Fictional characters can inspire real world courage and virtue, scholar says

When you’re feeling trapped or demoralized by the pandemic, scholar Joy Clarkson says fictional characters on quests — like Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings — can inspire bravery. Clarkson says it’s more than wilful blindness; having a vision of heroism can be a guide in hard times.
Shown in a scene from New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring are actors, from left, Dominic Monaghan as Merry, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Billy Boyd as Pippin and Sean Astin as Sam. ((Pierre Vinet, New Line Productions/Associated Press))

Joy Clarkson has a theory, and she is staking her PhD on it. Clarkson, who is studying at the University of St Andrew's, in Scotland, argues that the stories you read, watch, and hear can actually help shape your character in real life.

Long story short: if you spend enough time with Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, you, too, may become more brave than you ever thought possible.

"I think one of the criticisms of beauty and of art, of enjoying these kinds of stories, is that they are purely escapist," Clarkson told Tapestry, adding that fictional characters can offer vivid, useful examples of goodness and strength.

"And so, in a lot of my research, I've been looking at how stories give us that impetus…. they actually empower us," said Clarkson. "Because when we have an image of what is good — how we could be brave, of what true beauty is like — that actually empowers us to be people of bravery, and of virtue, and of character."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Clarkson has been finding a particular kind of companionship in quest literature — and not just because the heroes and heroines are able to leave the house. 

She told Tapestry there is something poignant about following characters when they're hopeless and stuck in the mire.

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found Myself lost in a wood so dark, … the way Ahead was blotted out.-

"I kept on finding myself landing on these characters like Dante in the Inferno, or Odysseus. In the Odyssey, you begin the story in the middle, when they're feeling lost, and confused, and overwhelmed," Clarkson explained. "But I realized that that's really the moment where the stories come to life — because it's right in the midst of that where you actually see them pushing towards that final destination."

Clarkson is also finding parallels between a 21st-century Scotland in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings — notably in the themes of confusion, exhaustion, and feeling lost, on the way to the fires of Mordor. 

"One thing I often think about the trek to Mordor is that they didn't actually know that was where they were going at the very beginning... so there's this very relatable element to the idea of setting out an adventure that actually gets much harder than you thought it would. And finding yourself both braver and stronger than you than you knew you could be, but also more exhausted." 

Joy Clarkson is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrew's, in Scotland. She argues that the stories you read, watch, and hear can actually help shape your character in real life. (Submitted by Joy Clarkson)

Clarkson told Tapestry another striking theme in the literature she's studying is that, as in life, "we need people on this journey with us, and we need to seek them out and cultivate those friendships and those relationships because we can't make this journey alone."

"There's this really important moment where Sam says to Frodo, 'Do you remember the taste of strawberries, Mr. Frodo?'" Clarkson recalled.

"That is the quintessence of what I want my life to be," Clarkson said. "Which is to say, we can stand in the middle of Mordor and say, 'Even Mordor does not make the sweetness of strawberries less sweet.' And we fight to defeat the ring because we have an image in our hearts — in our minds — of the sweetness and wholesomeness that life can be. And that memory of strawberries is the thing that gives Sam the strength to pick Frodo up - and keep moving forward."

Critics may argue that focusing on goodness at a time of hardship is naive or wilful blindness. But Clarkson argues it is necessary.

"You have to have a strong image of what is good, to be able to strive towards it, if that makes sense," Clarkson offered. "We can't just condemn all the sadness and evil in the world. We have to have an idea of what goodness would actually look like if we're going to fight for it and strain for it and bring that to other people."