MEETING THE MENTOR
“She (Athena) assumed the appearance of Mentor and seemed to like him as to deceive both eye and ear…”
– The Odyssey of Homer
Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to refuse a Call until you’ve had time to prepare for the “zone unknown” that lies ahead. In mythology and folklore that preparation might be done with the help of the wise, protective figure of the Mentor, whose many services to the hero include protecting, guiding, teaching, testing, training, and providing magical gifts. In his study Russian folktales, Vladimir Propp calls this character type the “donor” or “provider” because its precise function is to supply the hero with something needed on the journey. Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure.
You Seekers, fearful at the brink of adventure, consult with the elders of the Home Tribe. Seek out those who have gone before. Learn the secret lore of watering holes, game trails, and berry patches, and what badlands, quicksand, and monsters to avoid. An old one, too feeble to go out again, scratches a map for us in the dirt. The shaman of the tribe presses something into your hand, a magic gift, a potent talisman that will protect us and guide us on the quest. Now we can set out with lighter hearts and greater confidence, for we take with us the collected wisdom of the Home Tribe.
HEROES AND MENTORS
Movies and stories of all kinds are constantly elaborating the relationship between the two archetypes of hero and Mentor.
The Karate Kid films, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Stand and Deliver are stories devoted entirely to the process of mentors teaching students. Countless films such as Red River, Ordinary People, Star Wars, and Fried Green Tomatoes reveal the vital force of Mentors at key moments in the lives of heroes.
SOURCES OF WISDOM
Even if there is no actual character performing the many functions of the Mentor archetype, heroes almost always make contact with some source of wisdom before committing to the adventure. They may seek out the experience of those who have gone before, or they may look inside themselves for wisdom won at great cost in former adventures. Either way, they are smart to consult the map of the adventure, looking for the records, charts, and ship’s logs of that territory. It’s only prudent for wayfarers to stop and check the map before setting out on the challenging, often disorienting, Road of Heroes.
For the storyteller, Meeting with the Mentor is a stage rich in potential for conflict, involvement, humour, and tragedy. It’s based in an emotional relationship, usually between a hero and a Mentor or advisor of some kind, and audiences seem to enjoy relationships in which the wisdom and experience of one generation is passed on to the next. Everyone has had a relationship with a Mentor or role model.
MENTORS IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH
Folklore is filled with descriptions of heroes meeting magical protectors who bestow gifts and guide them on the journey. We read of the elves who help the shoemaker; the animals who help and protect little girls in Russian fairy tales; the seven dwarfs who give Snow White shelter; or Puss-in-Boots, the talking cat who helps his poor master win a kingdom. All are projections of the powerful archetype of the Mentor, helping and guiding the hero.
Heroes of mythology seek the advice and help of the witches, wizards, witch doctors, spirits, and goods of their worlds. The heroes of Homer’s stories are guided by patron gods and goddesses who give them magical aid. Some heroes are raised and trained by magical beings that are somewhere between gods and men, such as centaurs.
Heroes of mythology seek the advice and help of the witches, wizards, witch doctors, spirits, and gods of their worlds. The heroes of Homer’s stories are guided by patron gods and goddesses who give them magical aid. Some heroes are raised and trained by magical beings that are somewhere between gods and men, such as centaurs.
CHIRON: A PROTOTYPE
Many of the Greek heroes were mentored by the centaur Chiron, a prototype for all Wise Old Men and Women. A strong mix of man and horse, Chiron was foster-father and trainer to a whole army of Greek heroes including Hercules, Actaeon, Achilles, Peleus, and Aesculapius, the greatest surgeon of antiquity. In the person of Chiron, the Greeks stored many of their notions about what it means to be a Mentor.
As a rule, centaurs are wild and savage creatures. Chiron was an unusually kind and peaceful one, but he still kept some of his wild horse nature. As a half man/half animal creator, he is linked to the shamans of many cultures who dance in the skins of animals to get in touch with animal power. Chiron is the energy and intuition of wild nature, gentled and harnessed to teaching. Like the shamans, he is a bridge between humans and the higher powers of nature and the universe. Mentors in stories often show that they are connected to nature or to some other world of the spirit.
As a Mentor, Chiron led his heroes-in-training through the thresholds of manhood by patiently teaching them the skills of archery, poetry, surgery, and so on. He was not always well rewarded for his efforts. His violence-prone pupil Hercules wounded him with a magic arrow which made Chiron beg the gods for the mercy of death. But in the end, after a truly heroic sacrifice in which he rescued Prometheus from the underworld by taking his place, Chiron received the highest destinction the Greeks could bestow. Zeus made him a constellation and a sign of the zodiac – Sagittarius, a centaur firing a bow. Clearly the Greeks had a high regard for teachers and Mentors.
