The Human Psychology of the Mentor and Mentor Variations
“The contents of the collective unconscious are archetypes, primordial images that reflect basic patterns that are common to us all, and which have existed universally since the dawn of time.”
“The primordial image, or archetype, is a figure – be it a daemon, a human being, or a process – that constantly recurs in the course of history and appears wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure… In each of these images there is a little piece of human psychology and human fate, a remnant of the joys and sorrows that have been repeated countless times in our ancestral history.”
The Mentor Archetype and Human Psychology
So where does the Mentor archetype fit in with human psychology? Psychologists such as Jung would argue you that the Mentor figure is in truth simply an aspect of ourselves. Or, to be more specific in terms of Jungian theory, Mentor is a key archetype constituent of the collective unconsciousness. For Jung, the collective unconsciousness manifested itself in classical literature and mythology, where one of its archetypes was the Wise Old Man character. This character is the Senex, the Sage, the Sophos, meaning in the Greek language someone who has attained wisdom. Incidentally, Sophos in Greek can also be used interchangeably with agathos (meaning ‘good person’) and spoudaios (meaning ‘virtuous person’).
However, the concept that concerns us here is the psychological idea that the Mentor figure is simply an exploration of our deepest human and personal wants. Put another way, Mentor is the person within us who is inspiring us to become who and what we truly wish to be. Our inner Mentor gives us the strength and wisdom to achieve what it is we must do, often through untapped resources of abilities and thought that we didn’t know we had. The Mentor is our Power Within. As Glinda the Good Witch of the South says at the end of THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy always had the ability to return home, only she had to find it within herself first. Just being told that she had it would never have been enough, for Dorothy had to learn it for herself.
“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
“‘Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… aren’t you?’”
Said by Benjamin in THE GRADUATE written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, from the novel by the same name by Charles Webb
Mentors are typically static in stories, but there are those who, like Frank Slade, have a character journey. There are also those mentors who change roles within a story. Mrs Robinson in THE GRADUATE begins as sexual initiator, but by the end, when the Dustin Hoffman character is in love with her daughter, Mrs Robinson has become the enemy (or Shadow, the term often used in mythological story theory). Other Mentors who turn into the Shadow figure can be found in the crime movies TRAINING DAY, THE RECRUIT and LA CONFIDENTIAL.
Mentors though don’t always have to be serious. Robin Williams when he played mentor figures in ALADDIN, DEAD POETS SOCIETY and MRS DOUBTFIRE, always made them funny – “Say, you’re a lot smaller than my last master. Either that, or I’m getting bigger. Look at me from the side. Do I look different to you? … Aw Al, I’m getting kinda fond of you, kid. Not that I want to pick out curtains or anything.” That said, there is always a serious side to all comedy, for it hides a truth in the laughter
“‘You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you.’”
Mrs Doubtfire from the movie MRS DOUBTFIRE written by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, based on the novel ALIAS MADAME DOUBTFIRE by Anne Fine
“Advice is like snow; the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Angels and Demons
Greek mythology may have given us the word mentor but many functions of the mentor can also be found in the Christian tradition of the angel. The most famous being the Angel Gabriel who in the Hebrew Bible appears to the prophet Daniel in order to explain his dreams and visions (Daniel 8: 15-26 and 9:21-27) and in the Gospel of Luke appears to the Virgin Mary foretelling the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus.
More, shall we say, down to earth angels can be found in such movies as THE BISHOP’S WIFE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, WINGS OF DESIRE and even JACOB’S LADDER. But not all angels are representations of goodness, as can be seen in movies such as ANGEL HEART (an adaptation of the William Hjortsber 1978 novel FALLING ANGEL) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (based on Nikos Kazantzahis’ 1955 novel of the same name). In fact, not all mentors – human, animal or supernatural – are necessarily good. Hannibal Lecter is clearly a sort of mentor to Clarice Sterling but you’d hardly want him offering advice about the best cuts of meat to put in a steak and kidney pie. There are also dark mentor figures in folklore too, classically Rumpelstiltskin, and you could perhaps put Fagin from Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST in that category as well.
Mentors on the wrong side of the law and morality can be found in various gangster movies such as THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS. A truly ambiguous mentor character however is Miss Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. Miss Brodie, a teacher at an Edinburgh school in the 1930s, is determined that her girls, particularly the elite six she picks out, should receive an education in the classical sense of the Latin verb educere ‘to lead out’. Miss Brodie offers her girls lessons in love, art and travel, but also fascism. Jean Brodie is sincere in her genuine intent on opening up the lives of these young women, freeing them from convention, but her fascist ideology is her downfall. As often with Muriel Spark’s work what we have here is in part and exploration of evil. Her novels invariably feature some degrees of evil or wickedness, be it simply mischief or something more damning such as wanton cruelty. And two worth mentioning in this context are THE COMFORTERS and MEMENTO MORI.
“Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark Side.”
The Emperor in THE RETURN OF THE JEDI, screenplay by Lawrence Kaden and George Lucas
“We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.”
