Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Meeting with the Mentor


This is Part 3 in my series on mythic structure, or the hero’s journey.

1. Even though this stage of the journey is positioned after The Call to Adventure and The Refusal of the Call, the Meeting with the Mentor can happen at any point in the story.

It is common for the hero to meet their mentor figure at some point during the first act (first third or so of the story) but there is no restriction on when the hero can meet her mentor for the first time. Dorothy doesn’t meet Glinda until after she crosses the first threshold (enters Oz). Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, on the other hand, meets swordmaster Syrio Forel before she crosses her first threshold (escapes King’s Landing in the guise of a boy).

2. The hero may meet several characters that function as mentors at different stages of the story.

Arya has many mentors on her journey, including her brother Jon Snow, Yoren, a Night’s Watch recruiter who rescues her right after her father’s execution, Jaqen H’ghar, a shapeshifting assassin, and Sandor Clegane (The Hound) who kidnaps her and teaches how to fight dirty.

Dorothy also meets other mentors, including The Scarecrow and The Wizard.

3. Some mentors may not be physically present in the story at all, making it unnecessary to dramatize a meeting.

In The Hunger Games, one of Katniss’ most influential mentors is her father, who is dead before the story begins. In Game of Thrones, Jon Arryn, who was mentor to two major characters, Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon, has died as the story opens.

In mythology, it is common for gods to function as mentors but never physically meet the hero. In modern stories, this may be replicated with mentors who are anonymous or dead benefactors. An example of this would be Brewster’s Millions. In the various adaptations of the story, an uncle or other relative leaves the hero a huge fortune, with the stipulation he must spend a percentage of it in a short amount of time, so he can learn to appreciate the responsibility of having so much money.

4. Mentor characters may be off the canvas but still “meet” the hero through a third party, usually the herald archetype.

In Greek myths, this was Hermes, the messenger of the gods. In modern stories, it may be through a herald character or something else that functions as a herald, such as a taped message, as in Brewster’s Millions. Katniss’ father’s presence is felt in possessions she inherited from him, such as his hunting jacket.

5. The mentor and hero may have an antagonistic or distrustful relationship when they first meet.

Sometimes this is a natural result of a teacher/student relationship. Arya is at first dismayed with Syrio for showing her how little she knows during their first encounter. In Wall Street, Bud Fox feels humiliated because he fails to impress Gordon Gekko, who he hopes will become his mentor. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, young Jen Yu fights her two prospective mentors because she believes they have little or nothing to teach her.

Other times, it may be due to the specific circumstances of the meeting. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor initially thinks Kyle Reese is a threat to her because he’s been following her. Katniss is furious with Haymitch during their first meeting because he comes across as too drunk and apathetic to help her. She realizes later this is a result of PTSD from his own time in the games.

In The Sixth Sense, young Cole distrusts child therapist Malcolm. We don’t realize until later in the story that this is because Cole knows Malcolm is a ghost.

6. Heralds give heroes the Call to Adventure, but mentors push them to accept it, or at least prod them on at various stages of the journey.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, a character literally named Mentor literally pushes Odysseus’ son Telemachus off a cliff into the sea as a way jar him out of an infatuation with a nymph, so he can continue searching for his father. This is an extreme example, but illustrates one of the major purposes of the mentor character.

7. The hero and mentor may flip their initial functions later on in the story.

For instance, in The Shawshank Redemption, when they first meet Red functions as Andy’s mentor to help him survive prison life. Later on, Andy mentors Red so he can survive life outside of prison.

In The Sixth Sense, it becomes apparent that while Malcolm has been mentoring Cole to help him to deal with the fact that he can see ghosts, Cole has also been mentoring Malcolm, to help him accept he is a ghost who needs to move on.

8. In time-travel stories, it is common for the hero to meet his mentor in the present during the first act, and meet him again as a stranger after he has crossed the threshold into the past.

In Back to the Future, Marty escapes from some terrorists in Doc Brown’s time machine. When he lands in the past, he has to seek out Doc and convince him he’s from the future. In Peggy Sue Got Married, Peggy Sue meets her ex-classmate Richard Norvik–a brilliant scientist–in the present at her high school reunion. When she ends up back in time during her senior year in high school, she seeks out Richard to help her figure out a way to return to the future.

An interesting twist to Back to the Future is how Marty serves as a mentor for his own father, teaching him how to woo his mother and stand up to a bully. He even inspires his father to pursue his dream of writing science fiction.

9. One of the most important reasons for the hero and mentor to meet is so the mentor can bestow gifts to help the hero on his journey.

Obi Wan Kenobi gives Luke his father’s lightsaber. Jon Snow gives Arya a sword called Needle. Another one of Arya’s mentors, Jaqen H’ghar, gives her a coin and a password (“valar morghulis,” which means “all men must die”) which will gain her assistance from any man from the city of Braavos. Glinda gives Dorothy the ruby slippers.

The gifts may be tangible items, but the most important gift the mentor bestows upon the hero is the gift of knowledge.

Read more about mentors in my article about the archetype.


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Meeting with the Mentor

    1. Can’t disagree that Hollywood often resorts to laziness and formulaic storytelling. However, the hero’s journey can result in stories as different as Star Wars and The Sixth Sense, or Game of Thrones and Peggy Sue Got Married. It all comes down to execution and creative ways of using structure and archetypes.

      1. It’s difficult to completely stray from the “Formula” – after all we have only got a minimal number of stories (3 or 7 depending on who you ask). And why stray when it’s worked well for a few thousand years? It’s not necessarily the formula that’s the problem with the current crop of “stale” stories but the execution – As you say Debbie.
        When the writer/creator plays with the relationship between hero and mentor, that’s when it becomes interesting.
        Take Firefly for example – 9 people on a ship looking into space and seeing 9 different things. Playing with an ensemble like this gives the creator opportunities to play with the hero/mentor trope as there are moments when each one gets to “play” the mentor at any one time, and they perform the function in unexpected ways an to unexpected characters – In the First episode for example the “whore” gives benediction to the “Priest”. Just brilliant upturning of expectations.
        And look at a film/story you mentioned above – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One of the great aspects of that story is that it turns the traditional pursuit of the mentor by the hero upside down. Instead of the Hero seeking out the mentor and begging him to train him, here we have the Mentor Pursuing the hero. It’s rather beautiful in its execution.

        So a whole lot here to think about Debbie, really good piece. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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