The Flawed Mentor

In the hero’s journey, before the hero crosses the threshold into the “special world” they typically meet a guide that introduces them to their brave new world. In contrast with the hero’s youth and naivete, the  guide is old, wise and seemingly infallible. These are the Obi Wans and the Yodas, the Master Splinters and the Dumbledores, the Ma and Pa Kents and the Professor Xaviers. They become parental figures to the heroes, teaching them most of what they need to know while still maintaining an air of mystery. Typically, but not always, after imparting some final wisdom, they die, leaving the hero to complete their journey on their own. The death of the mentor is often a threshold in and of itself; a sign that the character has now symbolically grown up.

Remember this from High School?

However, there are two other, nearly as important but often overlooked, steps that the hero should take before they are seen as fully adult: the calling out of the mentor and forgiving them. Because let’s be honest here; mentor figures are almost always objectively terrible. Obi Wan and Yoda both withheld the vitally important fact the Luke was Vader’s son, sending the poor guy on a path where he’d unknowingly kill his own father. In the original run of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Master Splinter essentially trained his sons from early childhood to be weapons of vengeance against a ninja master with an entire crime syndicate capable of devastating retaliation behind him. Naturally, that leads to his eldest son nearly beaten to death. He’s never called out for it or expresses any regret. And then, in the DCEU, there is the notoriously terrible advice given to Superman by the Kents. “Maybe you should have let that school bus full of kids die, Clark. I mean why  bother saving anyone because  bad things will happen later?” Considering what cynical jerks they are, no wonder this Superman has issues!

A terrible person, I am.

If you look close enough, it seems like every mentor figure has made very questionable decisions.  Batman and Professor X? Serious child endangerment issues. Mary, Matt Murdock’s saintlike mother? Lets Matt think she was dead and doesn’t bother being there for him after he’s blinded and he loses his father. And would it have killed Alfred to take the traumatized young Bruce to therapy? Then maybe he would use the 683 million he spends on dressing up a bat to fight crime for more productive ways to help Gotham.

One of the most satisfying moments in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was when Harry called out Dumbledore for being a terrible father figure. In the main series, he’d called his mentor out several times, especially in the last book. In Harry’s eyes, Dumbledore went from a wise hero to a very flawed man. His disillusionment was a sign of his maturation.

In the world of fiction, the realization that the mentor figure is flawed adds complexity by showing that even the good guys do terrible things. At a distance, it’s easy to recognize the flaws in these mentor figures, but when we’re placed in the position of the hero? It becomes much harder.

Everyone who has lived past their teenage years, and some even earlier, have experienced a moment where they realized that their parents weren’t infallible. For some, it’s earth shattering. For others, the pedestal didn’t crack and crumble away in an instant. It eroded when the little things added up. And that’s a good thing. Taking a more nuanced view of the people one admires is the first step to seeing the world in shades of gray.

What’s important is how to react to a shattered pedestal. In fiction, it comes in two varieties: railing against the mentor and forgiveness. If disillusionment with the mentor is an allegory for the teenage years, then reconciliation is the point where the hero becomes an adult. The hero knows that the person who gave them the skills to succeed is imperfect and they accept it. Remember that despite the issues that Harry has with Dumbledore, he still names his son after him. He still calls out his old mentor for wrong-doing, but in the end he forgives his father figure.

Everyone is on their personal hero’s journey.  Disillusionment is a part of growth.The beauty of fiction is that it teaches by example. The best stories understand that even the wisest among us are still all too human, acknowledges it and shows how to accept it in a healthy way. Even if the story fails to do that, the fact that the reader recognizes the mentor figure’s flaws can be a step toward seeing parallels in their own lives. In the end, fiction reflects reality in more emotion than facts. There is no Clark Kent or Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter in real life, but there are teenagers who are slowly realizing that their parents aren’t perfect and fans who realize that their idols have done awful things. Fiction allows them to explore their new understandings at a safe distance, intertwining their personal hero’s journeys with a fictional characters’ and growing as their hero grows.

14 thoughts on “The Flawed Mentor”

  1. I’ve always thought that Rowling’s handling of the Dumbledore/Harry dynamic was a sign of the maturity of her writing. Dumbledore has flaws, admits mistakes, and Harry does not simply forgive. I’m thinking most of the argument the two have near the end of Order of the Phoenix. It’s a moment that plays out in a quite natural manner, especially when you remember the hero is a teenager. Yet at the same time, neither completely looses faith in each other. And as you point out, Harry did name his son after Albus (though it was his younger child, so guess not his first choice) and during one of his lowest moments in Cursed Child desperately craves his mentor’s advice. Of course, there also comes a time when the mentor/parent is no longer there to guide, which Thorn makes clear in the Cursed Child, leaving Harry to his own devises.

    And yeah, those “pep” talks from the Kents in Snyder’s films are so head-scratching misguided, I don’t even know what to say about them. “You don’t owe this world anything.” Sure, Ma, whatever . . .

    1. Yeah, their dynamic is very well done. It’s a testament to Rowling’s writing that she was able to handle their relationship so naturally. The Kents on the hand… I can sometimes see what they’re trying to say but their scenes needed some extra rewrites because those “words of wisdom” were baffling.

      1. Kevin Smith tweeted something about those movies to the effect of “these movies have been written and directed by people that don’t know the characters.” Heavily paraphrased. I agree with him.

          1. Yeah, as much as I dislike Synder’s direction, I place the most of the blame for Dawn of Justice’s failings on the screenplay . . .

          2. Ya, to be more precise he called the “characterization off” for both Batman and Superman. I agree, neither of them resemble any comic I’ve ever read. Moppy superman and blood thirsty Batman… Ugg.

            1. I think the only people who like mopey Superman are Gamaergate/4Chan assholes that can only relate to other assholes.

              1. I mean really the only cool thing about Superman is that he is unnaturally upbeat by human standards. And Batman would never decide to kill someone that he barely knows anything about. It’s as bad as Spider-Man 3.

                1. It’s definitely why I like the characters, especially Superman. In the movies I felt like Snyder understood that Supes is supposed to be a symbol of hope but not why he’s one. It’s not because of his god-like powers but his embodiment of everything good humanity has to offer.

      2. Strong character work really was one of the keys to the richness of the Potter books. Even Voldermort, who Rowling could have easily gotten away with leaving a two-dimensional villain, is given a backstory which explains without excusing who he becomes . . .

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