Heroes from Middle School
by Everett Wilson
June 26, 2010
I don't know how many of you will recognize what links the four names in the title, because Peter, Harry, and Henry are too common to offer a clue to the connection. Those who know Ender might see it though, because of his unusual name.
They are the first names—or nickname, in Ender's case--of the juvenile heroes in four prominent fiction series from the last sixty years, two British and two American. In the stories each of the boys change—or save-- their respective worlds before they're old enough to shave.
Peter is the high king in the Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis.
Ender is Andrew Wiggin, the central character in Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and its sequels.
Harry is Harry Potter, the title character of the novels by J.K. Rowling.
Henry is the new kid on this block, the pivotal character in 100 Cupboards, a trilogy by N.D. Wilson. (Full disclosure requires me to acknowledge that N. D. Wilson is my brother's grandson, which disqualifies me as a critic but not as a fan. It is also fair to note that the three books are Yearling books from Random House).
Twelve is a great age for heroes.As to their being boys: when I was writing fiction for juveniles forty years ago, my central characters were usually boys, for two reasons. First, I had been one myself, and second, I believed that girls were more likely to read about boys than boys about girls. Sex is interesting at that age, but for most it is not yet compelling; there are still other things to think about. Boys and girls compete and cooperate as human beings as they choose or as circumstances dictate, not as sexual stereotypes. Sometimes the girls have the edge in size and physical skill. When boys and girls have a common cause to which they are committed, they stand together as equals, with respect for each other's skill, brains, and courage.
That's how it is in all of these novels. The central character is a boy, but he doesn't stand alone. Just as Tom Sawyer had Becky Thatcher and Anne Shirley had Gilbert Blythe, so Peter has his sisters Susan and Lucy, Ender has his sister at home and his classmate Petra in Battle School, Harry has Hermione at Hogwarts, and Henry has his cousin Henrietta in their travel between worlds through the hundred cupboards. When they rescue each other from hair-raising peril, it's as loyal colleagues, not lovers. When they get old enough to fall in love, it's usually with somebody else. Anne is an exception, but then Anne of Green Gables is not an action-adventure novel.
For many, twelve is often the last clear glimpse of the world as it is before adolescent chaos and anxiety kick in big-time. You tend to trust what you know when you are twelve. The tagline of the movie Stand by Me (based on Stephen King's The Body, which is about four twelve-year-old boys on an overnight adventure), nails it for me: "For some, it's the last real taste of innocence, and the first real taste of life. But for everyone, it's the time that memories are made of."
I am obviously hooked on these series, but not to the category of fantasy-adventure represented by Narnia, Hogwarts, and the hundred cupboards, nor to the category of extravagant science fiction represented by the Ender books. I did not pursue the Percy Jackson series beyond The Lightning Thief. I read Foundation by Asimov, but did not see what the big deal was.
Nor is it the theology of these series that hooks me either, though theology is at the heart of my day job. Two of the authors are mainstream Christians with standard labels and two are not, yet I value all of the books as literature whether or not I approve of their theology.
What does hook me, beyond the vivid, non-stereotypical characters and narrative skill essential to all readable fiction, are the issues and enemies these children must face. These are books about children, but not about childish things. They are about the human predicament and its awful consequences. The principal characters are children, but they are neither childish nor helpless. Two of them in fact have enormous magical power, but to do good with it they must routinely risk death and rely on their unmagical friends and family, children and adults, for support. They must stand, often in front, but they do not stand alone.
The reader gets a taste of what is to come in the first volume of The Hundred Cupboards, when Henry, a boy from Boston, comes for an extended stay with his aunt, uncle, and girl cousins on their farm in Kansas. He meets Zeke, a neighbor boy about his own age, who invites him to play baseball and even volunteers to coach him when he realizes that Henry is new to baseball.
Then Henry and his cousin Henrietta manage to open a cupboard in Henry's attic room, and all hell breaks loose--not figuratively speaking.
During the crisis that follows Zeke comes to the front door, bat in hand, to practice with Henry. When he hears a girl scream from above, he opens the front door and runs upstairs. He doesn't know anything about magic or cupboards, only that his friends are in trouble and he has a baseball bat.
Zeke is not the hero, but he is heroic. After that encounter, the first of many, he says to the family, "I don't know what's going on, but I will help you." He is twelve. Maybe thirteen.
Behavior like that, and lines like that spoken in character, lead the reader to respect the seriousness of the sometimes extreme violence that recurs in all four series.
Henry, like Harry Potter, discovers that he has magical powers of his own. Harry is a wizard, but Henry is from another world; though his powers are not inherent like Harry's, he can invoke them at need and at great risk to himself.
In contrast, Ender Wiggin and Peter the High King are not magical. They are exceptionally trained and specially appointed, Peter to rule Narnia, and Ender to command a fleet of space ships. Ender's Game is not a competition in gym class, but a war in outer space to save the human race from annihilation. Ender commands of the human fleet because he was chosen and trained beginning at age six to fight this one battle--and it comes when he is still a boy.
Readers may discern for themselves the distinct world-views of each series. The point is, they have a point! Their books are a lot more than one inventive stunt after another. Because of that, rereading them is always rewarding. Also, their heroes have this in common: when it is time to stand, they stand with what they have, and do not run.
About the Author:
Everett Wilson is a retired minister and PO contributor.
This article was printed from www.partialobserver.com.
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