Lucy Pollard-Gott's The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend is a fabulous book of short essays about the friends we make as we read. "We have all felt the tug of fictional characters on our lives," Pollard-Gott says. "From Hamlet to Holden Caulfield, Scrooge to Superman, Romeo and Juliet to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, they are as much a part of our lives as our family, friends, and next-door neighbors." Our relations with fictional characters sometimes last a lifetime: "Befriending us as children and inspiring us as adults, they can even be the object of our first love. As we imagine relating to them in their worlds, we can expand our vision of ourselves and the possibilities that life offers."
Of course, after reading that quote, I started to think about the fact that all my first crushes were indeed on fictional characters. In third grade, I fell in love with Jo (from Little Women), swept up by her ability to create whole worlds in her head and on paper. I loved the message that what Jo lived in her real life was worthy of a novel--and of course the subtler message that what Louisa May Alcott lived in her own life was worthy of a novel. Then a year later, I fell in love again, this time with television character John-Boy Walton. Perhaps what drew me to him was exactly what drew me to Jo: the recognition that what is ordinary and plain can nevertheless turn into powerful stories if we only keep our eyes and ears and minds open.
Pollard-Gott's book ranks the hundred most influential characters in order of their influence. Of course, such a ranking is completely subjective. I promise that some of the characters who most influenced your own life will be missing. Nevertheless, the author's choices are both obvious and inclusive. Her decisions were influenced by not only characters' global popularity but also on the ways they have influenced more contemporary literature and culture.
Since in the last few months, I've spent way too long lately reading about how the characters of the Homeric epics resonate and play across the centuries, I was thrilled to see Odysseus in second place on the influence list. Pollard-Gott recognizes that Odysseus's true battle began only after the Trojan War. His journey to heroism--unlike Achilles's--is to "stay alive and win his homecoming."
Although in Homer's epic Odysseus returns to Ithaca and Penelope, "his numerous admirers through the centuries, both readers and writers, have always wanted to get him on the move again." as Pollard-Gott cleverly says. "His wit, endurance, and resourcefulness are equal to any challenge, but what good is such abundant capability if he is left cocooned in a tranquil home with no dangers to overcome?"
Although his journey is a classic model for literary journeys throughout the following centuries, Odysseus gives us "precious little gist" for readers to understand or identify with the character psychologically. Unlike more contemporary characters, Odyssseus is almost devoid of any internal dialogue of self-reflection. Although this fact may make the character seem one dimensional, it also encourages us to use this man of action to model our modern odysseys on his, on this man of twists and turns who at the same time is always pointing towards home.
Pollard-Gott's insights into Achilles are also fascinating. She points out that he is in many ways the first flawed and tragic hero--and therefore an early model for Hamlet among others. Achilles, the author claims, is a man whose intelligence is clouded by his passion. In opposition, Odysseus clouds (or constrains) his passion through the use of his intelligence.
The author observes that Agamemnon's theft of Achilles's concubine parallels Paris's theft of Helen from Menelaos, Agamemnon's brother. I'd never put these together--but once I read Pollard-Gott's analysis, I can't imagine seeing it any other way.
Pollard-Gott points out that the works of Homer have been of central importance for many years: "Of 1,596 ancient Greek books which archaeologists have found preserved on Egyptian papyri, half were copies of the Iliad or the Odyssey or related commentaries." Astounding.
I have only read a handful of the character essays in The Fictional 100 so far. Each essay has been an absolute joy: an accessible appreciation of the place a particular character plays in our lives, as well as a fairly scholarly analysis of the role of that character throughout literature. I'm looking forward to reading more essays as I read the classic books in which they appear, I promise to share some of the Pollard-Gott's insights as I proceed.