The Representation of the Hero in Children’s Literature


Please find below an essay on heroism in children’s literature.

Feel free to have a read through and consider the following questions:

  1. Do you agree/disagree with my premise that heroes such as Harry Potter and Peter Pevensie lose their childhood innocence too early due to the responsibility forced upon them?
  2. If this is true, are they positive role models for younger readers?
  3. What, in your opinion, makes a ‘good hero’ in literature, especially child heroes?
  4. How could this essay be extended/improved?

Please add any responses in the comments section below.

‘The hero is constantly confronted by enemies which he must overcome, so he is above all a man of action… the story glorifies violence and defines manhood within this context. There is a level of psychological allegory in the story which is concerned with the transition from boyhood to manhood, and at this level the monsters represent fears and self-doubts which must be overcome, and in some cases the actual ceremonies of initiation which must be endured, before the boy can call himself a real man.’[1]

The story of the hero and his quest has been a predominant theme within our culture and literary tradition, from Homer’s Achilles to Brown’s Langdon. Not only is it everywhere around us, but also it inscribes the set of related concepts, the fundamental dualisms, which have shaped Western thought and values.[2] The hero story has dominated both children’s and young adult’s literature, passing traditional values to a new generation. Charlotte Huck states that knowledge of these stories ‘gives children an understanding of a particular culture; but more importantly it provides them with models of greatness through the ages’ (Huck et al. 1987: 314).[3] This can be deemed to be both true and valuable to a child’s education and imagination if the hero is distinctly characterised as either a child or an adult, for example contrast the maturity between Sophie (from The Tiger Who Came to Tea) and Professor Dumbledore (from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). However, I argue that when one examines the three protagonists in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) (King Peter the Magnificent[4]) Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) (Charlie Bucket) and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) (Harry Potter), the classification of the hero as a definite child or adult has become unclear and distorted.

When one first encounters all three protagonists they are portrayed as children, yet throughout the texts, their circumstances and challenges force them to grow into adulthood unknowingly; a style of compulsory bildungsroman. I argue that this defies the safety of the readers’ response by distorting the distinction between the child and adult hero within children’s literature. My thesis proclaims that, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all portray the protagonist as a hero or champion, but by doing so, forces them to mature quicker than they would under natural conditions, thus providing the basis of the argument that all three texts reduce the notion and status of ‘childhood’ by making the child grow into adulthood too quickly. The distinction between the child and adult is indistinguishable due to the protagonists morphing between the two during a detrimental development; ergo, can this breed of hero provide a positive role model for the child reader or, due to the lack of distinction between child and adult status of the protagonist, does it encourage the reader to wish away their own childhood? In essence, the portrayal of this form of hero within children’s literature purports the benefits of being an adult – of becoming a King, acquiring celebrity status due to magical powers, or owning a chocolate factory – therefore implying that children who act like adults are rewarded by success. Nevertheless, does this play a significant role on the individual child’s psychology and developmental psychology in general?

‘Heroes and heroines often stand out because they have distinctive strengths or personality traits. However, many stories may present an ordinary person leading an ordinary life, who in drawing upon “ordinary” character traits can stand out as being special. Heroes and heroines in good literature are portrayed as complex individuals, so it is necessary to analyze them in a holistic manner by paying special attention to the interplay of both positive and negative traits. Many main characters are strong role models because they rise above their own negative traits or weaknesses and overcome personal challenges.’[5]

The character of Peter Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe exemplifies the overcoming of such weaknesses and prevails in the end. Maria Nikolajeva defines the fantasy protagonist as ‘lacking heroic features’: that they ‘can be scared and even reluctant to perform the task, and can sometimes fail’[6]

‘Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster and aimed a slash of his sword at its side. That stroke never reached the Wolf.’[7]

The battle with the wolf started Peter Pevensie’s physical journey into adulthood; a reconstruction of the archaic hunting ritual that fathers have passed onto their sons for generations in terms of accomplishing their first kill. More justification of the complexity in the distinction between child and adult is conveyed in the emphasis on war and violence. The reader is aware that Peter is not of age because, if he were, he would be absent from the story due to taking part in the war in the Primary world. Nevertheless, in the Secondary world[8] of Narnia, not only is he of age to fight, but he is forced to lead – to become a General. ‘[Aslan] then went on to outline two plans of battle – one for fighting the witch and her people in the wood and another for assaulting her castle.  And all the time he was advising Peter how to conduct the operations, saying things like, “You must put your centaurs in such and such a place.”’[9]