The term Mentor comes from the character of that name The Odyssey. Mentor was the loyal friend of Odysseus, entrusted with raising his son Telemachus while Odysseus made his long way back from the Trojan War. Mentor has given his name to all guides and trainers, but it’s really Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who works behind the scenes to bring the energy of the Mentor archetype into the story.
“The goddess with the flashing eyes” has a big crush on Odysseus, and an interest in getting him home safely. She also looks out for his son Telemachus. She finds the son’s story stuck in the opening scenes (the Ordinary World) Of The Odyssey when the household is overrun by arrogant young suitors for his mother’s hand. Athena decides to unstick the situation by taking human form. An important function of the Mentor archetype is to get the story rolling.
First she assumes the appearance of a travelling warrior named Mentes, to issue a stirring challenge to stand up to the suitors and seek his father (Call to Adventure). Telemachus accepts the challenge but the suitors laugh him off and he is so discouraged he wants to abandon the mission (Refusal of the Call). Once again the story seems stuck, and Athena unsticks it by taking the form of Telemachus’ teacher Mentor. In this disguise she drums some courage into him and helps him assemble a ship and crew. Therefore, even though Mentor is the name we give to wise counsellors and guides, it is really the goddess Athena who acts here.
Athena is the full, undiluted energy of the archetype. If she appeared in her true form, it would probably blast the skin off the bones of the strongest hero. The gods usually speak to us through the filter of other people who are temporarily filled with a godlike spirit. A good teacher or Mentor is enthused about learning. The wonderful thing is that this filling can be communicated to students or to an audience. The names Mentes and Mentor, along with our word “mental”, stem from the Greek word for mind, menos, a marvelously flexible word that can mean intention, force, or purpose as well as mind, spirit, or remembrance. Mentors in stories act mainly on the mind of the hero, changing her consciousness or redirecting her will. Even if physical gifts are given, Mentors also strengthen the hero’s mind to face an ordeal with confidence. Menos also means courage.
AVOIDING MENTOR CLICHES
The audience is extremely familiar with the Mentor archetype. The behaviours, attitudes, and functions of the Wise Old Women and Men are well known from thousands of stories, and it’s easy to fall into cliches and stereotypes – kindly fairy godmothers and white-bearded wizards in tall Merlin hats. To combat this and keep your writing fresh and surprising, defy the archetypes! Stand them on their heads, turn them inside out, purposely do without them altogether to see what happens. The absence of a Mentor creates special and interesting conditions for a hero. But be aware of the archetype’s existence, and the audience’s familiarity with it.
Audiences don’t mind being misled about a Mentor (or any character) from time to time. Real life is full of surprises about people who turn out to be nothing like we first thought. The mask of the Mentor can be used to trick a hero into entering a life of crime. This is how Fagin enlists little boys as pickpockets in Oliver Twist. The mask of Mentor can be used to get a hero involved in a dangerous adventure, unknowingly working for the villains. In Arabesque, Gregory Peck is tricked into helping a ring of spies by a fake Wise Old Man. You can make the audience think they are seeing a conventional, kindly, helpful Mentor, and then reveal that the character is actually something quite different. Use the audience’s expectations and assumptions to surprise them.
The Mentor-hero relationship can take a tragic or deadly turn if the hero is ungrateful or violence-prone. Despite the reputation of Hercules as a peerless hero, he has an alarming tendency to do harm to his Mentors. In addition to painfully wounding Chiron, Hercules got so frustrated at music lessons that he bashed in the head of his music teacher Lycus with the first lyre ever made.
Sometimes a Mentor turns villains or betrays the hero. The movie The Eiger Sanction shows an apparently benevolent Mentor (George Kennedy) Who surprisingly turns on his student hero (Client Eastwood) And tries to kill him. The dwarf Regin, in Nordic myth, is at first a Mentor to Sigurd the Dragonslayer and helpfully reforges his broken sword. But in the long run the helper turns out to be a doublecrosser. After the dragon is slain, Regin plots to kill Sigurd and keep the treasure for himself.
Rumpelstiltskin is initially a fairy-tale Mentor who helps the heroine by making good on her father’s boast that she can spin straw into gold. But the price he demands for his gift is too high – he wants her baby. These stories teach us that not all Mentors are to be trusted, and that’s it’s healthy to question a Mentor’s motives. It’s one way to distinguish good from bad advice.
