November 16, 2010

archetypes - mentor

This lovely Tuesday brings us to the next post in my archetypes series, the Mentor.

You can read the introduction here, and the post on the Hero here.

I’m also going to apologize in advance for all the Harry Potter references. I’ve been rereading the series since last week.

The Mentor is an archetype commonly found in stories, usually a positive figure who trains or aids the Hero. This archetype is expressed through those characters who teach and protect heroes; think Merlin in Arthurian mythology, Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda from Star Wars, and Professor Lupin from Prisoner of Azkaban. Joseph Campbell rightly termed the mentor the Wise Old Man (or Woman).

 The Mentor is the guide, the teacher, or the conscience. The Mentor stands for the hero’s highest aspirations, what the hero may become if they continue on their journey. Mentors are often former heroes that survived their own journey and are now passing on their knowledge to new heroes. The archetype is related to the image of the parent, often because the hero’s parents are either incompetent for the hero’s projected journey or because they are dead.

Luke Skywalker is brought up by his aunt and uncle, because, well, his father is the most evil man in the universe… not exactly the best role model. Once the aunt and uncle die, Obi Wan leads Luke on the path to become a Jedi. Harry Potter has a number of Mentors across the series that take place of his dead father – Dumbledore, Sirius, and Lupin.

The Mentor has several dramatic functions in a story.

As a teacher, the Mentor merely gives the hero the knowledge or wisdom he needs to survive his journey. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin teaches Harry the Patronus charm, enabling Harry to defeat the dementors later on.

As a gift-giver, the Mentor bestows upon the hero an item that will help him survive. In Star Wars, Obi Wan gives Luke his father’s light-saber. Wearing the mask of the Mentor for a short time, Fred and George Weasley give Harry the Marauder’s Map in Prisoner of Azkaban.

One should remember, however, that gifts should be earned. When a hero receives a gift, it should be after the heroes have passed a test of some kind; it should be earned by learning, sacrifice, or commitment. Obi Wan gives Luke the light-saber because he managed to make his way past the sandpeople to Obi Wan’s hideout, but also because Luke makes the commitment to learn the ways of the Force.

Another important function of the Mentor archetype is to motivate the hero. Sometimes the Mentor’s gift to the hero is sufficient, but with reluctant heroes, they need a bit of a nudge to get going. In The Hobbit, Gandalf forces Bilbo into his adventure by inviting all the dwarves to Bag End, where Bilbo’s generous hospitality and curiosity drag him into an adventure.

Like the other archetypes, the Mentor is not a rigid character type. The Mentor is merely a character function, a job which several different characters may take on in the course of a story. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. As I said before, the Weasley twins, though Harry’s allies, take on the role of Mentor by giving him the Marauder’s Map, an important tool for the rest of Harry’s journey. In Goblet of Fire, Harry’s enemy, Death Eater Barty Crouch, literally takes on a mask as he acts as a Mentor toward Harry in the guise of Mad-Eye Moody. Sometimes, even the hero can take on the mask of the Mentor. In Order of the Pheonix, Harry starts Dumbledore’s Army and teaches his classmates the spells they need to defend themselves against anyone who would try to hurt them.

While the Mentor archetype is prevalent, some stories have no need for a Mentor. Sometimes the hero is experienced and has internalized the archetype. It could be the hero’s chivalric code or the memory of a previous Mentor. The Mentor archetype could also represent itself in the form of a book or another artifact that guides the hero in their journey.

As for their placement in a story, Mentors usually appear in the beginning of a story, but they can show up at any time really. Most importantly, they are where they are needed. A character may be needed at any point in the story, someone who has a map to the unknown country or has a bit of key information that will help the hero along his way.

Christopher Vogler ends the chapter on Mentors quite nicely:

Mentors provide heroes with motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Every hero is guided by something, and a story without some acknowledgement of this energy is incomplete. Whether expressed as an actual character or as an internalized code of behavior, the Mentor archetype is a powerful tool at the writer’s command.
Read the next post about the Threshold Guardian.

[This interpretation of the archetypes comes from the Hero’s Journey, a universal structure found in mythology and organized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.]


  1. Another great note. Here are some additional comments I have on this archetype:

    Mentors are almost always somewhat alien to the hero's natural realm. As such, they often display quirky traits that distinguish them from the hero's flat, uncompelling parental figures. Also, they often display some sort of supernatural ability that symbolizes or even embodies the knowledge that they wish to pass to the hero.

    Just as there are reluctant heroes, there are also reluctant mentors, former heroes who have no desire to pass their knowledge and must be goaded to do so, even if the knowledge will result in negative consequences. Adversely, some mentors love to pass their knowledge and can even be overzealous about it, resulting in other misadventures.

    Mentors typically function as the normative character (the voice of the author), but they can still be highly flawed and have their own journey to complete. A mentor can even be a co-protagonist if the story allows for such a setup.

  2. Great post Brooke! And you don't have to apologize for the HP references. The series offers up a ton of great examples. I hope you're enjoying the re-read! :)