Friday, June 24, 2016

The “Jonah” Protagonist

     Among the best-known stories of the Old Testament is that of Jonah, he who was swallowed by “a great fish” and who lay in the belly that fish “three days and three nights.” However, Jonah’s harrowing adventure and subsequent service to God are better known than why inexorable disaster followed him before that: he had fled from God’s call to serve Him as a prophet to Nineveh.

     Jonah’s reluctance to serve God as he’d been called to do makes him the prototype for the reluctant hero: the protagonist who possesses the characteristics necessary to triumph over the antagonist, but who, for reasons of his own, refuses to buckle on his sword, take up his shield, and go forth to battle.

     The reluctant hero’s tragic flaw is often self-doubt. However, about as often it’s simply a rejection of his calling in favor of another sort of life: perhaps a quieter one, or at least more private.

     A story in which such a protagonist overcomes his reluctance and takes up cudgels is one in the classical pattern. Today we see about as many stories in which such a protagonist rationalizes his rejection of his calling – for example, by deciding that “people have to solve their own problems.”

     Note that, in the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth felt a reluctance to embrace his role all the way to its conclusion:

     And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him. And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground. [Luke 22:39-45]

     Yet at the last He did embrace it – and in the process founded the greatest of all religions.

     Needless to say, the Son of God was not a “Jonah.” Rather, being as human as He was Divine, He recoiled from His anticipated suffering as naturally as any of us would.

     It seems to me that recent fiction is light on reluctant heroes – that other patterns have come to predominate. Those patterns include both the “Doc Savage” indestructible and indefeasible hero and the utter antihero who can witness horrors beyond measure and yet say to himself “It’s not my problem.” However, I like the reluctant hero quite a bit – I should; I’ve written two of them – and I take an interest in the approaches of other writers who like him as well.

     The Lara Croft “relaunch” game Tomb Raider: A Survivor Is Born appealed to me in part because Lara is presented to us as a reluctant hero. Nathan Drake of the Uncharted games has a hint of that to him, as well. These two figures doubt themselves, rather than the justice of the cause they’re called to serve. The reluctant hero who doubts the moral validity of the cause (rather than his moral fitness to serve it) is somewhat rarer.

     What fictions have you encountered that present good examples of a “Jonah protagonist” / reluctant hero? Were they involving and exciting because of that, or despite it? In other words, did the protagonist’s reluctance seem contrived, perhaps as “filler” with which to lengthen the story, or was it integral to his character and background?


Anonymous said...

Well Bilbo and Frodo Baggins pop to mind immediately - and their reluctant nature and associated personal growth and change were critical to the respective story lines

Ron Olson said...

Dear Frodo is a clear example courtesy Tolkien. As much as I love JRR's tale, the shear manliness of Cussler's Dirk Pitt is a wonderful balm nowadays. It seems Dirk is always forced to do the right thing no matter what. If life could be that simple.