FMA1202F Seminar 6: The Child as Hero, and the Bildungsroman


After the woman, the child is the next candidate for alternative hero (i.e. alternative to the man).  Of course very often the child is just a kind of temporary phase, a prelude to the full-grown hero/heroine.  Yet the appearance of the child in the narrative is a deliberate choice, there is something about child-likeness or youthfulness that is deliberate in these constructions.  And of course there are genres where the child may develop/grow, but remains essentially pre-adult even at the end of the novel (e.g. Harry Potter; the children in Narnia; various child-like cartoon/game heroes, like Dash in The Incredibles or Sonic the Hedgehog or the young superhero characters in Sky High, or the protagonists in Spy Kids or Agent Cody Banks, etc. 

           There thus seems to be a deliberate invocation of pre-adult qualities and characteristics – innocence, vulnerability, hope, potential – as part of the construction of certain types of heroes. We have already seen that in Wordsworth, the child is in many ways superior to the adult: in another poem (“My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”) he offers the line “The child is father of the man,” meaning that it is the child’s crucial innocent/spiritual responses to the world that form the right adult attitude later in life.  Wordsworth thus offers a strong version/invocation of the notion that there is something desirable about child-likeness, that may even be heroic.


Cultural History of the Child-Hero

Child-figures do not seem to have quite the same abiding/timeless quality as women figures, and certainly not the same as male heroes.  None of the major cultures of antiquity saw the child as a significant figure possessing power or autonomy.  The Greeks tended to see the child as an unformed and immature agent, vulnerable and needing proper training (philosophical, or martial, or both) in order to come into proper agency.  Child-figures in Norse/German lore tended to be seen only in terms of parentage/maternity, care, protection etc, which of course puts the emphasis on the parent/protector rather than the child.  Children were vulnerable to death, kidnapping/switching, enchantment/imprisonment etc – true also of fairy tales and Celtic lore.  In certain ancient religious cultures (Aztec, Cathaginian, Ammonites/Canaanite), child-sacrifice was seen as a powerful means of appeasement of spirits and gods – again, this may have something to do with the particularly vulnerable/innocent nature of the child, and the particularly powerful bond between child and parents/adults (which makes the sacrifice all the more powerful, as a breaking of that bond and violation/exploitation of that vulnerability/innocence, but certainly does not put the child in the place of an active agent, much less anything heroic or admirable).  The one well-known classical legend of children is that of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome who were abandoned in the wild as children by their uncle who wanted to remove any future competitors to the throne, but were suckled and nurtured by a she-wolf – however, even here the emphasis is not on the child-as-hero, but rather on the miraculous preservation of the child until such time that they can grow up and (as adults) fulfil their destiny to kill the usurper and found Rome.  There are some elements of the clever/tricky child (again, Hansel and Gretel and some of the children in the Baba Yaga stories, and other bits of folklore; the David-vs-Goliath, against-the-odds element), but these are relatively few and far between, and anyway the cleverness/trickiness of the child is not a major part of the story (compared to the key elements of the crone/Male Mater, the betrayal of innocence, the elements of abandonment/vulnerability of the child, the power of the God of Israel, etc).

           The marginal place and underdeveloped figure of the child (as incidental figure, a figure to emphasise parental/adult actions and consequences, stock device to represent innocence/vulnerability) generally persists until the romantic era, when it becomes a central device to evoke a spirituality and morality at odds with a society (gradually, and then rapidly by the time of the later romantics) impacted by urbanism, industrialization and commerce.  William Blake, William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge (especially the former two) all use the child as a central figure through which to explore issues of a powerful and complex spiritual integrity, and a perspective through which to view a society rapidly becoming (or at least seen as) hypocritical, soiled, mechanized, exhausted, spiritually deadened.  A parallel development occurs in Continental Europe, with J. J. Rousseau’s notions of childhood and theories of education, and in the German romantics’ (the Herders, Goethe) revivification of folklore and the child therein.  Thus grew the romantic idea of the “noble savage,” which continued after romanticism.

