Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, who are men of rigid science, even though Challenger’s adventures tend to cross paths with the worlds of fantasy to some extent. Such heroes can also be found quite a lot within the literature of Jules Verne, who has a whole host of these rigid men of science who are able to explain away the kinds of fantastical phenomena they tend to stumble on or create involvement with. Even Barbicane, the hero of Verne’s speculative science fiction story From The Earth To The Moon, is able to rigidly explain everything he witnesses on his journey to something within the realm of pure scientific reasoning. Ditto for the aforementioned Professor Challenger, who is able to explain away dinosaurs and other strange phenomena well within the boundaries of science, even if such a thing is beyond the realms of possibility… certainly looking from today’s end of the telescope. Heck… even the strange creatures that inhabit Barsoom (Mars) in Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian tales, often but not always headed up by the hero John Carter, are pursued by their protagonists with the, admittedly highly speculative, scientific backdrop required to enable such fantasies to exist as something that… COULD happen (couldn’t they?). Certainly, in 1912 when the first tale, Under The Moons Of Mars (later changed to the more familiar A Princess Of Mars) was written, there would surely have been more leverage in the words of the writer than would be given pause for plausibility these days. And the seeming superpowers of the early books’ heroic John Carter are phenomena which exist because his Earth muscles are used to a much larger pull of gravity on his own planet and he is less hampered on Mars (which was the same explanation with Siegle and Shuster’s iconic superhero Superman on his debut in 1938).
A good example where the seemingly supernatural mystery is revealed to be anything but by a science hero is also the story which is largely recognised as being the first modern detective tale. Written in 1841, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ was the first of three stories to highlight the exploits of C. Auguste Dupin (the other two being ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’). In his first tale, Dupin’s reasoning mind makes short work of a plot involving a locked room mystery and rules out any supernatural invention in the solving of ghastly murder at its heart. I won’t reveal the solution here but Poe’s creation, perhaps underused by the great writer himself, was extremely influential and was a direct influence on a lot of literary detectives in his wake… including a special mention in the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the 1866 story A Study In Scarlet.
Perhaps the best example, purely from taking part in well over 200 adventures, most of them written by Lester Dent under the Street & Smith publishing company’s pen name Kenneth Robeson, is the character who was often marketed quite clearly as a ‘science detective’… Doc Savage. He, like all the other heroes of scientific reasoning, is a full-on practitioner of the Scooby Doo Man Of Mystery in that, more so than the others, the plots of the pulps he and his colleagues were inhabiting were deliberately fantastical and often under the guise of some manifestation of supernatural or alien phenomena. But fear not, just as the kids in the old Scooby Doo Where Are You? cartoon (and the majority of the later incarnations of the show) would pull the mask from the seemingly supernatural monster to reveal a bland and embittered human who had managed to wreak havoc with the surprisingly casual appliance of some costly science… so too would Doc Savage, The Man Of Bronze, lift the lid on assorted werewolves, eye-popping death, goblins, sea monsters and various other manifestations of what you might call the ‘supernatural’ world and demonstrate that everything was down to the invention of a living, breathing, human villain as opposed to what the rest of the protagonists in the story would take at their ghostly face value.
So there you go… men of science.
But there’s also the OTHER kind of hero too…
The men who have either a good working knowledge of, or at least an open mind to, what I shall call… for the sake of argument… the supernatural world. These people are often equipped with the knowledge that will allow them to beat their otherworldly foes and will, quite often, pursue them with the exact same passion as the ‘scientific hero’ I’ve just been talking about.
So we have characters like Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing… pursuing Dracula and saving lives with all the knowledge of the creatures known as vampires at his disposal. We have William Hope Hodgson’s Carnaki, the enemy of the haunted world of invading spirits, battling the forces of darkness with the tools of his trade and resorting to the same kinds of symbols and rituals, dressed up as almost scientific fact, in much the same way that his spiritual inheritor, Dennis Wheatley’s Duc de Richleau, does in his very own supernatural adventure, The Devil Rides Out.
