As those of you who know me – or read my column – can probably imagine, I started reading avidly at an early age. Reading has always been my favorite pastime and my ultimate escape, but also much more. Reading has informed my life, not only teaching me about other places, cultures, and people, but also giving me ideas about how to live – or how not to.
Like many children of earlier generations, I was exposed early to fairy tales. These were not the Walt Disney versions, for the most part, but the classics, the originals, those written down by the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang, and W.B. Yeats. I plowed through the Golden Bough, I devoured all 1001 Arabian Nights, I was completely infatuated with the mythology of both the Ancient Greeks and the Norsemen. It may seem absurd, but I found my first role models in these fantastic tales. Unsurprisingly, my role models were for the most part not the princesses whom Disney chose to bring to life. In fact, those tales tended not to be my favorites. I preferred the stories of the youngest son or daughter who left the family for an adventure. From these heroines and heroes I learned bravery and compassion.
Those who shared with the magical helpers and were rewarded, those who overcame their foes with cunning and valor, those who sacrificed of themselves to help others, or even just to be with their beloved – these were the characters I looked up to. I admired the self-discipline of the nameless sister who remained silent for seven years in order to free her brothers from their enchantment, the daring of Ali Baba, the wiliness of the four traveling musician animals who bested the band of robbers in the woods, and even the mischevious Loki and Hermes (and all of their cross-cultural incarmations), who repeatedly pulled the wool over their fellow gods’ eyes.
While I never lost my love of these tales of magic (cf. my master’s thesis), I did expand my horizons as I grew older. And yet, somehow, it was the same features which drew me to exemplary characters. Max – of the Wild Things – was quite naughty but indubitably courageous. Mrs. Frisby, who works with the rats of NIMH to protect her family, was amazingly courageous and self-sacrificing. Both Wendy and Peter Pan, in spite of their opposing personalities, were for me the epitome of what I wanted to be. Though he was a grownup, Atticus Finch was as much a role model for me as his engaging daughter Scout. And of course there was Ramona the Brave. While my own antics were never quite so devastating, I was completely taken by her bravery. Nancy Drew enchanted me. She was smart, brave, and pretty. Of course I did not limit myself to female role models any more than in early childhood: the heroes of The Lord of the Rings and C.S.Lewis’s entire Chronicles of Narnia were also my heroes. Robin Hood again combined compassion with fearlessness and a very appealing sly humor. The list goes on...
One might ask if it makes sense to idolize such literary figures. Can fictional beings really serve as role models? How is this different from idealizing movie stars? I would argue that imagined characters are preferable. Well-drawn characters from quality literature are rounder personalities than the generally misrepresented VIPs in the media. A novel can show the full development of a personality with all its shades of grey. Shouldn’t we emulate such people? If they embody appropriate virtues, why not? From early on, I chose to admire several specific virtues: courage, imagination, intelligence, and compassion. These are the same features which characterize some of the heroes of real history: Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, the Dalai Lama, Gloria Steinem, or Barack Obama, whatever your opinions of their intentions, unite these qualities. And yet it seems much harder to follow in their footsteps. Perhaps it is for just that reason: Because of their real existence, imitating them seems much less possible. Their uniqueness, their achievements, are so much more intimidating for their reality.
So if you find yourself concerned that your children are somewhat too infatuated with Pippi or Harry, Trixie or Edward, or some other imaginary personality, find out first what makes that character so fascinating. Perhaps even vampires have their good points!
originally published in Currents Mar/Apr 2010