Yet I would argue that Lewis was beginning Peter Pevensie’s emotional transition into adulthood before the children had ever reached Narnia. As a product of post-WWII literature, it makes no direct reference to the distress the children endure by having both their parents absent, arguably due to the familiarity of safe houses; yet the modern reader would find the event of being torn away from the arms of his or her mother and father deeply distressing; consequently Lewis is psychoanalytically requiring Peter to fill the father figure role with no preparation. Nevertheless, the modern reader does have to take account of the author preparing Peter for his inevitably righteous future by depicting his personal qualities very early in the first chapter ‘Lucy looks into a wardrobe’, where Peter states that within the grounds of Professor Kirke’s house there will be “Eagles” and “Stags” and “Hawks”, all animals which are inconographically associated with virtues such as honour and chivalry. Hence I argue that, even in this first chapter, Lewis is already preparing the reader for the interrogation of the classical hero in relation to the lack of distinction between a child and an adult within Peter Pevensie’s character.

The battles and triumphs of fantasy heroes teach the most esteemed standards of conduct, the grand ideals of the heroic soul, and the glories of the honourable enterprise. Even noble failures set examples for emulation. Wendy C. Hamblet emphasises this by stating ‘In the tradition of the Homeric epic, the timeless tales of adventure depict the triumphs and losses of the noblest characters state to the reader that the short-lived glory of the war-torn hero is preferable to the mediocrity of the commoner’[10], personifying the tragically flawed character of Achilles. I would argue that in terms of the classical adult heroes, Hamblet’s statement is true because the adult has a choice over their destiny – Achilles aspired to become a legend and for his name to live through the ages. Yet the modern fantasy child hero is represented as having no control over their fate. Both Peter Pevensie in Lewis’ Narnia and Harry Potter in Rowling’s Hogwarts, characterize a product of the Prophecy Tale. They are projected into a Secondary world without knowledge and expected to succeed in their prophesised quest. The Prophecy Tale involuntarily burdens the protagonist with the hopes and expectations of existing society to which they have not been accustomed, or have any knowledge of. For example, both the depiction of Mrs. Beaver and the barman, referred to below, reveal the celebrity status that both heroes unknowingly encounter. Therefore, both authors interrogate the distinctions between child and adult by representing their hero not as a strong, Myrmidonian warrior coming to liberate the Secondary world’s society, but as a young child.

‘“Good Lord” said the barman, peering at Harry, “is this – can this be?” The Leaky Cauldron had suddenly gone completely still and silent. “Bless my soul,” whispered the old barman. “Harry Potter… what an honour.” He hurried from behind the bar, rushed towards Harry and seized his hand, tears in his eyes. “Welcome back Mr. Potter, welcome back.” Harry didn’t know what to say.’[11]

Referring back to Hourihan’s chapter ‘The Story’ in Deconstructing the Hero, she states, ‘the hero story takes the form of a journey and follows an invariable pattern… [the hero] leaves the civilised order of the home to venture into the wilderness in pursuit of his goal.’[12] I would contradict this premise with reference to both Harry Potter and Peter Pevensie; Harry is transported into the worlds of witchcraft and wizardry with no choice and Peter is attempting to escape the wrath of an irate housekeeper by hiding within a wardrobe, neither knowingly ‘venture[s] into the wilderness in pursuit of his goal’. Thus, a clear dissimilarity between the depiction of the child and the adult can be made within children’s literature when examining the structural and character qualities between the antiquated hero and the contemporary champion.

The previously stated argument concerning the absence of parental figures within Peter’s world can also transcend into Harry’s situation. Not only the loss of both his mother and father, but also the fact that the truth behind their murderous downfall was hidden from him to protect his true magical identity, adds an even more horrific quality. Therefore, once more, the author is illustrating a child protagonist, however juxtaposing many traits which force the hero to evolve into adulthood.

