Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away.
In the Netflix series I Am Not Okay With This, socially awkward teen stoner Stan (Wyatt Oleff) explains a staple archetype of superhero comics to the newly super-powered Syd (Sophia Lillis): “a professor, a wise old sage, some form of a mentor figure who visits the hero, explains their abilities, the mythology behind them, and how they can harness those powers for good.”
He then proceeds to ask Syd if she has encountered any such figures as of late. She has not, because I Am Not Okay With This is more about subverting narrative expectations than fulfilling them.
The archetypal mentor Stan describes is not just a staple of superhero stories but is a key player in the hero’s journey, also called the monomyth, a folklore-derived adventure template described and popularized by the mythologist Joseph Campbell that has become something of a default standard for heroic quests everywhere.
A cycle with three acts, the monomyth begins with the Departure, in which the hero receives a call to adventure. The hero usually follows the call under the guidance of a mentor figure, leaving behind the safety of the familiar and passing a threshold into the world of the unknown. In the second act, the Initiation, the hero faces perilous trials that inspire a transformation or rebirth and achieves the goal of the quest. The hero then returns home in the third act, aptly labeled the Return.
One plot point that is not officially part of the monomyth in theory, but is more often than not present in practice, is the death of the guiding mentor. This often occurs around the time the hero journeys past the threshold into the Unknown. In order to truly transform, the hero must face the trials of the unknown without the safety net of the mentor at their side.
Sure, theoretically, the hero and the mentor could just part ways on the threshold to the unknown and promise to meet up for coffee afterward, but most storytellers aren’t going to pass up the opportunity for a quality plot-progressing, stakes-raising death sequence. Drama is the name of the storytelling game, after all.
The “death of the mentor” trope is prevalent among tales following the basic gist of Campbell’s monomyth, but its spread doesn’t stop there. It’s actually a key plot point common to two distinct patterns of heroic journeys in which mentors play equally significant but totally opposite roles, and the reason both roads usually end in death has a lot to deal with the fundamental nature of mentorship.
Campbell’s mentor is fundamentally good, a benevolent personification of the hero’s grand destiny. He or she fills a parental role, protecting and guiding the hero in the early stages of their journey, and equipping them with what they will need to face future trials in the form of wisdom, skills, special artifacts, or various combinations thereof. In sum, the monomyth mentor empowers the hero.
The mentor’s death, which often has a sacrificial bent to it, is not only the most dramatic possible way to transition to the hero fending for him or herself but also the ultimate proof of their dedication to empowering their mentee. The Campbellian mentors are the Obi-Wan Kenobis and Albus Dumbledores of the storytelling world.
Not all mentors are Campbellian benefactors. On the flipside are the scheming, conniving, and downright evil mentors, who play different but equally crucial roles in their respective heroes’ lives. Sometimes the monomyth mentors do have some features in common with their nefarious counterparts. The majority of villainous mentors still bestow heroes with skills and tools that will ultimately prove crucial. Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) is ultimately the Big Bad of Batman Begins, but he still teaches Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) how to fight. Similarly, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is far from a good guy, but Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) would not rise to Queen in the North without the lessons learned under his tutelage in Game of Thrones.
That being said, some evil mentors are truly just leeches who seek to twist and corrupt those under their influence for personal gain with no benefits to their mentees, like the scheming royal advisor Park Joong-heon (Kim Byung-chul) in the Korean drama series Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, who warps the mind of the young king he serves to maximize his political clout.
Regardless of whether evil mentors leave heroes with valuable lessons learned or just centuries of suffering, the key thing that separates them from Campbellian counterparts is all about power. Namely, evil mentors are always ultimately motivated by the desire to keep power for themselves and behave accordingly, while good mentors seek to empower their charges.
Evil mentors become obstacles heroes must thwart in order to reach their full potential, while good mentors evidence their dedication to passing over the torch through (often sacrificial) death. As such, these two antithetical archetypes ironically tend to end their journeys in the exact same way: dying so the hero can come into their own, and in a manner that speaks to exactly the kind of person that they were.