Who are the Most Influential Characters of Literature?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureThe publication of Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949 firmly established the formal study of the myth of the hero in the hallowed halls of the academe. Campbell, an expert in comparative mythology, recognized that there is a single pattern of a hero’s journey, and this is pattern is shared by all cultures in their respective hero myths. Campbell describes the first stage of the mythological journey: “The call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone of unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest… but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delights.”

Thomas Shippey, a British scholar of medieval literature and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, leads his students along the well-traveled path of the hero in his fascinating course “The Most Influential Characters of Literature” for the exceptional The Great Courses series. “Heroes hold a special place in our imagination. Names such as Odysseus, Beowulf, and Queen Guinevere summon up mythic legends, while Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Huckleberry Finn are some of the most recognizable figures in all of world literature,” writes Shippey. “What do these memorable characters have in common? Why do we turn to certain stories again and again? And what impact have they made on world history? The answers to these questions tell us more than you might think. Great heroes have lasting power because they offer templates for behavior by showing us models of courage and fortitude. Whether by reinforcing traditional values or challenging values in flux, heroes reflect the mores of society.” Shippey turns his attention not only to the heroes from classic literature but those from modern novels — sure to entertain and educate Muggles young and old. Regardless of the age of these mythological heroes, they continue to inspire new generations of readers —  helping them to muster the courage to face life’s unexpected challenges, getting them through difficult times, or deepening their understanding of the human condition.

Below is the list of the most influential characters of literature taught in Shippey’s class:

1. Frodo Baggins: a reluctant hero
2. Odysseus: the trickster hero
3. Aeneas: the straight arrow
4. Guinevere: a heroine with many faces
5. The Wife of Bath: an independent woman
6. Cressida: a love betrayed
7. Beowulf: a hero with hidden depths
8. Thor: a very human god
9. Robin Hood: the outlaw hero
10. Don Quixote: the first of the wannabes
11. Robinson Crusoe: a lone survivor
12. Elizabeth Bennet: a proper pride
13. Natty Bumppo and Woodrow Call: frontier heroes
14. Uncle Tom: the hero as martyr
15. Huckleberry Finn: free spirit of america
16. Sherlock Holmes: the first great detective
17. Dracula: the allure of the monster
18. Mowgli: the wolf child
19. Celie: a woman who wins through
20. Winston Smith: the hero we never want to be
21. James Bond: a dangerous protector
22. Fairy-Tale Heroines: new-style princesses
23. Lisbeth Salander: avenging female fury
24. Harry Potter: whistle-blower hero

Read related posts: Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?
The Most Influential People Who Never Lived
The Power of Literature
The Most Influential Authors

For further reading: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, New World Library (2008)

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