Previously, it has been argued that the children’s literature texts in question lack a distinction between the child and adult in the representation of their hero. Now, I will interrogate the distinction between the child and adult from an external perspective. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone both distance the main child protagonist from the closeness of an adult supervisor; both having multiple, yet similar portrayals of such an event. This distancing is depicted in the hero’s environment: the safe house in Lewis’ text, and the boarding school in Rowling’s. In both situations the close proximity of the parent-offspring relationship is removed, a sense of isolation and loneliness is created for the male protagonist, thus providing justification for the previous argument that the child is forced to mature unnaturally.  One could argue that the reason for depicting such isolation for the hero is the historical context in which both authors are writing: for Lewis a post-WWII reference empathises with the emotional seclusion which veterans feel after returning home from the war; for Rowling, the fears of the fin de siècle, possibly depict the, ‘”pessimism, cynicism, and a mixed sense of anxiety, unease, and exhilaration” that [are] present in the fin de siècle mentality and how these attitudes are reflected and deflected in children’s books.’[13]

Not only is the distance between the child protagonist and their adult supervisor depicted in the hero’s environment, but it also depicted in the fact that both Aslan and Dumbledore distance themselves from the hero, emphasising once again a sense of isolation and anxiety to the reader. For example, the circumstance in which Peter stands on the battlefield alone to face the White Witch, without the authority and protection of Aslan, epitomises the reality that the journey that the hero must take, must be taken alone: through boyhood, into manhood. Harry also feels such isolation from his educator; Rowling intensifies this empathy further by killing both Dumbledore and the surrogate parental figure of Sirius, accentuating the element of isolation.

At first inspection, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory underlines a slightly more straight-forward depiction of the childhood hero, yet I argue that Dahl uses different modus operandi to portray Charlie Bucket (The hero[14]) in a more complex representation of the protagonist. Fundamentally, Charlie is chosen by Wonka at the end of the narrative because he has not been influenced by the corruptible temptations that a child experiences. The role that Charlie plays within his home life, in relation to his influence upon the older generation of the household, is that of a caring adult nature, almost like a cross-over between the child and another parent. This can be exemplified in relation to the grandparents’ joy of their time spent with Charlie, contrasted with Charlie’s lack of complaint over the hardship the family is going through:

‘In the evenings … Charlie always went into the room of his four Grandparents to listen to their stories… Every one of those people was over ninety … and throughout the day, until Charlie made his appearance, they lay huddled in their one bed… dozing the time away with nothing to do. But as soon as they heard the door opening and Charlie’s voice saying ‘Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine, and Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina,’ then all four of them would suddenly sit up, and their wrinkled faces would light up with smiles of pleasure… for they loved this boy.’[15]

Dahl uses unconventional methods in portraying his protagonist as well as the manner in which he asserts his ethical message. I argue that he is condemning the status of children who are too interested in materialistic conventions, such as the description of the first Golden Ticket winner: ‘The finder was a boy called Augustus Gloop… a nine-year old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown with a powerful pump, great flabby folds of fat bulged out of every part of his body.’[16] Dahl’s moral quest also seems to attack the weakness of discipline enforced upon the children by the parents of the Golden Ticket winners, excluding the hero’s: ‘“I just knew Augustus would find a golden ticket,” his mother had told the newspapermen. “He eats so many bars of chocolate a day that it would be almost impossible for him not to find one. Eating is his hobby, you know. That’s all he’s interested in. But still, that’s better than being a hooligan and shooting off zip-guns and things like that in his spare time.”’[17]

Dahl’s protestation against commercialism within children’s society and the intemperance projected from the parent to child, in my opinion seems justified. Modern society does appear to exist on the latest materialistic trends, yet I argue Dahl’s depiction of Willie Wonka decreases his intended result.

‘“I shall now tell you how this amazing television of mine works. But first of all do you know how an ordinary television works? It is very simple… and presto! – the photograph appears on the screen…”

“That isn’t exactly how it works,” Mike Teavee said.

“I am a little deaf in my left ear,” Mr Wonka said. “You must forgive me if I don’t hear everything you say.”

“I said. That isn’t exactly how it works!” shouted Mike Teavee.