Mentors sometimes disappoint the heroes who have admired them during apprenticeship. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart learns that his Mentor and role model, the noble Senator played by Claude Rains, is as crooked and cowardly as the rest of Congress.
Mentors, like parents, may have a hard time letting go of their charges. An overprotective Mentor can lead to a tragic situation. The character of Svengali from the novel Tribly is a chilling portrait of a Mentor who becomes so obsessed with his student that he dooms them both.
Once in awhile an entire story is built around a Mentor. Goodby, Mr. Chips, the novel and film, is a whole story built on teaching. Mr. Chips is the Mentor of thousands of boys AND the hero of the story, with his own series of Mentors.
The movie Barbarossa is a wise and funny look at a Mentor relationship sustained throughout the story. Its focus is the training of a country boy (Gary Busey) By a legendary Western desperado (Willie Nelson). The young man’s learning is so complete that when the movie ends, he is ready to take Barbarossa’s place as a larger-than-life folk hero.
MENTOR AS EVOLVED HERO
Mentors can be regarded as heroes who have become experienced enough to teach others. They have been down the Road of Heroes one or more times, and they have acquired knowledge and skill which can be passed on. The progression of images in the Tarot deck shows how a hero evolves to become a Mentor. A hero begins as a Fool and at various stages of the adventure rises through ranks of magician, warrior, messenger, conqueror, lover, thief, ruler, hermit, and so on. At last the hero becomes a Hierophant, a worker of miracles, a Mentor and guide to others, whose experience comes from surviving many rounds of the Hero’s Journey.
Most often, teaching, training, and testing are only transient stages of a hero’s progress, part of a larger picture. In many movies and stories the Wise Old Woman or Man is a passing influence on the hero. But the Mentor’s brief appearance is critical to get the story past the blockades of doubt and fear. Mentors may appear only two or three times in a story. Glinda the Good Witch appears only three times in The Wizard of Oz: 1) Giving Dorothy the red shoes and a yellow path to follow, 2) Intervening to blanket the sleep-inducing poppies with pure white snow, and 3) Granting her wish to return home, with the help of the magic red shoes. In all three cases her function is to get the story unstuck by giving aid, advice, or magic equipment.
Mentors spring up in amazing variety and frequency because they are so useful to storytellers. They reflect the reality that we all have to learn the lessons of life from someone or something. Whether embodied as a person, a tradition, or a code of ethics, the energy of the archetype is present in almost every story, to get things rolling with gifts, encouragement, guidance, or wisdom.
The concept of the Mentor archetype has many uses for the writer. In addition to offering a force that can propel the story forward and supply the hero with necessary motivation or equipment for the journey, Mentors can provide humour or deep tragic relationships. Some stories don’t need a special character solely dedicated to perform the function of this archetype, but at some point in almost any story, the Mentor functions of helping the hero are performed by some character or force, temporarily wearing the mask of the Mentor.
When writers get stuck, they may seek the help of Mentor just as heroes do. They may consult writing teachers or seek inspiration from the works of great writers. They may delve deep inside themselves to the real sources of inspiration in the Self, the dwelling place of the Muses. The best Mentor advice may be so simple: Breath. Hang in there. You’re doing fine. You’ve got what it takes to handle any situation, somewhere inside you.
Writers should bear in mind that they are Mentors of a kind to their readers, shamans who travel to other worlds and bring back stories to heal their people. Like Mentors, they teach with their stories and give of their experience, passion, observation, and enthusiasm. Writers, like shamans and Mentors, provide metaphors by which people guide their lives – a most valuable gift and a grave responsibility for the writer.
It’s often the energy of the Mentor archetype that gets a hero past fear and sends her to the brink of adventure, at the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, the First Threshold.
QUESTIONING THE JOURNEY
- Who or what is the Mentor in Fatal Attraction? Pretty Woman? The Silence of the Lambs?
- Think of three long-running TV series. Are there Mentors in these shows? What functions do these characters serve?
- Is there a character in your story who is a full-blown Mentor? Do other characters wear the mask of the Mentor at some point?
- Would it benefit the story to develop a Mentor character if there is none?
- What Mentor functions can be found or developed in your story? Does your hero need a Mentor?
- Does your hero have some inner code of ethics or model of behavior?
- Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom portray a hero who has no apparent Mentor. He learns things from people along the way, but there is no special character set aside for that task. The third film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, introduces the character of Indy’s father, played by Sean Connery. Is he a Mentor? Are all parents Mentors? Are yours? In your stories, what is the attitude of your hero to the Mentor energy?