This focus on child-agents continues into the latter part of the nineteenth century, in Victorian Bildungsroman novels that feature a child protagonist (Dicken’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Henry James’ What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw, etc).  In the late 19th and into the early 20th C too, there arises a considerable body of children’s literature – written specifically for children, often with a moralizing purpose, and featuring child protagonists too – including the work of Charles Kingsley, C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and others.  Subsequently with the development of television, video games and other related media, child protagonists/heroes abound.

           The quite sharp turning point in the cultural evolution of the child thus seems to be tied quite closely with the rise of urban, industrial and commercial society in Western Europe, round about the end of the 18th and early 19th C.  What did this have to do with the figure of the child?  Several socio-cultural possibilities:

1.    industrialization and the factory system led to the creation of new labour forces, in the form of women and children (novelists like Disraeli and Dickens, as well as the Marxist thinker Friedrich Engels, all wrote about the figure of the child-labourer).  i.e. industrialization made the child into a significant element of society by virtue of its role in the work force – although of course children had worked long before industrialization (e.g. on farms, in the household), but that was uncounted and unpaid labour within a family unit, rather than as individuals.

2.   capitalism had an individualizing tendency as a whole, being linked with a general ideology of liberal individualism – the market emphasizes individual choices, creating a consumer culture, and also creating a general ethos of the significance of the individual. 

3.   women- and children-labour contributed to the breakdown of the traditional family structure and authority of the parents/father, which in turn contributed to the treatment of the child as (liberal) individual rather than being subsumed into the family and parental authority

4.   crisis of children: orphans, street children, health risks of child labour, dual-parent workers and the neglect of children, all contributed to a sense of a crisis of the child, which may also have created a reaction which attempted to aggrandize the role of the child, to create a cult of the child as precious, especially vulnerable and needing special care.

5.   urbanism and industrialization led to a nostalgia for the country and for an earlier rural existence, including a revivification of folklore etc.  All this may have led to a heightened sensitivity to the child within this nostalgic fantasy of rural life – a kind of fantasy of the happy pre-industrial child.


           So it would seem that in the “long modern period” (for convenience’s sake, let’s call this the 19th and 20th centuries), lots of cultural meanings get attached to the figure of the child.  The figure seems to go through almost a sea-change, from barely significant in itself, generally helpless and marginal, to central, significant, invested with an almost-heroic spiritual/moral/symbolic significance.  Thus unlike the figure of the heroine, or the male hero, the figure of the child-hero does not seem to rely as much on deep (“hard-wired”) psychological/archetypal meanings: obviously there is some (the dimension of innocence and vulnerability, the against-the-odds or underdog element), and we can see that this is a deep/archetypal element because it pretty much persists throughout the history of human culture.  But lots of other significant meanings to the child-hero are not really that old, and are added and developed in the modern period.

           Some of these modern meanings/developments/variants:

1.   Child as fate/destiny of the nation/race: already there in the Christ-child, but not really a big element until modern fantasies and re-tellings of legends and folklore.  Eg the Hobbit (not really a child, but young, and child-like in size and innocence) in Lord of the Rings, the young magician Ged in Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, the cheerleader in the television series Heroes (“save the cheerleader, save the world!”), the child Paul Atreides who is the prophesied “muad’Dib” in Frank Herbert’s Dune, etc.

2.   (Often related to point 1) the child as inherently powerful, more powerful than adults.  This obviously has to be a function of magic or (magic/supernatural) destiny, because the odds of the child being able to outdo adults are otherwise very slim.  The miraculous child, who inexplicably (or by some far-fetched explanation or device) has powers much greater than any adult: common in anime and cartoons, including Ben 10, Marine Boy, Astro Boy, etc.

3.   (A variant of point 2) the child as tech/game wizard – closely associated with cyberpunk, internet technology, and related cultures.  This is perhaps the one (or one of the few) areas in which children can naturally outperform adults, because of the tech generational divide where a particular generation of children grew up much more comfortably with technology than their parents’ generation (or because adults gradually lose the time and skills for technology because of other responsibilities).  E.g. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and other gifted tech/gamer children.

