Question: What do the Harry Potter series, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit all have in common?
A crazy old man.
Yep, that’s right. While they all fit the mono-myth of the hero’s journey and feature some of the best talents in the entertainment industry, what they all uniquely share is an elderly character who’s off his rocker.
Now, before all the Potterheads try and use a killing curse on me, let’s take a closer look. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry encounters the legendary Mirror of Erised. In it, he sees his parents and his extended family. His best friend Ronald Weasley sees a life in which he has center stage, and isn’t the shadow of his brothers. Wise mentor Albus Dumbledore explains that the mirror shows us exactly what it is we desire most. “A perfect man,” he tells us, “would look into the mirror and see himself exactly as he is.”
Harry then asks the headmaster what he sees when he looks into the mirror. Dumbledore smiles and says that he sees himself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks. “One can never have enough socks. Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will always insist on giving me books.” (Rowling, 214)
Our young protagonist writes this off as giving a pleasant answer without getting personal, but then we also see in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban during a Christmas feast that he dons an outrageous hat, complete with stuffed vulture, when another professor doesn’t get the joke behind it. This is Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the finest school of witchcraft and wizardry, with a list of names and titles as long as my arm, being outright silly. Yet this is also the man who inspired Harry Potter to rise up and take control of the destiny that might have been his. Not a single person could hate Dumbledore.
No, I don’t think even Voldemort hated the wizened wizard. The two were equals, and shared a respect for each other, even in the battlefield.
Now let’s look at a lesser known set of books: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. This is written by the genius mind behind The Way of Kings and the Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson. From the worlds of high fantasy, he turns and writes a middle-school novel about a boy who literally has a talent for breaking things.
Alcatraz Smedry, the hero of the series, finds a mentor in his grandfather, Leavenworth Smedry. This man believes that donning a tuxedo, complete with hat and flower on the lapel, will help him blend in among modern cultures far from his home. The Smedry family line is akin to royalty where he’s from and treated as such. But this man will grinningly shirk responsibility and contest that it’s for the good of candy bars everywhere. Then you get around to the vast arsenal of exclamations and Grandpa Smedry quickly becomes a character worth remembering, especially through the eyes of his grandson Alcatraz.
Yet Grandpa Smedry has a keen insight into life, and one that he shares (and sometimes loudly) with his grandson Alcatraz. Many times he doesn’t bother to intervene directly, merely points in a direction and waits for Alcatraz’s mental fuzziness to fade and get himself.
Then we turn our attention to animation with Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. From the first episode, we meet General Iroh of the Fire Nation. He’s traveling with his nephew, Zuko, as the banished prince hunts the Avatar. Right from the get-go, we see little that makes him villainous, only comical.
Just spotted something that could be the Avatar coming out of hiding? It can wait until lunch is over.
On a marked race to catch up with the Avatar? We need to stop and find a replacement piece for his game.
Find a random stranger on the road? Stop and share tea with her.
Getting mugged? Stop and critique the mugger’s stance and show him how to do it right, then recommend a better profession.
It isn’t until until halfway through the second season that we get to see the danger he can cause. When he unleashes a breath of fire to match his epitaph “the Dragon of the West.”
Much like Dumbledore and his socks, Iroh has a thing for tea. So much so that he exclaims, “Sick of tea? That’s like being sick of breathing!” (City of Walls and Secrets, Nickelodeon, originally aired Sept. 2006)
If you’ve struggled to get through a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, hold out. When you get to book three, General Iroh pulls out all the stops and goes Jekyll/Hyde on those against him. Definitely worth the watch.
And, finally, Gandalf the Grey. He seems perfectly sane compared to the likes of the above-mentioned. He’s calm, almost calculating, but his craziness lies in his timing.
Oh, I’m aware the first lines he speaks in the Lord of the Rings movie concerns just that.
A wizard is never late, nor is he early.
He arrives precisely when he means to.
That, in fact, sets the stage for his attitude throughout The Hobbit. Here are twelve dwarves and a hobbit on a journey of revenge and regaining the dwarven homeland in the mountain, and he’ll just wander away from the group, claiming important business and he’ll meet up with them at such-and-such a town. You’d think he’d stick around, especially during those times when a wizard would have been most useful, like when they went through Murkwood or when the party was captured and Bilbo had to rescue them by shoving the dwarves into barrels and floating them down the river.
I’m sure you can find many more examples throughout the amazing books you read. These characters are crucial. Despite their eccentricity, they empower the hero and give them strength to face whatever challenges it may be, whether it’s a ring, a librarian, or one’s own honor.