CORAL ISLAND and the Childlit Mentor

For those of you just joining the conversation, my wife and I are currently team-teaching a children’s literature course.  Last week’s book was R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 adventure The Coral Island.  Instead of summarizing the plot1 or discussing its literary significance2, I thought instead I could talk about a certain character relationship that the book depicts — one that traces back to Homer’s Odyssey and lives on today in books like Harry Potter.   It is the relationship between a boy and his mentor.

The Mentor in The Coral Island In the second half of the book, fifteen year-old Ralph gets kidnapped by pirates.  He spends many days on this ship, surrounded by cutthroats and monsters.  Among the crew, however, he finds a man named “Bloody Bill”:

This man, although he was always taciturn and often surly, was the only human being on board with whom I had the slightest desire to become better acquainted. … Once or twice I tried to draw him into conversation, but he always turned away after a few cold monosyllables.

Ralph soon befriends Bloody Bill and learns the true nature of his character — namely that Bill is a sensitive man, wracked with guilt over his wicked deeds.  The relationship between these two only spans a few chapters, but it acts as the emotional center of the novel.  Without Bill, this would just be another book about some kids surviving on an island.

I find this child/mentor dynamic particularly compelling as an adult reader of children’s books.  It forces me to question whether the adults in my own life were so deeply invested in me — people that I once perceived to be cold and indifferent.  Usually after reading such books, I have an overwhelming desire to call my parents and teachers3.

The Mentor in Contemporary Children’s Literature. To be honest, child/mentor relationships were on my brain long before I picked up The Coral Island.  It all started when I read D. M. Cornish’s “Foundling” trilogy over Christmas4.  Cornish seems to compulsively render the child/mentor dynamic between his young hero Rossamund and … every adult character in the series:

Well, maybe not every adult character.  But shades of this trope show up repeatedly.  (I don’t blame Cornish for repeating this dynamic — he writes it very well.)  With both The Coral Island and the “Foundling” books, I’m not just talking about a pairing of an old character with a younger one.  Rather, it’s about the layers of understanding going on between those two characters.  In both texts, I see a consistent theme of a young person struggling to comprehend an older caretaker.

When I think of other contemporary examples of this dynamic, my mind goes straight to Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore:

To my thinking, this relationship stands out as being the real story in the “Harry Potter” series.  Each volume moves Harry closer toward understanding just how much this enigmatic old wizard cares for him — even when he appears distant.  At the end of every adventure, Harry receives a “reward” in the form of a conversation with his mentor, who reveals the ways in which he has been watching and helping from a distance.  These conversations are the climax of personal growth … just as they are for Rossamund Bookchild and Rover Roger.

The Mentor in Adult Literature. With the above examples in mind, I tried to think of some child/mentor relationships that predate children’s literature.  The only thing I could come up with was Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  My friend Doctor Comics is publishing a book on Arthurian legends, and so I asked him about the relationship between King Arthur and Merlin.  He told me that the original Arthur texts don’t really capture the dynamic I was looking for — in fact, it wasn’t until T.H. White’s depiction in The Sword and the Stone in 1938 that Merlin-as-mentor really emerged.


So it wasn’t until Arthur was re-written for children that the child/mentor dynamic really came through?  Huh.  With this new revelation, I started to wonder whether the relationships that I find so moving are actually unique to the genre.  Maybe there is something about children’s literature  —  which is meant to be read by both children and adults — that captures this child/mentor relationship in a way that adult literature cannot?

I have no idea whether this is true.  But a part of me suspects it may be so.  In the meantime, I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of great child/mentor relationships from children’s books.  You should let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: I wanted to give a special welcome to any readers visiting from Fuse #8! I like to think of the comments section as that “reward” that Harry (me) gets to have with Dumbledore (you) at the end of an adventure — in which wise readers tell me why I’m wrong about this or that thing.  So please, pull up a chair, grab some butterbeer, and join the conversation!

  1. 1. Three boys get shipwrecked on the island. They get along splendidly. Then some pirates come and ruin everything. Also, cannibals.
  2. 2. Coral Island is considered by many to be the first boy’s adventure novel; it is also the book that provoked William Golding to write The Lord of the Flies (as a rebuttal)
  3. 3. This is no accident.  The word “mentor” actually comes from the character of the same name in Homer’s Odyssey.  In the poem, Mentor is a wise old man who looks after Odysseus’ son in his absence.  In English today, it is a word for someone in a role that is equal parts parent and teacher.
  4. 3. A special thanks to Betsy Bird and her wonderful Factotum review for putting these books on my radar!

14 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Mary Burke (Auxier!) says:

    Thinking back to your recent post on Lewis, I think Aslan is an example. He’s more distant than someone like Dumbledore, but still, I think it works.

    I think, perhaps, this relationship is so powerful for an adult reader because we know what it’s like to be really invested in a child, and we know how most children can’t possibly comprehend how much they are loved. Plus, you’re right, it allows us to think about how we may have been loved in that same way without knowing it.

  • Craig Chapman says:

    I’d say, if you think of hobbits as children, and “The Hobbit” as children’s literature, then I think Gandalf counts. In the same vein, Yoda fills that role in Star Wars (OK, I know this isn’t a book). Putting all that together, the genius of this link is indisputable:

    On a more serious note, I think this was a trope (trying out this recently rediscovered word – thanks Jon!) that Dickens perfected. I’m thinking of Oliver Twist (does this count as Children’s Lit?), and, of course, Great Expectations. In many was, Great Expectations was exactly about living up to the “expectations” of mentors, and ultimately (as is the culmination of the mentor journey) about the transition from being mentored to making it on your own.

