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The Hero's Journey

Books take me into a world of my own. I have friends with whom I have forged close bonds while following their lives and adventures.

I met Atticus on the pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. He is one of the most upright characters portrayed in any novel. Atticus represents an ideal human being, both in his profession as a lawyer and in his personal life. He is honest to a fault, and a persistent crusader for what he believes are exceptional causes. He practices pacifism and is free from the prejudices of his fellow citizens of Maycomb County. He takes great pains to teach his children about the imperative of keeping an open mind in all matters. He takes great pains to hide his skill as a marksman because he does not want his children to think of him as a violent man. He gave up hunting primarily because he believed the situation was heavily biased against the poor animals.

He wears spectacles because of his weakening eyesight. Tall, with a hint of grey in his hair, he is formally dressed most of the time.

Jockey cum photographer Phillip Nore is a remarkably well-crafted character in Reflex, a racing related book by Dick Francis. He is multi-faceted, intellectual and reflective to a much larger extent than is the norm. Nevertheless, Philip Nore drifts along in life, taking whatever comes his way without high expectations for life or high opinions of himself. He had a difficult childhood, his mother often dumping him with her friends while on a whimsical jaunt. This left him self-dependent and with low expectations from others. Though he is passionately devoted to his way of life, the winning and an occasional fall, he has become increasingly disillusioned with the cheating and corruption he perceives at all levels of the racing world. Nore is a loner with a bruised sense of self-worth that the occasional triumphs cannot rescue on the racecourse. He appears to have no self-awareness.

He lived with a couple of male photographers for one happy childhood period and became a life-long camera buff. At one point, he was also left with a racehorse trainer and learned the steeplechasing dodge. “Things had happened to me all my life,” he says about himself in ‘Reflex p.4’. “I’d never gone out looking. I had learned whatever had come my way, whatever was there.”

Nore is now 30 and no longer quite the pliable good chap he grew up to be. The owner and trainer he works for have made him throw too many races, and he has reached the end of his rope. Either he rides to win, he insists, or he will not ride at all.

George Smiley, Le Carre’s self-effacing spymaster, is an antithesis of the other British spy, James Bond. He is quiet, self-deprecating, mild-mannered and middle-aged and lives by his wits. He is quite skilled in the practice of bureaucratic manoeuvring and prefers it to using weapons, unlike Bond. He is not a habitual womaniser, again in contrast to Bond. Smiley’s was a silent sufferer to his wife Anne’s dalliances. In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Le Carre describes Smiley as a “brilliant spy and inadequate man”.

Smiley is an exceptionally skilled spymaster gifted with a prodigious memory. A practitioner of espionage with a deep insight into human frailties and fallibilities. He is highly sagacious and perceptive with a strong moral conscience; he also understands his profession’s horrible and unethical aspects. Though he has retired many times, he maintains a substantial network of aides and assistants. This includes even “retired” police officers and former Service personnel. His loyalty to his followers and his upright character inspire tremendous respect. Le Carré’s description of his person is not complementary; this includes comments about his couture.

We meet the aristocrat-turned detective inspector Thomas Lynley for the first time in Elizabeth George’s crime novel, A Great Deliverance. Her novels are remarkable for their intricate plots, multi-dimensional characters and realistic but chilling explorations of the criminal mind. Lynley matches these characteristics of the story perfectly. He is complex multi-dimensional. He is the aristocracy, the eighth Earl of Asherton. Oxford-educated and a privileged son of an elite family. Nevertheless, he throws everything into his cases and is a temperamental man given to deep passions and intense emotion. Lynley will do what he thinks is his job first and clear it with his superiors later.

One of the weirdest fictional heroes I have come across is Jack Reacher. The Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, 24 of them, are essentially westerns. Reacher is a loner, a wanderer. He grew up mainly in Europe, the child of a military family. His father travelled from one foreign base to another, seeding in his son a deep desire for exploration. One of his career options has been military, as he belongs to an army family. He joined the Army and progressed career-wise to the rank of a Major. When he saw the cloud of downsizing on the horizon, he left the Army, walking away from a position of power, choosing the life of a vagrant, a life of great uncertainty.

He has a hatred for a conventional life. He is fond of travelling, preferably hitchhiking or by taking a bus. Though he began this mode to explore the country, it has become a way of life by now. He has no wardrobe, buying new clothes whenever he needs them. His compulsive denial of possessions extends to ATM cards and mobile phones, though he decides to keep an ATM card in later books. He has no permanent address for getting in touch with him or receiving mail. He has no driver’s license despite being a skilled driver of sophisticated automobiles. He gets arrested regularly but gets released because of his military personnel record.

Though He doesn’t actively look for trouble, trouble finds him. In each town, a problem comes to him, which he solves. The book permeates with violence in all forms. Reacher’s violence has a very stylistic manner. The fight scenes are classic, reminding us of the Homeric tales. Lee Child uses a fantastic technique in the description of fights: he slows them down. In Persuader, four pages describe a fight that involves four blows.

Reacher likes and respects women and finds great pleasure in their company. Child’s female characters are complete souls, neither needy nor tortured. This situation is rare in popular fiction written by men.

Reacher is Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero: the stranger who appears from nowhere and corrects the wrongs. Reacher stories fulfil the patterns which recur in myths and fairytales. He’s the mystery man who shows up at a strange place where something has happened. He solves the problem and then walks away. That archetype has been a fixture in fiction. He is the stranger who rides in American westerns. We find similar characters in western legends. He is also cast in the mould of mythical heroes.

I have many more fictional friends. Thomas Harris’s cannibal-hero, the sophisticated killing machine called Hannibal Lecter; Wodehouse’s man of all seasons Bertie given to a life of utter enjoyment; Joseph Hellers Yossarian in Catch-22, the counterculture hero. Sometimes I find the shadows of these characters in people I meet, but perhaps it is a product of my imagination.

While writing this piece, I googled to find out why we relate to fictional characters. I got 45,60,00,000 results. I read some of the results. They discuss the deep psychological reasons for this type of transference. I believe that we love fictional characters because deep within our minds, we want to be like them, colourful, forceful, and adventurous. Because we know that we are nothing like that, struggling to live our drab, ordinary lives and not succeeding in even that.

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