The Mentor: Characteristics, Nature and Story Functions
“The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.”
Not all mentors looked at in this section are involved in mentoring orphans, or indeed children at all. That said, most of those who need mentoring tend to be younger and vulnerable in some way, often lonely and without a family round them. A wide range of mentor characteristics and qualities are examined, and not all are suitable for the mentoring of children or indeed young adults. That said, there’s no age restriction at the other end of the scale for perhaps none of us are ever old enough or so all-knowing that we couldn’t do with some advice and guidance.
History, of course, offers us many examples of helpful mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Hayden and Beethoven, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, Freud and Jung.
“You are never too old to learn something new, or never too young to learn too much.”
“‘Some of the words you’ll find within yourself, the rest some power will inspire you to say.’”
Athena in Homer’s THE ODYSSEY
Who was Mentor?
The first mentor was conveniently enough called Mentor. In Homer’s epic poem THE ODYSSEY, the journeying Odysseus entrusts to his friend Mentor the raising of his young son Telemachus for the time that Odysseus is to be away on his travels and so he, Mentor, becomes confident, adviser and teacher to the boy. But to call Mentor ‘he’ is misleading for, in truth, Mentor is Athena, goddess of wisdom, masquerading as a human guide. Gods and goddesses were always up to identity swaps and disguises in the Greek myths. In the story, Odysseus is absent for so long that the boy is well on his way to becoming a man by the time Odysseus returns. And so essentially Mentor becomes surrogate father to Telemachus during the young man’s formative years.
“‘For my part I should choose to be vexed with every sort of pain on my way home, so that I reached there at last and enjoyed my return.’”
Athena speaking as Mentor to Telemachus about his father in Homer’s THE ODYSSEY, translated by T. E. Lawrence
“‘But you were the one who really taught him healing,’ Achilles said.
‘You do not mind that the snake gets all the credit?’
Chiron’s teeth showed through his dark beard. A smile. ‘No, Achilles, I do not mind.’”
THE SONG OF ACHILLES, written by Madeline Miller
Another Greek mythological figure worth mentioning is Chiron who was known for his youth-nurturing nature. Chiron, who took the form of a centaur, a creature half-man half-horse, was said to have been sired by the Titan Cronus when he impregnated the nymph Philyra. However, soon after giving birth to Chiron, Philyra abandoned her child out of shame and disgust. Chiron, effectively orphaned, was later discovered by the god Apollo who became a surrogate father to him and, together with Apollo’s twin sister Artemis, trained the young centaur in the art of medicine, herbs, music, the lyre, archery, hunting, gymnastics and prophecy – skills in effect that raised Chiron from his beastly nature and status.
Chiron developed into a celebrated healer, teacher and oracle. In fact, Chiron later became so well known for his expertise in medicine that he is often credited with the discovery of botany and pharmacy. In his time, Chiron acted as a mentor figure and guide to, among others, Ajax, Aeneas, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Perseus, Heracles and even on occasion the sometimes unruly Dionysus. Chiron’s name may not be that familiar nowadays but you can in fact see Chiron every night if there’s a clear sky, for Zeus made him into a constellation: the sign of the zodiac known as Sagittarius.
“I’m an archer. We literally stand back, assess the situation, process how we feel about it, raise a bow, pull it back, and fire.”
“If you have zest and enthusiasm you attract zest and enthusiasm. Life does give back in kind.”
Norman Vincent Peale
To Be Inspired and Enthused
There are a couple of important Greek words worth noting when considering the role and purpose of the mentor. The first is menos meaning ‘mind’. The word menos in the Greek comes from the verb men- meaning ‘to think’ (and it’s from men- and menos that we get our English word ‘mental’). As is often the case in the Greek language, words can mean different things according to context and the concept of menos ranges from spirit and force to desire, wish, purpose and strength. The second Greek word worth noting is en theos, meaning ‘god inspired’, which, of course, is where we get the English word ‘enthused’.
Put these two concepts together and what you have is the main purpose of the archetype of the Mentor character in stories and myths, for he or she is the inspirer, the thinker, the teacher, the guide, the oracle, the destiny figure. Mentors are the ones who know the skills of fighting and the joy of the arts, plus they are the healer and the gift giver. Not all these attributes will be there in every mentor figure, nor will these intensions and actions be found in every story, but it’s easy to see aspects of the archetypal Mentor figure in Merlin, Glinda the Good Witch of the South, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Morpheus, Haymitch and Gandalf. And to that list you can now add Granny from the Swidger Time Adventure book series.
