The Mentor aka Guy with White Facial Hair

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It does seem like the majority of mentors are old guys with white facial hair or no hair at all.  There are a few that don’t fit that description like Halt from Ranger’s Apprentice and Phil from Disney’s Hercules.  You have a few women too like Professor McGonagall, but there is a severe lack of female mentors in literature.  So, why is it typically the old man that is either wise or strange?

The Mentor is one of the oldest character archetypes in existence.  You see them in mythology alongside the main heroes.  In fact, I think the term comes from a Greek myth character named Mentor.  He was a caretaker of Odysseus’s son Telemachus and Athena took his form to convince the kid to fight his mother’s suitors.  He’s actually the old guy in the top left picture above.  Anyway, this is how it started and it’s changed very little over the years.

The point of a Mentor is to impart wisdom and skills to the hero before either being left behind or killed.  For example, Obi Wan taught Luke Skywalker the ways of the Force before dying.  Then Yoda did a better job of it.  So, you can go from one mentor to another in some stories.  This isn’t unheard of and makes sense because in real life, we need more than one teacher for a variety of skills and better depth.  This requires that your Mentor be experienced, which where the old age comes from.  It’s hard to believe that a Mentor will be a character who is only 5 years older than the hero.

I’m circling the big issue here, which is female Mentors.  Again, there aren’t many of them and most are rather modern.  Part of the reason might be because the Mentor concept stemmed from the wise advisor to the ‘hero’.  It’s really only recently that female characters are being drawn out of the damsel in distress.  Yet, they always seem to be anomalies and trained by a guy.  Looking at my bookshelf, I see very little with female heroes and mentors.  The closest thing I see from where I sit is Buffy, but she had Rupert Giles as a mentor.  I hate to say it, but the Mentor is a role that women have yet to crack into.  Personally, I really hope they do it in a way that isn’t a simple gender-switch of the old male mentor.

So, what do people think of the Mentor role that appears in stories, especially fantasy?  Any opinions on the miniscule amount of female Mentor roles?  Am I opening a can of worms that I’ll regret?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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21 Responses to The Mentor aka Guy with White Facial Hair

  1. melissajanda says:

    This is something I’ve been learning a lot about lately…The Hero’s Journey. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says that the same basic story is repeated over and over throughout history. There are 12 stages to the hero’s journey and the meeting with the mentor (old guy with the beard) is one of them. George Lucas gave credit to Campbell for planning his story in these stages. JK Rowling hasn’t said that she did, but you can see how it all matches up. I don’t know why there is a lack of female mentors. The mentor in my first novel (didn’t realize I was following the stages at the time, but I guess it’s somehow ingrained in us from all the stories we are exposed to during our lives) is actually a grandmother and I love her insight and wisdom. The mentor in my NaNo novel is an older man (white hair, no beard) and he’s one of my favorite characters. I wish I could think of a female mentor, but none come to mind. There has to be at least one in a published novel, right? Fascinating post, Charles. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say about the subject.

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    • I’m sure there are a few, but I’m betting they’re more recent. I’m sure Rowling is aware of the Hero’s Journey even subconsciously. Though, I see a lot of people pointing at Gandalf as the origin of the white-bearded wizard, I’m thinking Merlin.

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  2. I think that mentors really can be important in certain books. Anything in the fantasy genre can benefit from a mentor. Thinking about it, none of my western books have a ‘mentor’. Those books are more about youngsters finding out who they really are on their own. Though, in my fantasy series, there are several mentors, but they aren’t old men. More of a slightly-older-than-the-hero father figure. Same in my werewolf story. Though, I’d love to read more stories that include a strong, female mentor.

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  3. A female mentor is someone we all wish we saw more of in fantasy. IMO Although the old guys with the beards are pretty cool. 🙂

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  4. Kirsten says:

    I think mentors play a big role in fantasy and sci-fi. Think back to all the books and movies over the years. One of my favorites Obe One Kenobi. Well, yes Yoda too. Female Mentors will come as more books and movies continue to be female hero driven. Great post, Charles.

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  5. C L Deards says:

    Good point, Charles. I’ve fallen into this trap myself. The mentor in my novel in progress is an old man with white hair. It just happened years ago, came from a dream, and I never questioned it. I was aware that there might be a connection between the dream and Dumbledore or Merlin, but I decided to go with the dream instead of changing the old man to an old woman or changing his appearance.
    The question is do you stick with your vision or actively go against the grain and make the change for the sake of being different?

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    • I’m not even sure it’s a trap. The overall concept makes sense, so going against the grain can be tricky. It isn’t unheard of for the experienced character to be old and white-haired. If the mentor is very young or looks inexperienced then it might too hard to believe. That might be why Gandalf, Dumbledore, Merlin, Master Roshi, and all of the guys in the picture aren’t bashed as often and severely as other character types.

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  6. Perhaps this hearkens back to the tribal societies that were our forebearers. They typically had a strong division of male/female labor, and considerable segregation of the of the sexes even when couples had married. You would never have men mentoring girls in a tribal society, nor women mentoring boys — no matter how close the relationship might otherwise be. If part of the point was that men taught boys how to be men, women can’t do that. Likewise, men can’t teach girls how to be women.

    That said, our society does place much more value on male authority figures such as Gandalf. Just as our society values boys more than girls at almost every level. Thus there are many more boy protagonists with old men as mentors. Even in video games, like Skyrim, the Greybeards are a council of advisors who all are older men. Also, they all are Nords — no Elves or Beast races up on that mountaintop!

    However, there are older female mentors in fairy tales where the protagonist is a girl. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and Glinda the Good from the Oz books come to mind.

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