“You’re a nice boy,” Mr Wonka said, “but you talk too much.”’[18]

The discourse between Wonka and Mike Teavee emphasises a flaw in Wonka’s character that suggests he is not an adult authority to be respected: everything that the archetypal adult role model in children’s literature articulates is defined as true. If an adult does not speak the truth, then they are characteristically categorised as evil, (Dualism and Binary Oppositions[19]) – good = true, evil = false.

Therefore, by patronising Mike Teavee’s knowledge, Wonka only distances himself from the conventional character of the hero’s guide. Also, the reason why Wonka eventually gives his factory to Charlie seems to contradict his attitude towards childhood. He states, ‘I can’t go on forever. I’ve got no children of my own, no family at all. So who is going to run the factory when I get too old to do it myself? …there are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of person. I don’t want a grown-up person at all. He will try and do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child.’[20] This statement provides good reason to reiterate the naivety he demonstrates in his reaction to Mike Teavee; his comments imply a regression to a child-like state of innocence in which he fears that the adult industrial world will contaminate his perfect innocent factory, thus interrogating the distinction between child and adult within the context of children’s literature.

‘The essence of fantasy literature is the confrontation of the ordinary with the fabulous… For the fantasy protagonist, the encounter with the supernatural, whether the appearance of witches or unicorns in his own reality, or being transported into another world, presents a dilemma, which the reader must share.’[21] I have argued that authors interrogate the distinction between child and adult in children’s literature by placing the child hero in a position in which they encounter ‘the ordinary with the fabulous’, and that this has a detrimental effect upon the protagonist’s psychological condition, forcing the child to mature into the adult prematurely. This has an effect on the reader-response by psychoanalytically purporting the thesis that to be successful and ‘heroic’, one must endure the same transformation from boyhood to manhood as the champion, ergo prohibiting the prominence of the childhood age.

[1] Hourihan, M. ‘Deconstructing the Hero’ Literary Theory and Children’s Literature (London: Routledge: 1997) p.3

[2] Hourihan, M. Ibid

[3] Hourihan, M. Ibid

[4] Lewis, C.S.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Lions: 1988) p.166

[5] Singh, M. and Mei-Yu Lu, ‘Exploring the Function of Heroes and Heroines in Children’s Literature From Around the World’ The Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication Digest #183 (Bloomington: ERIC: December 2003)

[6] Nikolajeva, M. Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern p. 140

[7] Lewis, C.S. Ibid p. 120

[8] ‘Fairy tales take place in one magical world, detached from our own both in space and time… In fantasy literature, the characters are temporarily displaced from modern, linear time – chromos – into mythical, archaic cyclical time – kairos – and return to linearity at the end of the novel… The most common denomination for the various representations of magic in fantasy literature is the concept of the Secondary world… fantasy may be roughly defined as a narrative combining the presence of the Primary and the Secondary world.’

Nikolajava, M Ibid p. 142

Please note: When referring to the Secondary world, I mean the extra-terrestrial content that does not appear within the normality of the Primary. When referring to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when I state the Secondary world, I refer to the definition provided, even though the two worlds are not completely separate entities, unlike The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has two separate worlds which do not influence one-another… apart from the lamppost of course.

[9] Lewis, C.S. Ibid p. 132

[10] Hamblet, W.C. ‘Beasts, Heroes and Monsters: Configuring the Moral Imaginary’ Cited from The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, the Witch and the Worldview, Ed by Bassham, G and Walls, J.L (USA: Carus: 2005) p. 143

[11] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury: 1997) p. 79

[12] Hourihan, M Ibid p.9

[13] Stephens, J. ‘Is This the Promised End. . ?’ Fin de Siècle Mentality and Children’s Literature’ Cited from Reflections of Change: Children’s Literature since 1945 Ed. by Beckett, S.L. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997)

[14] Dahl, R. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (GB: Puffin Books: 1985) p. 9

[15] Dahl, R. Ibid  p. 19

[16] Dahl, R. Ibid pp. 33-34

[17] Dahl, R. Ibid p.34 (Dahl’s italics)

[18] Dahl, R. Ibid pp. 136-137

[19] Hourihan, M. Ibid p. 15

[20] Dahl, R. Ibid p. 157

[21] Nikolajeva, M. Ibid p. 154