“Learning is finding out that you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, and teachers.”
“You cannot teach a man anything. You can only help him discover it within himself”
Trainer and Tutor
The mentor character has many dramatic functions, but perhaps the two key ones as illustrated by both Mentor and Chiron, are trainer and tutor. In modern mentor stories, the trainer is often a sporting coach, such as Mr Kesuke Miyagi in KARATE KID. You might also include here the old-timer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) in ROCKY or even Danny DeVito’s character in the army recruit training story RENAISSANCE MAN.
There are also several real life inspirational trainers whose stories have been made into popular movies and these include Ken Carter in COACH CARTER (“I came to teach boys, and you became men”); Herb Brooks, the coach who led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to victory over the Soviets in MIRACLE (“This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have, Screw ‘em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it”) and Herman Boone, the coach unifying the racial divide in REMEMBER THE TITANS (“This is where they fought the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today… If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other. And maybe… I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.”)
A fascinating recent addition to the Mentor Sports Trainer movie genre is KING RICHARD (2022) which explores the sometimes maverick coaching life of Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena. The movie was directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin. What makes this film so interesting is that it doesn’t follow the traditional pattern of a sports movie, that is, training, initial failure and then, finally, against the odds, a triumphant win. In fact, Venus loses the climatic match of the movie. But that’s the point. It’s how she loses that counts. Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, has mentored his daughters not only in sporting prowess but also the life skills he knows they will need both as champions and in life itself. And the way Venus Williams deals with her defeat is a testament to both her and her Mentor father. But that tennis final is not the end of the movie for in a way the story’s true climax comes when Venus leaves the sports stadium and there waiting for her are dozens of young girl fans who have been inspired the way she played and the behaved when up against her sometimes unsporting opponent. The big tennis titles of course followed, but it’s the heart and soul that ‘King Richard’ gave his two daughters that is the core of the movie.
The school teacher is also a popular mentor figure in stories and can be seen in GOODBYE, MR CHIPS, DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, SCHOOL OF ROCK, THE GREAT DEBATERS, DANGEROUS MINDS, MUSIC OF THE HEART, MONA LISA SMILE, THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, SUMMER SCHOOL, THE MIRACLE WORKER, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, STAND AND DELIVER, MR HOLLAND’S OPUS and TO SIR, WITH LOVE.
A brief word here about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. Jeeves (full name Reginald Jeeves) is the valet of one Bertie Wooster, an idle but wealthy Londoner, in the P. G. Wodehouse stories that were first published in 1915. The valet in Edwardian England was responsible for serving the individuals opposed to the butler who duties and responsibilities were to the household (“Jeeves, of course, is a gentleman’s gentlemen, not a butler, but if the call comes, he can buttle with the best of them.”). Bertie Wooster, though an orphan, inherited a considerable fortune, but his immaturity and lack of understanding of how the world goes usually gets him into bother and scrapes. Bertie is essentially a ‘man-child’ who never truly grew up. Jeeves, though a servant and his inferior, is far more worldly wise, and it’s often up to him to get the foolish Bertie out of whatever bother or scrape he has found himself in.
“‘Now, touching this business of old Jeeves – my man, you know – how do we stand? Lots of people think I’m much too dependent on him. My Aunt Agatha, in fact, has even gone so far as to call him my keeper. Well, what I say is: Why not? The man’s a genius.’”
From CARRY ON, JEEVES by P.G. Wodehouse
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
The mentor figure is nearly always a gift giver. The classic example here is Obi-Wan Kenobi in STAR WARS, who offers Luke Skywalker the light sabre that once belonged to Luke’s father. Vladimir Propp in his seminal book THE MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE (1928) refers to the ‘donor’, where the hero acquires some sort of magical agent/weapon/potion from a helper, which will often be some sort of resource or protector for the journey. Harry Potter being given the Cloak of Invisibility anonymously by Dumbledore is ultimately part of Dumbledore’s plan, for he knows Harry will need it in his adventures and battles ahead.
The principle of the gift giver is one that dates back to the mythos of Perseus, whose quest was to defeat the gorgon Medusa. But Perseus wasn’t stupid. He knew that such a mission was impossible without help, so he visited the Temple of Athena and here the gods granted him five gifts: a helmet of invisibility, a sword, a shiny shield, a magic pouch and a pair of winged sandals. Gifts which aren’t in fact that dissimilar to those given in J. K. Rowling’s book series or offered early on in fantasy video games.