  • Craig Chapman says:

    PS – Mary beat me to the Aslan punch, but I couldn’t agree more. He might even get my vote in the all-mentor-matchup.

  • Mary,
    Good point on Alsan. My ambivalence about the series probably blinded me to this fact.

    I was actually thinking about putting in something about Luke and Obi-Wan, but you may be onto something with Yoda … especially if it lets you link to that awesome picture. In regards to Dickens, I had wondered about Jo from GREAT EXPECTATIONS, but wasn’t sure if he worked because he’s, well, not very smart. That said, I think you make a great point about how the overall narrative is very much about what it means to be a mentor.

  • Craig Chapman says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the implication that you need to be wise to be a mentor. Jo is a favorite character of mine (probably because I wrote a whole essay on him, with the tag line “Just your average Jo:…) almost entirely because his straightfoward simplicity allows him to deliver a clear and constant moral message. Maybe intelligence helps (and it is certainly useful for the author), but it certainly isn’t necessary for a mentor to be smart in order to deliver a profound and character-defining message to his mentee.

    PS – Having now used it, I realize I can’t stand the word mentee…any other options?

  • Matt Bird says:

    I’ve been cooking up a discussion about mentors over at my blog that I’ll get to soon.

    Generally speaking, I hate mentors. I think they keep the reader from relying on the hero to solve the problem.

    I think that the biggest problem with Harry Potter books is that they keep Dumbledore alive for way too long, and never completely get rid of him.

    I absolutely love the movie “How To Train Your Dragon”, and it occurred to me after it was finished that one of the reasons I loved it so much was there was no mentor. In the commentary, they revealed that one of the village elders was going to be a mentor, but they dropped that whole storyline, which I was glad to hear.

    I think the ideal mentor/student relationship is Giles/Buffy. A mentor must have an inferior amount of power and have clearly self-interested motives for their mentorship, no matter how much they come to like their charge. Mentors who can swoop in at any time and take care of everything are death.

  • Jason Tondro says:

    Perhaps we should be careful lumping all “engimatic mentors who lead the hero off to adventure” in with the very specific child hero idolizing a non-communicative old guy that Jon is talking about here. I mean, Joseph Campbell is very passe these days, but he has entire chapters devoted to all the examples of the old mentor who leads the hero to adventure, and Obi-Wan and Gandalf appear in those chapters.

    But what you are wrestling with here, Jon, is the very special nature of the child hero to a guy whom he idolizes but who PRETENDS not to love the kid, out of a desire to teach same kid. That seems to be part of, but a narrow subset of, the larger mentor role.

    PS: Thanks for the hat-tip!

  • I love mentors in storylines. I am a huge believer in the Joseph Campbell school of thought on story telling. I don’t think however that a mentor is always an older character. I think that a mentor is someone that helps the main character change and then let them push forward on their own to discover their own abilities. The role of the mentor is help with the development of the wings before you can fly.

  • Matt,
    I agree that many mentors can be problematic. If they’re so smart and powerful, why don’t they just fix the problem themselves? I did spend much time reading Cornish/Rowling and being frustrated that the stupid kid didn’t just confide in his mentor — then again, isn’t that like being mad at the co-ed in a horror movie for not calling the cops? (read: part of the fun is in the frustration). The one thing I DO think mentors are good for is invoking the sense of helplessness that parents feel — the pain of having to watch children you love make their own mistakes. That is a true enough human experience that I think it deserves to have a role in storytelling.

    You’re 100% right that I’m talking about something more specific than regular mentors. You nailed in about fifty words what I spent 800 trying to articulate. Maybe you should write about books for a living?

  • John Edwards says:

    Regarding mentor relationships in children’s lit: I don’t think that the genre makes the relationship clearer to see because there is a much clearer pupil/teacher dynamic. When we see a young character and an older character together, there’s assumption that one is teaching the other.

    It’s not, however, specific to children’s literature. Of course, at my age, all I can think of at the moment are film references. Obi Wan and Luke; Yoda and Obi Wan; Kiddo and Wei Mei; Even Bruce Wayne and Alfred in the latest incarnation of the Batman mythos.

    As for mentors being a crutch and preventing the young protagonist from discovering and solving problems on his or her own, I think that’s only when the relationship is portrayed badly. A good mentor lets a student struggle up to a point. And, perhaps most importantly, once the lesson is over, a mentor gives their pupil something to think about that challenges what the pupil thought they were supposed to have learned thus expanding both the protagonist’s and reader’s perspectives.

  • Love D.M. Cornish too, and agree with the mention of Aslan.

    I’ve anought of another: Laurie R. King’s THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE, which was not marketed as YA but could have been (though the rest of the series takes a more adult bent) features a very strong mentor/child relationship between Mary Russell, a 14-year-old left-handed Jewish orphan girl born in 1900, and the fiftysomething Sherlock Holmes.

  • Susan says:

    A more complex child/mentor relationship example can be found in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, in that the child (David Balfour) and mentor (Alan Breck Stuart) each learn from the other.

  • RJ,
    Haven’t read the BEEKEPER’s APPRENTICE, but I’m glad to hear examples that don’t just involve male characters. (Maybe that’s part of the reason I so enjoyed Europe from the “Foundling” books?)

    great call with KIDNAPPED. I have gone back-and-forth a million times with Long John Silver, who manipulates Jim by invoking this relationship. David and Alan is a much better Stevenson example!

  • […] cannot?”  In the context of R.M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, author Jonathan Auxier examines the child/mentor relationship in books.  I am particularly pleased with this piece since he takes care to mention D.M. Cornish’s […]

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