Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Gentleman's Man

    In the medieval world and in fantasy stories as recent as George R.R. Martin's Game of Swords, he is a squire to a knight.  In a modern world he is a valet, and his name is Reginald Jeeves (to Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse's stories), Mervyn Bunter (to Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers' mysteries), Alfred Pennyworth (to Batman in comic books and films), or Kato (to Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies).  There was even a Disney cartoon in 1941 in which Pluto served as Mickey Mouse's "man."
    Real world squires and valets exhibit the full range of human talent (or lack thereof) and virtue (and vice).  But in Jeeves and Bunter we find the "gentleman's gentleman": talented, reserved, loyal, mostly inconspicuous, and always present when needed. 
    Why do readers like the gentleman's man so much?  It's clear that we do, but why?  The relationship is fundamentally undemocratic; the gentleman's man serves the gentleman and addresses him as "sir" or "my lord" or "Doctor" or "Mister."  The gentleman orders his man to do this or that; the response is, "As you wish, my lord."  Yet American readers eat up gentlemen's men as delightedly as Brits.  Though we may not admit it, I think we love the gentleman's man for his loyalty.  The gentleman's man personifies a virtue, whether or not we use that word, and we admire it.
    The gentleman's man is such a familiar figure that authors can tweak the role to fit their purposes.  Consider Samwise Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings.  He serves "Mr. Frodo" as devotedly as any valet possibly could, and he does what a gentleman's man does: he packs Frodo's clothes and food, he cooks meals, he defends Frodo, and so on.  But in Sam we see a new depth to the role of the gentleman's man, because at a crucial moment Frodo errs.  Deceived by Gollum, Frodo commands Sam to go home alone.  Sam, precisely because he is completely loyal, is torn.  He tries to obey Frodo's command while his heart tells him he should never leave his master.  In the end Sam follows his heart, and he berates himself for leaving Frodo for even a short while.
    In The Heart of the Sea, I too make use of the gentleman's man.  Denver Milton serves Prince Danys of Melotia.  His loyalty is never put to the test like Sam's, but he accompanies Danys in every part of the adventure.  At a crucial moment, it is Denver who conceives a plan to win the war, and in the end Denver's skill and persistence . . .
    Why should I complete that sentence?  The Heart of the Sea is available at SynergEbooks.com.

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