Of course, invisibility cloaks and winged sandals may prove very useful, but not all gifts of the mentor figure need necessarily be magic. Most are in fact much more down to earth. For example, the book of poetry that John Keating (Robin Williams) leaves on Neil’s desk in the movie DEAD POETS SOCIETY. Keating tells Neil not to start up the society, but by leaving the book clearly that is what he wants him to do. Incidentally, this story trope of instructing someone not to do something was picked up by Vladimir Propp when he talked about the ‘Interdiction’, that is, the part of the tale where you are told not to do something but that is what ultimately leads you to do it.
Very clearly James Bond does not require a mentor. 007 is a smart thinker and well-trained. His fists alone are usually enough to get him out of most threatening situations. However, you could argue that Q in the Bond movies is a mentor in the Propp sense that Q is a ‘Doner’. Again, in video games with a combat scenario , the acquiring of gadgets or weapons often prove to be essential in the completion of the mission.
Sometimes the gift that is given by the mentor comes later in the story when there has been a degree of learning sacrifice and commitment. And of course this is the case with the rewards handed out by the Wizard at the end of THE WIZARD OF OZ. But as with Dorothy and her ability always to return home, the medal, testimonial and doctorate given to the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow are more symbolic of what they have learnt on their journey than something that is a necessary requirement for bravery, loving or intelligence.
Connected to the gift giver is the great inventor mentor. Doc Brown in BACK TO THE FUTURE is the classic example of this, as is Willie Wonka in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. And, as ever, there is a classical precedence for Emmett and Willie are in the great tradition of Darius the Great, the Persian King who is seen as one of the foremost pioneers and inventors of the ancient age. Darius the Great built roads, established a new coinage and standardised weight and measures. Maybe not as fun as either a time machine or chocolate, but useful nevertheless.
“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”
BETH HARMON: What’s that game called?
MR SHAIBEL: You should be upstairs with the others.
BETH HARMON: I don’t wanna be with the others. I wanna know what that is you’re playing.
MR SHAIBEL: It’s called chess.
From THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT written by Scott Frank from the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis
Another function of the mentor is initiator. In THE MATRIX, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is the captain of a hovercraft called The Nebuchadnezzar, and his crew say that he is like a father to them. But Morpheus (from the Greek morphē meaning ‘form’) is more than just a captain or father figure, for it is Morpheus who locates Neo (Keanu Reeves) and famously offers him the choice of the red pill or the blue pill. But which pill will Neo choose? The real world or the fantasy of the Matrix? This moment in mythological story theory is known as the ‘Call to Adventure’ and it was first set out by Joseph Campbell in his influential book work THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. The Call to Adventure is the moment when the Hero is offered the opportunity of leaving the Ordinary World and told of the possibility of entering the Special World. Often there is an initial refusal, but, when circumstances change, the chance for adventure is taken up.
If Neo does take the red pill, he will awaken in the real world, a liquid-filled chamber where he has, in effect, being constrained all his life. The red pill is in its turn a ‘Gateway’ into the ‘Special World’. The gateway or portal/door/potion/spell or whatever is a story feature in many tales
But access to the world of adventure isn’t just found in fantasy or science fiction. And nor need it be magical. The popular Netflix series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT has a Mentor/Gateway/Call to Adventure moment when Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) encounters the janitor, Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing chess in the basement. Once she sits on that chair and moves her first pawn, Beth’s life will never be the same again. Incidentally, a real life chess story is worth mentioning here. David MacEnulty was a teacher who taught school children of the Bronx Community Elementary School to play chess at completion level and his story is told in KNIGHTS OF THE SOUTH BRONX.
For the older hero, the mentor figure can also function as a sexual initiator. The classic example here is Mrs Robinson in the film THE GRADUATE, and more recently there’s been Christian Grey in FIFTY SHADESOF GREY. The cult movie HAROLD AND MAUDE offers a dark comedic twist on the mentor figure as sexual initiator. The film begins with various mock suicides enacted by Harold Chasen (Bud Cort), a young man in his early twenties who is intrigued by death. When attending a funeral, which he does as often as he can, Harold meets a 79-year-old woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon), a Nazi concentration camp survivor who teaches Harold about the importance of living life to its fullest. And this includes sex relations. However, Maude has already decided that when she reaches eighty that will be enough, but in dying, Maude in a way teaches the young Harold how important it is to live.