Like George Lucas’ character Luke Skywalker, who is inhabiting a world of hard science which has a supernatural element in the very practical spiritual dimension known as The Force, these characters pursue their worlds as doggedly as a scientist, even though they are using skills or special powers that actually have no credence, really, in the world of scientific phenomena, by any stretch of the imagination.
And so, my conclusion is that these two types are pretty much the same two kinds of heroes you get throughout art and literature to this day… and it’s hard to imagine anything different. In some ways, the second of the two kinds, who I shall now dub ‘The Supernatural Warrior’, are much more suited to negotiate pretty much any form of literary domain than ‘The Scientific Heroes’ are credibly able to do. If a science hero found him or herself suddenly thrust into a world inhabited by spiritual antagonists, for example, and they could find no explanation within the realm of their own scientific knowledge and reasoning. They are left defenceless against such lurking menaces, just like the non-heroic protagonist of an H. P. Lovecraft story, where the main character is as likely to slip into the dark embrace of madness as cut to the heart of the mystery before him.
As if to, almost, prove a point… in the very last of the original run of Doc Savage novels, which were first published as pulp magazines in a ‘one novel a month’ format, we have the final tale, Up From Earth’s Centre. In this tale, we have the only time that Doc Savage meets a phenomenon which he can’t explain away with science. The story tells of Doc Savage’s descent into, what appears to be and is never proven as anything else, the very depths of Hell. He, of course, escapes with his life intact but has absolutely no explanation for the weird and inexplicable events of this adventure. For once, Doc is at a loss and, as if the science hero once disproven was deemed spent by the powers that be, the magazine was promptly cancelled. My own, personal theory is that Lester Dent, on finding that the publication that had been providing him with a living (and which he had been writing, with a few months off, at the rate of one novel a month from 1933 to 1949) was about to be cancelled, deliberately wrote an open-ended story that would not be solved until a subsequent ‘return trip to hell’ was forthcoming in a later issue. Perhaps he thought he could get enough readers writing in and demanding a scientific solution to the mystery to keep the, once very popular character, afloat for another year or two? Who knows? It makes an interesting ending, though, for a character who was always the ultimate science hero to be finally confounded by the kind of mystery that was his bread and butter for so long and that, in the end, the world of the supernatural proved to be too much for him.
If he had been guest-starring in another character’s story, however, things may have seemed a little more hopeful…
The writing in such tales can be such that the scientific hero can make a good ‘straight man turned stooge’ for The Supernatural Warrior, in that they can enrich the story with a contrary notion which can be contradicted to explain to the reader or viewer the true, to the fantasy realm, state of affairs of the fantastic monster which is probably lurking at the heart of the story to jump out at you. It can work the other way around too but, when the tables are turned, the revelation is often less satisfying and The Supernatural Warrior can also be as helpful and ready to ‘pitch in’ with his ‘real world skills’ as any other character. So the punchline, as it were, is rather spoiled, I feel, in situations such as this. In other words, when The Science Hero is also a fish out of water, things can get quite distraught and dramatic for them.
That being said, I have a soft spot for both of these types of main protagonists, even if they suddenly find themselves thrust into the role of ‘Helpful Companion’ by the confines of the plot in these kinds of tales. I can enjoy all my heroes responsibly and with a sound mind that the various worlds they inhabit can constitute a pleasant post-modern melange in the mind of the reader. Always a good thing, I reckon.
However, now that my main type of heroic figures is thusly categorised, I now have the equally large problem of inquiring into the nature of such companions, sweethearts and villains that the average heroic traveller of either category may find themselves encumbered within the course of their adventures. I also have to ask myself why so many of the adventurers carrying forward these internal struggles seem to be so alone when it comes to the opportunity of romantic companionship, which seems to be a pretty common factor, it has to be said. Perhaps, though, these are questions best left unanswered until another sleepless night comes upon me.
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