4.   Children of faith/endeavour: children who outdo adults because they are willing to believe in something that cynical or too-busy adults refuse to do.  This brings fantasy closer to realism, or at least juxtaposes a real and a fantasy world.  E.g. Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and the “Find-Outers” series of books, Lewis’ Narnia, Nesbitt’s Five Children and It, and movies like The Goonies or Stand By Me, etc.

5.   Children and animals: possibly part of the romantic nature-revival and its focus on the child.  The child’s association with an animal seems like a natural extension of the child-of-nature image.  Romulus and Remus provide the archetype for this figure – the child who is so natural, so pre-human in lacking artifice or cruelty or guile, that nature itself welcomes it.  But other than that natural-ness, Romulus and Remus lack significance as children (the other man-and-animal legend from classical times features an adult, Androcles and the Lion), and it is only in modern times that the significant child-with-animal comes to the fore.  In the late 18th Century onwards there grew an interest in feral children (like Victor of Aveyron, discovered in the wilds in 1797, and various children discovered in the 19th century (up to the early 20th C) who were supposed to have been raised by/amongst wolves, bears and other wild animals (many of them were later discovered to have been hoaxes or mistakes – but the growing interest in such phenomena in the modern era is significant).  Definitely the fictional accounts of such children with special relationships with animal grows in the modern era: Kipling’s Mowgli, Burroughs’ Tarzan, Timmy and Lassie, Luke and Flipper, Ken (or Katy, in the film version) and Flicka, etc.

6.   The precocious child: the too-grown-up child, a product of his/her society and the failure/abandonment of parental figures, the precocious child assumes qualities of the parent, and is quasi-heroic for taking on these characteristics and in some measure making up for the failure of adults in society. 


Bildungsroman:  Narrative, Plot, Child as Beginning

The bildungsroman deserves special mention, as a plot or narrative type/pattern involving the child.  “Bildungsroman” is a German term meaning “novel of growth,” and the narrative type itself was popularized in the romantic era, and is thus part of the modern growth of interest in the child that we have been examining.  A bildungsroman typically sees the protagonist grow from childhood to adulthood, and tries to give some kind of psychological insight into the protagonist through a glimpse of his/her childhood development.  Wordsworth’s Prelude is very much in the bildungsroman tradition, even though it is an epic poem rather than a (prose) novel.  As such the bildungsroman is only partially about the child – we can see this as a way of invoking the child as a kind of special phase/interest/symbol of the adult protagonist.  Like Wordsworth’s oft-quoted line “the child is father of the man,” the bildungsroman creates the figure of the significant child – significant, because it is the spiritual/psychological/emotional life of the child which is going to determine the character and behavior of the adult.

           The typical bildungsroman has a child whose formative childhood years are characterized by isolation; there is some kind of threat (from an overt one like danger of death or injury, to much more subtle ones like negative influences and the danger of moral corruption, deception, disillusionment, etc).  The child generally goes through trials before arriving at some kind of position of truth, maturity, strength, often with the help of a mentor/guide figure (human or otherwise).  The journey/growth often ends at the point that the protagonist, newly arrived at adulthood, makes some kind of demonstration of his/her power or maturity – some triumphal point, which validates the childhood phase and thus reinforces the idea that the child (or the childhood) has somehow “saved” the individual – thus, a kind of heroism, but one that is very much a function of plot or narrative.  We would be hard put to say that the child is a heroic agent in his/her own right, since the child is the same entity as the adult; it is only because of the developmental nature of the narrative that there is arguably something heroic about the child – i.e. the child “saves” the adult (and sometimes, implicitly, also offers a saving alternative to society – whether or not anyone else in society accepts the protagonist’s alternative, is a different matter).