“‘Vice, Virtue. It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much ‘life’. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you’re bound to live life fully.’”
Maude in HAROLD AND MAUDE, written by Colin Higgins
‘Take the straight and narrow path
And if you start to slide,
Give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
And always let your conscience be your guide!
And always let your conscience be your guide!’
Give a Little Whistle, written for the animation PICNOCCIO, Songwriters: Ned Washington and Leigh Harline
Healer and Conscience
Another tradition of the mentor can be found in the shaman, the healer or medicine man. In contemporary stories this has evolved into the psychologist. Examples here include Dr Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) in GOOD WILL HUNTING, Dr Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) ANALYZE THIS, Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) in THE SIXTH SENSE and Dr Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) in THE PRINCE OF TIDES. Related to this aspect of the mentor character is the guide as heightened conscience, and you’ll find this type of mentor in many Disney movies. Jiminy Cricket in PINOCCHIO even sings a catchy little song about it.
A special mention here for Aslan and Professor Xavier. Aslan in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is the Lion who is the centre of goodness in the series and C.S. Lewis often capitalizes the word Lion in reference to Aslan, suggesting perhaps a divine status, (aslant, incidentally, means ‘lion’ in Turkish). Professor Charles Francis Xavier in THE X-MEN is hardly divine, but he is the founder of the X-Men group. Xavier is an exceptional telepath who can read and even control the minds of others. Like Aslan, Xavier is a centre of goodness and ethics in the sagas and is forever striving to promote peaceful coexistence and equality between humans and mutants in a world.
A curious mentor story involving both self-healing and personal conscience can be found in the tale of the blind and retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) in the movie SCENT OF A WOMAN. The film is a remake of Dino Risi’s 1974 Italian film PROFUMO DI DONNA, which itself was adapted from the novel IL BUIO E IL MIELE (DARKNESS AND HONEY). Unusually, SCENT OF A WOMAN has a strong character arc for the mentor figure, who at the beginning of the movie is intent on suicide but by the end has found new hope in living. And along the way, Frank Slade has taught the boy, who is ostensibly the guide to the blind Lieutenant Colonel, the important personal morality of not, in his opinion, in not being a snitch.
“‘You break my heart, son. All my life I’ve stood up to everyone and everything, because it made me feel important. You do it – because you mean it. You’ve got integrity, Charlie. I don’t know whether to shoot you or adopt ya.’”
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade to young Charlie in the movie SCENT OF A WOMAN
“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”
Jean de la Fontaine
Mentors are destiny figures and perhaps here Yoda is the archetype’s archetype. In fact Yoda is most people’s idea of the ideal mentor. He’s trainer, initiator, conscience and, even more so than Obi-Wan, the Jedi with the greatest sense of Luke’s place in the Force. Here’s a few of Yoda’s best know quotes:
“Do or do not. There is no try.”
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
“The greatest teacher, failure is.”
“Your path you must decide.”
“You must unlearn what you have learned.”
“My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”
“On many long journeys have I gone. And waited, too, for others to return from journeys of their own. Some return; some are broken; some come back so different only their names remain.”
“Soon will I rest, yes, forever sleep. Earned it I have. Twilight is upon me, soon night must fall.”
“When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.”
“Pass on what you have learned.”
STAR WARS may seem light years from THE SOUND OF MUSIC and Yoda is hardly a Mother Abbess, but what you do find in several Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals is, as with STAR WARS, a Destiny Mentor. And as well as the Mother Abbess in THE SOUND OF MUSIC there is the Starman and Nettie in CAROUSEL, and Bloody Mary in SOUTH PACIFIC. Each sing what you could call the show’s Destiny Number: Climb Every Mountain, You’ll Never Walk Alone and Bali Ha’i. And you’ll find in these songs the concept of Destiny is expressed as the Dream of Life that You Must Pursue – “Climb every mountain / Ford every stream / Follow every rainbow / Till you find your dream….” – “Though your dreams may be tosses and blown / Walk on, walk on…” – “Come to me, come to me. / Your own special hopes / Your own special dreams.” For, as the song says, “You’ve got to have a dream / If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?”
“All kids need a little help, a little hope, and someone who believes in them.”
Earvin “Magic” Johnson