Approximately 900 years ago, when I was in 7th grade, I noticed a book on my parents’ copious bookshelves: White Fang. I really liked the picture of the wolf on the cover, and was kind of going through a ‘everything wolves is AWESOME’ phase, so I read it.
White Fang is the story of a half-wolf sled dog, told in 3rd person, during the Klondike gold rush. He is domesticated by Native Americans, then sold to sledders. The process of breaking him as a sled dog is problematic until his owners realize he’s much better at something else – dogfighting. For a time he’s reigning champion, making his owner money hand over fist and becoming a hateful slaughter-machine. He meets his match one day when he is pitted against a bulldog, that clamps onto his throat and wears him down, nearly killing him in the process. A kind man takes him in and heals him, and brings White Fang home to his family, where he very slowly begins the process of re-habituating him to human company, and he learns to trust again. While he is able to adjust to the slower pace of life at the estate, he never becomes a housepet, not really, but his loyalty and affection for his family are unquestioningly proven when he nearly loses his life defending his family against a dangerous escaped criminal.
His story is the kind of overwrought melodrama that 12-year-old me had been waiting to read my whole life. I realize that it is sad to say now, but this book got me through middle school – I was isolated and weird because I had very little in common with my classmates, and became so used to rejection and teasing that I just sort of accepted it and stopped attempting social interaction. I saw the world as combative, and myself as too weak and feeble to have a place in it. But White Fang didn’t give up, so neither did I.
As Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Taking on a confrontational worldview can certainly help you survive certain situations, but after you’ve escaped them, you must unlearn that ferocity, and readjust to another kind of life. It’s not easy.
There is a whole story trope that I love, and that I have come to think of as the White Fang trope (it probably already has a name, and if so someone let me know!) If a samurai or a cowboy is taken in by a village and nursed back to health, if a monster makes friends with a child, I well up like a broken fire hydrant.
And so here is a list of characters who, through various ways and means, were able to hang on to themselves in the midst of the maelstrom and make it through the other side, perhaps to gentler shores. This list is in no particular order, and includes books, films, and graphic novels. It does not include spoilers.
1. Sandor Clegane from the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.
Patricksponaugle already wrote an incredibly detailed and moving breakdown of why the Hound is so compelling, so go here to read it.
I do want to add a thought though – I started rereading the series over the weekend and was struck by two things I had forgotten:
- Nobody knows the story of how the Hound’s face was burned until he tells Sansa Stark. She is literally the first person he has ever opened up to about what happened to him as a child. Granted, the way he opened up to her was, like everything else about him, brutal and rough. But hammer, nails, etc. I can’t imagine his communication vocabulary would be very large after the way he grew up. Not excusing him, just trying to understand.
- The Hound winning the tourney was the first time a crowd had cheered for him. He threw down on his brother and saved Loras Tyrell, and for the first time in his life, he got to be the hero. It seems to have made an impact.
It seems the Hound is trying to learn something new. Dog, tricks, etc.
Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon I’m including as a double entry, since they were the brainchildren of the same man and explore very similar themes: of societal expectations and pressures, of nontraditional families, of the bond that forms between a lonely person and their pet [and it is deliciously ironic that JUST AS I TYPED THAT SENTENCE, my 16-lb cat tried to jump into my lap, missed, hooked his claws into the flesh of my upper thigh and hung there, mewing pitifully].
In both films, two isolated individuals become friends after taking a risk: Lilo and Stitch, and Hiccup and Toothless. There is a moment in How to Train Your Dragon that I WISH I could find in gif form: it’s when Hiccup puts his hand out to touch Toothless on the head, and the dragon leans forward to be petted–but there’s a hesitation first. The animators REALLY outdid themselves with that performance; so much characterization was put into that little gesture and it was perfect.
3. Doc Holliday
Doc Holliday’s portrayal in Tombstone is one of my favorite characters. EVER. The real Doc Holliday was a wonderfully complex man, a professional dentist, gambler, and gunfighter who moved to the west in the hopes the dry climate would be good for his tuberculosis.
When he first appeared onscreen, everything about him screams ‘I AM TROUBLE. EXIT THE VICINITY AND SAVE YOURSELF.’ He’s effete, and while he’s funny and charming as hell, his predilection for starting fights around himself was a major drawback to being his friend. Or even being his tablemate in a poker game. He’s condescending, he’s arrogant, and yet Wyatt Earp always considered him a friend.
Holliday is a strange, strange man, but he was always unquestioningly Wyatt’s friend as well. Which is why the most powerful moment in a film FULL of powerful moments is when Wyatt invites Doc to sit out a fight that could get him killed, basically telling him ‘I don’t expect you to follow me into this mess I’ve made for myself.‘ And Doc just looks at him and responds with, “Well, that is a hell of a thing for you to say to me.”
Doc Holliday’s only companion, a whore, is with him because of the money he nets her at the poker table. He has no other people who care for him, who would give a toss whether he lives or dies than Wyatt Earp. So of course he would follow Wyatt into the fire if he had to.
Personally I always take care to differentiate over who I am talking about: Smeagol or Gollum. It just depends on who’s in the driving seat. Granted, to focus on the positive side of the character is to downplay the terrible power of the other, and ultimately that other side won out. But I’ve always thought that Frodo really got through to Smeagol, and reached something inside him that hadn’t been alive in a very, very long time. Smeagol is widely interpreted by many, as an addict, as a sufferer of various mental illnesses, but all agree that he is trapped by his obsession with The One Ring. Ultimately his selfish and false “love” for this object destroys him, but saves Middle Earth.
Smeagol doesn’t quite fit on the list since this list is about characters who take that leap of trust to another person, but in a strange way he does, since it’s just as important to see what happens when the leap falters.
There are so many other characters I could talk about, but I will end things here. Have you noticed a pattern like this one in films? What kind of films are YOUR favorites?