           So Wordsworth’s child in Prelude, very much a loner, goes through a series of moral/spiritual tests, confronting the evils of his time/society (urbanism, the haste/squalor/busy-ness of contemporary life), secretly maturing his intellectual/spiritual vision (the cult of nature as teacher/corrective), which then guides the adult protagonist safely through later social/national crises (like the exposure to revolutionary ideas in France).   A variant on this is the more realist (and realistic?) bildungsroman such as Dickens’ Great Expectations: the child Pip’s development, also lonely and isolated, is marked by largely negative features such as fears, exposure to human greed and cruelty, and one defining encounter with a convict, Magwitch (whom Pip helps, largely out of fear – so, a slight act of preservation, heroism?).  Pip grows to adulthood and becomes a snob, helped by a mysterious benefactor. He finally discovers that the benefactor is in fact Magwitch, and thus an illegal and disfavourable source that negates all Pip’s snobby “great expectations.”  But he redeems himself by helping Magwitch escape England, and by repenting of his snobbish treatment of his guardian/brother-in-law Joe and childhood friend Biddy.  Although a much more gloomily realist bildungsroman than Prelude, Dicken’s novel also shows a saving/preserving trajectory, with the child’s encounter with Magwitch on the one hand responsible for the misunderstanding that makes Pip a snob, but on the other hand also leading to a series of trials and experiences which finally make the adult Pip a “sadder and wiser man.”  There is no suggestion that Pip’s life has really changed society in any heroic way, although of course there is the suggestion that the reader(s) have been influenced by this, and that Victorian society would perhaps be a better one if people learnt Pip’s lesson rather than acting like the greedy and deceitful characters we see in the novel.

           Fantasy versions of the bildungsroman (e.g. Le Guin’s Ged in Wizard of Earthsea, or Harry Potter) retain some aspect of the moral/spiritual growth, but focus on power and how to access/develop and control it so that it can be properly used.  The fantasy bildungsroman is about power and survival – it may have a more grandiose destiny (to overcome a great evil and thus save the world or the human race), but before any of that can happen, the child has to come to terms with his real identity and control his fear/desire/emotions in order to survive and grow to full maturity/power.  So it does have things in common with the romantic or social realist bildungsroman – the emphasis on the child’s process of spiritual/moral growth.

           The bildungsroman takes the archetypal element of the child’s innocent, vulnerable/impressionable nature, and gives it a modern twist: the child has the potential not only to survive the trials and dangers it faces, but if it does survive, it will arrive at a position of some kind of strength or insight, with at least the potential to influence (if not save) society.  The bildungsroman is a kind of modern-era (roughly 19th and 20th C) narrative of the child-hero, a fantasy or hope of growth – the very structure of childhood trials and development (in contrast to older narratives which did not concern themselves very much with  childhood development at all) is a kind of narrative of hope, and thus arguably a kind of child-heroism.


Child as Foil or Accessory

The relative lack of deep archetypal meanings to the child (at least as central figure/protagonist/hero), together with its practically unlimited variations and developments in the modern era, together mean that the child can often figure as significant to the hero without being itself heroic (or at least not outrightly or unambiguously heroic).  The child can function as hero’s sidekick (Hit Girl in the movie Kick Ass); as moral symbol around which the hero and the army of right mobilize themselves (the baby in Raising Arizona, or  the Golden Child in the Eddie Murphy movie of the same name); as tragic victim which points to society’s failings and thus galvanizes community action and social change (kidnap/abuse victims like JonBenet Ramsey); as anti-hero or sidekick to anti-hero/villain (Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, various child bullies in Enid Blyton and other children’s authors, maybe Mini Me in Austin Powers), as fascinating evil figure (the child vampire Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, another girl vampire Lina in Let the Right One In), etc.

           In other words, there are as many (or more) roles for the significant child (other than to be the hero) as there are heroic roles/figures.  In the final analysis, the heroic potential of the child is fairly limited, simply because of the archetypal role of the hero as protector/preserver which seems to be a bigger burden than can easily be carried by the child figure.  The few scenarios in which the child can be a hero (moral/spiritual hero; special connection with nature/animals; magical/supernatural powers) are fairly predictable, and get exhausted quite easily.  The modern era sees a major trajectory in investing significance in the child figure, which leads to some increase in child-heroes; but in the final analysis, there seem to be significant psychological/archetypal limitations to the figure of the child-hero. 

           Thus the child-hero explores the possibility of variation in the social and psychological parameters of the hero – but ultimately the child-hero may just indicate to us how firm some of those parameters are, and how enduring our need/idea of the hero-as-protector is.  Perhaps the biggest contribution of the child-hero in the modern era is hope: the child and its development represent a future, and one which hopefully will be better than the sum total of the evils that the child faces (although this is by no means certain).