“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.”
Heroes and their Mentors
The heroes Arthur, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter have certain needs and requirements and in story terms and so they are, as it were, granted the best mentor to match those wants and wishes in, respectively, Merlin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Dumbledore. Where there is a female hero such as Cinderella or Dorothy, the mentors tends to be a mother figure or a good fairy. In the Disney movies, Mulan has Grandmother Fa and for Pocahontas it is the spirit of her maternal grandmother, Grandmother Willow. The spirit of a mother figure in a tree is also found in various versions of Cinderella story.
Juliet has her nurse and Romeo has his friar but male heroes do occasionally have female mentors – Athena/Mentor for both Odysseus and Telemachus and Granny for William in the Swidger Time Adventure book series – and female heroes do sometimes have male mentors – as with Mr Shaibel in THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. And the term Hero, it should be said, is now used in story theory and here without any gender assumptions, but there are some who still prefer the traditional expression ‘heroine’.
There are several other notable Disney movies where the heroes have no parents, or, if they do have parents, they show little interest in their children. The mentor here is what is known as a ‘Travelling Angel’. A Travelling Angel in storytelling is the character who comes in to fix a problem, and leave immediately when that world has been put right. For the children without parents or emotionally distant mothers or fathers, this moment is when a new family has been established or when the love of the mother or father has been spiritually rekindled, recognises that their job is done and it is time to move on. And that’s always a sad scene of departure, as witnessed in both MARY POPPINS and PETE’S DRAGON.
“‘Home is a place we all must find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.’”
Glinda the Good Witch in THE WIZARD OF OZ
“If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.”
J. Loren Norris
The Failed Hero and the Successful Mentor
Sometimes the character of the mentor is a failed hero. They had their chance once, only it didn’t work for them. That said, what they learnt from failure can lead to success in others. This type of mentor can be found in the music teacher in MR HOLLAND’S OPUS and the coach (Mickey Goldmill) in the first ROCKY movie. And in both tales, the mentor figure experiences a redemption of sorts.
When the story quest of the hero is concluded and achieved, the hero can now become a mentor themselves. Tom Cruise, for example, at the end of TOP GUN is asked what is he going to do next and he says he will come back and teach. There’s the hero who’s now grown old who becomes mentor to the young protégé. The movie THE COLOUR OF MONEY (1986), with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, is in many ways a continuation of the Eddie ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson (Paul Newman) story who is first seen in THE HUSTLER (1959). Both movies were based on novels by the American writer Walter Tevis.
There is often a story moment, particularly where the mentor and hero are involved in combat training, where the hero will for the first time defeat the mentor and throw him (and it usually is a him here) to the ground. There will then be a look of both surprise and yet satisfaction on the face of the mentor, who will then rise up from the dust, shake himself down, turn to his young apprentice and say something like, ‘I have trained you well. You are ready now.’ In THE QUEENS GAMBIT, of course, the janitor simple knocks over his King, which proves just as effective. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK avoids the “You are ready now” Master/Apprentice cliché by having Yoda shake his head as young Skywalker decides to leave before his training is complete. Knowing Luke is not yet ready adds a certain dramatic tension, for, as a result of his early exit from his training, it is far from clear that the Dark Side will be defeated.
There are of course stories where heroes that do not require a mentor and this is usually because life experience has been their harsh teacher. These types of protagonists are often referred to as anti-heroes and often seen as private eyes in film noirs or as loners in Westerns. Hans Solo is the anti-hero of STAR WARS and that’s why he isn’t called Solo for nothing. A younger version might be said to be Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and, to some degree, Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger. Then there is the young character who, at least at first, doesn’t see the need to have a mentor. This is certainly the case with Will in GOOD WILL HUNTING. Will even patronises his psychiatrist assigned to him, but he soon learns that being clever isn’t the same as being wise.
“‘If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel… I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you.’”
Doctor Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) in GOOD WILL HUNTING, written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
“‘We can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.’”
Mrs Whatsit, in A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle
Other Story Mentors
A few other mentors well worth mentioning are Haymitch Abernathy, the maverick mentor and former contestant in THE HUNGER GAMES (Suzanne Collins); Mrs Whatsit, the remarkable elderly lady who is later transformed into a centaur-like creature in A WRINKLE IN TIME (Madeleine L’Engle); William Forrester, the reclusive writer and mentor to Jamal Wallace in FINDING FORRESTER (Mike Rich); Lord Henry Wotton who encourages the young Dorian to pursue beauty and sensual pleasure above all else in A PICTURE OF DORAN GREY (Oscar Wilde); Cardinal Wolsey, adviser to Henry VIII whose story is told in WOLF HALL (Hilary Mantel) and HENRY VIII (William Shakespeare and John Fletcher); Abenthy, the teacher and protector who trains Kvothe in ‘sympathy’, a discipline that makes links between physical objects which allows them to be manipulated in the fantasy novel THE NAME OF THE WIND (Patrick Rothfuss); Nanny McPhee, the witch-like nursemaid to the seven unruly children of widower Cedric Brown in the movie NANNY MCPHEE; Thomas Nightingale, the last wizard in London and commanding police of Peter Grant in RIVERS OF LONDON and the wise mage Ogion who takes on the young Ged in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
“‘When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.’”
