Literary Interlude: Bearded Mentor Figures in the Literature of the Fantastic

It’s time now to talk about two of the greatest mentor figures in the literature of the fantastic. You know their stories well, I’m sure, but the parallels between them are eerie:

  • Both are gruff but kindly mentor figures who provide crucial guidance for the young and naive protagonist of the story as he moves out into a scary world to complete an important quest.
  • Both fall into a chasm while battling a fearsome monster to allow the protagonist time to flee.
  • Both return from their apparent death when least expected, just in time to save the day.
  • Both have awesomely impressive beards.

I am speaking, of course, of Gandalf from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Yukon Cornelius from the animated tv special Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer:


Gandalf, of course, is a Maia, one of the wizards sent by Illuvatar to aid the people of Middle-Earth in their struggles against evil. He recruits Bilbo Baggins to be the burglar for a dwarven special forces mission to recover the treasure of the Lonely Mountain, stolen years earlier by the dragon Smaug. On the way, Bilbo stumbles across the One Ring, which becomes the focus of the story. The Ring passes to Frodo Baggins, who Gandalf sets on a quest to destroy the Ring and thus bring down Sauron. Gandalf accompanies Frodo on this quest, and helps him navigate the dangerous wilderness of Middle-Earth.

Yukon Cornelius is a prospector and adventurer who encounters Rudolf and Hermey the elf, who have decided to leave Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. He agrees to accompany Rudolf and Hermey on their quest to find their place in the world, and helps them navigate the dangerous wilderness of the Arctic.

Both quests involve dodging monsters (the Nazgul, the Ambominable Bumble), and finding a much-needed respite at a place of solitude (Rivendell, the Island of Misfit Toys). Along the way, both quests are forced into an encounter with an overwhelming evil menace in its underground lair (the balrog in Moria, the Abominable Bumble in its cave):


In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf faces down the balrog at the bridge of Khazad-dum. He breaks the bridge with the Balrog on it, but falls into the chasm after it and is lost. In Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Yukon Cornelius and Hermey rescue Rudolf, his family, and his girlfriend from the Bumble’s lair. When the Bumble awakes and begins menacing the companions, Cornelius chases it to the edge of a chasm in the ice, but falls in after it and is lost.

In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf is restored to life by Illuvatar and sent back as Gandalf the White just in time to help Aragorn, Theoden, and the rest of the company defeat Saurman’s armies at the battle of Helm’s Deep. In Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cornelius is saved because Bumbles bounce, and shows up at Santa’s workshop with the now tamed Bumble just in time to, um, put the star on top of the Christmas tree.

Gandalf’s aid is critical to stalling the advance of the forces of Mordor, thus providing time for Frodo to take the magic Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it, saving all of Middle-Earth. Cornelius’s aid is critical in rescuing Rudolf and returning him to the North Pole with his magic nose, which he uses to save all of Christmas.

So, there you go. As I said, the parallels between them are eerie. Watch your back, Joseph Campbell.

If I were a real literary scholar, I would stop here, because just pointing out the parallel is enough. As I am a scientist by training, though, and this is the Internet, I’ll close with a poll asking the really important question:

Future scholars might consider additional parallels, like the fact that both characters have appeared in animated specials made by Rankin/Bass, or comparing their most famous catchphrases (“YOU… SHALL NOT… PASS!!!!” vs. “GOLD!!!!”), or the fact that both stories include Elves as a crucially important element (Legolas/Elrond and Hermey/Hermey’s boss). But I think that’s probably enough for now. I hope that this analysis has helped to deepen your appreciation of the world of literature.

Merry Christmas, and happy reading.

10 thoughts on “Literary Interlude: Bearded Mentor Figures in the Literature of the Fantastic

  1. You certainly are a very silly person. Intellectually stimulating silly people are always the best kind of silly people. Thanks for adding a bright spot to the day.

  2. This is my favourite kind of high silliness.

    I voted for Yukon Cornellius, because his motivations are much less inscrutable and he relies on a keen understanding of Newtonian physics, rather than esoteric trans-dimensional magic, to save the day.

  3. cisko: “Balrogs…bounce!” –I love it!

    Chad: Is his name definitely Hermey? I’ve never been able to be sure if it was Hermey (Hermie, however you want to spell it) or Herbie.

  4. “If I were a real literary scholar, I would stop here, because just pointing out the parallel is enough.”

    There may have been a time when that was true of literary scholarship. But as someone with a Ph.D. in that field, I can assure you it’s not the case anymore. Today’s literary scholars would press on in a quest of their own: to (for example) “interrogate” the “textual aporias” that “thematize” the “problematics” of the “postcolonial imaginary.” You can hardly talk about Rudolph the R.N.R., for instance, without noting the “disasporic” Arctic setting, the “gender politics” of its “patriarchal reindeerism” (or the possibility that Hermey is really “transgendered”), the hidden “racialization” of nose colors and shortness, and the “marginalization of difference” as represented by all the talk of misfits. And of course the whole notion of monsters hoarding gold in caves is obviously rooted in the “ideologies of late capitalism.”

    NOW we’re doing literary scholarship!

  5. What a remarkable observation! Well I really think that people intentionally or unintentionally seek models. And try to follow them or at least they pick some traits of their character worth coping. That is an inevitable path in quest of our own. Isn´t it? By the way I have chosen Gandalf. He gives an impression of an old worldly-wise man with a teenage sparkle in his eyes.

  6. I would have never thought to compare these two bearded mentors, but now that you’ve listed the comparisons, they are quite similar! I choose Yukon. Mostly because he was able to rescue Rudolph and save Christmas!

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