Meeting the Mentor

Odysseus, the reluctant hero, is about to leave for the War of Troy. He knows the war will not be an easy one: dangerous, uncertain, long. His heart is heavy: he is leaving behind his beloved island Ithaca and his family, his wife Penelope and his newborn son Telemachus.

He is especially worried about the boy. How will he cope without his father? Where will he go, if he needs guidance and advice?

With these questions in his mind, Odysseus pays a visit to an old friend.

“My wise, dear friend. Can I trust you with my boy’s future?” he asked. “In case of need, will you be there as his teacher, tutor and guide?”. The older friend accepted, and took the role of guardian for Odysseus’ young son. He was so good in his role that even a few years later, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, took his form as a human when she needed to send a message to Telemachus.

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Mentor and Telemachus in the Odyssey

The name of the man was Mentor. Wow, really? That sounds familiar…

Since then, the word “Mentor” has become a synonim for counselor, teacher, and wise person. We all have met our Mentors in our life. And in our turn, are called to take that role for students, friends, children. It is an extremely important figure, and it has a central place in the Hero’s Journey.

We all, in the course of our life, meet such extraordinary people. When it happens, it’s a memorable experience, that will shape our future life and personality, maybe forever. Meeting the right teacher, role model or guide, even if only for a short time, can indeed be one of the most meaningful moments of our life.

Robin Williams USA :1989 Réalisateur: Peter Weir
Robin Williams unforgettable in “The Dead Poets Society” (1989)

Don’t we all remember that special teacher, who had that special gift to communicate his knowledge in such an inspiring way? Or that great sport coach, whose motivation was totally contagious, and always managed to push us to overcome our limits? Or that special, wise person in our family, to whom we always went when we needed support or advice and always knew the right words for us?

As human beings, we need to give a meaning to our identity. For that we need a context, to place ourselves in space and time. We need to feel connected as part of a community, and to be recognised by our peers and maybe most importantly, by our elders. This process develops in the early years of our life, but is affirmed in the adolescence, when we pass from the earlier stage of our life (childhood) into maturity (adulthood: adolescens in Latin means “to grow into an adult”).

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the relationship between the young Olive and her granddad in “Little Miss Sunshine” is adorable

And shis is precisely the importance of “The Mentor” stage of the Hero’s Journey. A “Mentor” is a powerful archetype for a wise person, typically older than us, that we meet before we cross the threshold out from our everyday, ordinary world (or slightly after: stories can vary quite a bit here).

The meaning is clear: we all need good teachers, to feel connected to our ancestors, their knowledge and wisdom, and to receive their blessing before we go on to face our challenges in life, in a sort of implicit rite of passage. It’s the way humans have developed through ages and centuries, from one generation to the following, and so on. It feels natural to us, and so it must be.

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Michael Caine in “Inception”

That is why in every, every story that is worth being told, at one point or another in the earlier chapter the hero meets this powerful, charismatic figure. Just think about it: Luke Skywalker has his Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry Potter meets Dumbledore, Frodo learns from Gandalf about the One Ring.

See how the characters resemble each other? That’s because they are in fact different incarnations of exactly the same figure!

And more. Forrest Gump becomes friend with the Liutenant Dan when he goes to Vietnam. They will learn from each other while they live their transormative arcs. Jason assembles his team of super heroes, the Argonauts, after meeting an Oracle. The Ninja Turtles are trained by Splinter, who in fact is a very large rat but they don’t seem to mind being not so picky about talking animals themselves. Dorothy has just arrived to the Land of Oz when she meets the Good Witch of the North, very beautiful because “only evil witches are ugly” of course.

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Glinda from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

The Mentor as a figure can be masculine, feminine, or more abstract: from the animal world

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Aslan the Lion in “The Chronicles of Narnia” (2005)

or an entity, a spirit, a supernatural force

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in “The Neverending Story” (1984) Atreyu (and later Bastian) meet Falkor

a friendly, reassuring character

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“Kung Fu Panda” (2008) sees Po learn from the guru Shifu

or a challenging, menacing one

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Bill is at the same time the villain and the Mentor in “Kill Bill Vol. 2” (2004)

or maybe a bit of both? Mmmmh can we really trust this guy?

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the iconic Cheshire Cat from Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) is actually there to give directions… in his own peculiar way

Which usually is a story in its own. We learn from many different experiences, good and bad ones, and especially from energies that are radically different from ours (masculine/feminine, young/old, modern/classic, natural/technological, spiritual/material). This, for the Hero, can actually be the first very important lesson to learn.

A strong, masculine figure recalls probably a father figure and the importance of authority, leadership, responsibility; a caring, compassionate female can be related to motherhood, nourishing, acceptance. The Mentor can also be a love partner (there is indeed a lot of “initiation” happening through our love and sex life!), and in that case the story takes another very definite direction.

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in “Pretty Woman” (1990) who is learning from whom?

In every story, the final purpose of the Mentor is the transmission of something. Their role is to help the protagonist with a legacy. This is usually represented by an object or a teaching of particular importance that has to be delivered to the Hero.

A weapon, a tool, an object that can be mysterious at the beginning, but will become essential at a later stage in the journey. What would Luke do without his lightsaber? Or Frodo without the light of Earendil, that he receives from Galadriel?

Every James Bond movie has a moment with “Q”, who shows him the new technology and tools he will bring in his new mission. This is from “Goldfinger” (1964):

 

And we as the audience rejoyce so much when, later in the story, 007 finds the way to use each gadget in the most appropriate way!

This subtle mechanism is very powerful and effective, because it reflects our need for guidance, learning, transmission of knowledge. And it’s a cycle: in turn, we assume the roles of disciples and teachers, in our life we are called to have from time all these roles: learner, initiate, student, teacher, guide, guru, master.

This reflects the bond between generations that helps us to feel connected and keeps society together, and holds the profound teaching that every encounter of our life bears a potential opportunity for learning. It is our responsibility to acknowledge it, and to treasure the most from our experiences.

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Ok, so we get it. Meeting a Mentor is cool. But – what if we are not that lucky? What if our education system or community is not exactly so privileged, or we just grow up in the wrong neighbourhood? We might never get to meet that special person?

Then again, the teaching is simple: go out and find it! At the end of the day, learning is our own responsibility. Yes, we can blame a number of actors for our own misfortune (and we do: the government, the system, the school…), but in the end the Call to Adventure is a challenge to become the protagonists of our own story. To live our life, not to suffer it. And many stories are told about a Hero who goes out on a difficult quest, just to meet the right teacher.

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sometimes it takes a good mentor to defeat an evil one. Exactly the Bride’s mission in “Kill Bill” (2003)

When this is completed successfully, the disciple has actually earned the right to learn. Yes, that’s right: what if we saw learning and development as a prize to earn, rather than a right? Would we treat it more sensibly, maybe seeing it as an honour and an opportunity, rather than some boring duty?

And at the same time, shouldn’t we see our teachers as highly respectable people, who grant us one of the biggest gifts ever imaginable?

In the most memorable stories, learning and experience are always valued and well-deserved rewards. Do we treat the topic with the same respect in our everyday life in the “material world”?

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