Nanny McPhee from NNNY MCPHEE written by Emma Thomson and based on the character in the book NURSE MATILDA created by Christianna Brand
“As we walked out of the door, Granny whispered to me, ‘I’ll warn you now, William, if I do have a fault, it’s I’m a very loose knitter, which one day may or may not be to your advantage. Oh, isn’t it wonderful we’ve met at last. I’ve been so looking forward to it.’”
THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS, first in the Swidger book series
Granny in Swidgers
Granny in Swidgers is a classic mentor figure, if somewhat unconventional. She is quirky and unpredictable but it’s her eccentricity that leads her to getting what she wants, like when she rescues William from the hospital in her first scene. Later, in the park, Granny becomes Healer when she encourages William to hug the tree and so lose the scab and bump on his head following the accident with the falling tile.
Granny is a classic Destiny mentor. She has a strong sense of what William can and could be, but it’s only a sense. Granny understands that ultimately William must find his own way and his own solutions. And that’s what she encourages him to do throughout the story.
Granny knows that in William there is something special. That’s why there was an attack. Granny calls William “a bucketful of wonderment”, even if that’s not how the uncertain William sees himself. But, as the story progresses and with Granny’s guidance, that’s exactly what William becomes. Here’s an early exchange where Granny encourages William to work something out for himself:
‘Entropy, I curse you!’
‘You keep saying that,’ I blurted out, ‘but I’ve no idea what it means.’
‘You do know what it means, only you’ve never had the word for it. Big difference.’ Granny pursed her lips for a moment and then said, ‘An ice cube. On a hot day. What happens?’
‘It melts,’ I replied.
‘Into what?’ she then asked.
‘A pool of water,’ I answered.
‘So, on a freezing day that pool of water will turn back into an ice cube.’
‘No, it won’t! Not by itself!’
‘You mean someone has to some along and go to the trouble of turning it back into the shape of a cube?’
‘Well, that’s entropy for you. How something is put together and arranged. And we all need arranging. Only even when we are, everything still eventually goes to pot. That’s the sad rule of the universe.’
Another curl fell across her face, this time landing on her nose. And then I got it.
‘Your hair, it can go anywhere. Anywhere at all. But for it to go where you want it, your hair needs organising. But even if you do put it back, it will still fall down again.’
‘You see, William Arthur, you did know what entropy is. The universe, like my hair, is full of many possibilities, but even when it’s put in place nicely, as mine always is, curls will still fall down – because things that can go wrong, will go wrong. So, we have to make the effort to set them right again,’ she said, clasping another curl back in place with yet another butterfly clip, ‘which is, I suppose, why you and me have been put in the universe in the first place.’
Swidgers are cosmic creatures in human form, but one thing that makes them different is their inability to be aggressive or violent. Granny knows then that for William to survive he will need to become imaginative and inventive. He must learn to let his fancy take flight. He must dream and think like a poet. That’s why she takes him to Dungeness to meet Echo (a Gift Giver helper who secretly puts a special herb in William’s tea to help him dream for the first time) and why, on their return trip to London, Granny takes William on a trip to the Royal Academy of Art. Here he sees that one thing can be another, and two things can be one thing. And it’s this “corkscrew” thinking, as Granny calls it, that will aid him in the battles ahead.
In Book One, THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS, William confronts his adversary in a cliff-edge battle, but it’s the mental battle in Book Two where William achieves the true status of Hero. In a way from then on, Granny and William are on an equal footing, more a partnership than Mentor and Apprentice.
Readers both young and old have loved Granny because she is so funny. It’s true that Granny recognises that William is in a dangerous situation and life isn’t easy, but for her laughter and fun are two of the universe’s cosmic compensations for the odd and sometimes painful nature of the world we live in. And for this reason Granny thinks that William should laugh and enjoy life more often. The bizarre episode at the school, which ends with the Headmaster farting uncontrollably, is all part of Granny’s plan. Yes, Echo’s potion that William put in the cider was about encouraging William to be more daring, but it’s also about having some mischievous fun along the way.
“‘There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighbourhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you poppet, you’re going to be alright.’”
Mrs Doubtfire from the movie MRS DOUBTFIRE written by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, based on the novel ALIAS MADAME DOUBTFIRE by Anne Fine
“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living – if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”
“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.”
‘It’s a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought
That if you become a teacher
By your pupils you’ll be taught’
From Getting to Know You from THE KING AND I, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”
“I think the greatest thing we give each other is encouragement…knowing that I’m talking to someone in this mentoring relationship who’s interested in the big idea here is very, very important to me. I think if it were just about helping me get to the next step, it would be a heck of a lot less interesting.”
“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”
“Spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.”
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”