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Peter, Ender, Harry, and Henry

Heroes from Middle School

by Everett Wilson
June 26, 2010

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Peter, Ender, Harry, and Henry

 I don't know how many of  you will  recognize   what links  the four names in the title, because  Peter, Harry, and Henry are  too common to offer a clue to the  connection.     Those who know Ender  might  see it though, because of his unusual name. 
            They are the  first names—or nickname, in Ender's case--of the  juvenile heroes in  four prominent fiction series  from  the last sixty years, two British and two American.  In the stories  each of the boys change—or save-- their respective worlds before they're old enough to shave. 
            Peter is the high king in the Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. 
            Ender is Andrew Wiggin, the central character in Ender's Game  by Orson Scott Card,  and its sequels.
            Harry is Harry Potter, the title character of the novels by J.K. Rowling.
            Henry is the new kid on this  block, the pivotal character in 100 Cupboards,  a trilogy by N.D. Wilson.  (Full disclosure requires me to acknowledge that N. D. Wilson is  my brother's grandson, which disqualifies me as a critic  but not as a fan. It is also fair to note that the three books are Yearling books from Random House).
            Twelve is a great age for heroes.As to their being boys:   when I was writing fiction for juveniles forty years ago, my central characters were usually boys,  for two reasons.  First, I had been one  myself,  and second, I believed  that girls were more likely to  read about boys than boys  about girls.    Sex is interesting at that age, but for most it is not yet  compelling;  there are still other things to think about.   Boys and girls     compete  and cooperate as human beings as they choose or as circumstances dictate, not as    sexual stereotypes.  Sometimes the girls  have the edge in size and physical skill.   When boys and girls  have a common cause to which they are committed, they stand together as equals, with respect for each other's skill, brains,  and courage.   
            That's how it is in all of these novels. The  central character is a boy, but  he  doesn't stand alone.      Just as Tom Sawyer had Becky Thatcher and Anne Shirley had Gilbert Blythe, so Peter has his sisters Susan and Lucy, Ender has his sister at home and his  classmate Petra  in Battle School, Harry has Hermione at Hogwarts, and Henry has his cousin Henrietta in  their   travel between worlds through the hundred cupboards.     When they  rescue each other from hair-raising peril, it's as  loyal   colleagues, not lovers.  When they get old enough to fall in love, it's usually with somebody else.  Anne is an exception, but then Anne of Green Gables is not an action-adventure novel. 
            For many, twelve is  often the last clear glimpse of the world as it is before   adolescent chaos and anxiety   kick  in big-time.  You tend to trust what you know when you are twelve. The tagline of the movie Stand by Me (based on Stephen King's The Body, which is about four twelve-year-old boys on an overnight adventure), nails it for me:  "For some, it's the last real taste of innocence, and the first real taste of life. But for everyone, it's the time that memories are made of."
            I am obviously hooked on these series, but not to the category of fantasy-adventure represented by Narnia, Hogwarts,  and the hundred cupboards, nor to the category of extravagant science fiction represented by the  Ender books.    I  did not pursue the Percy Jackson series beyond The Lightning Thief.  I read Foundation by Asimov, but did not see what the big deal was.
            Nor is it the  theology of these series  that hooks me  either, though theology is at the heart of my day job.   Two of the authors are mainstream Christians with standard labels  and two are not, yet   I value all of the books as literature whether or not I approve of their theology.   
            What does hook  me, beyond the vivid, non-stereotypical characters and narrative skill essential to all readable fiction,  are the issues and enemies these children must face.     These are books about children, but  not about childish things. They are about the human predicament and its awful consequences.   The principal characters are children,  but they are neither childish nor helpless.       Two of them in fact  have enormous  magical power,   but to do good with it  they must routinely risk death and rely on their unmagical friends and family,  children and adults, for support.     They must stand, often in front, but they do not stand alone.  
            The reader gets a taste of what is to come in the first volume of  The Hundred Cupboards,    when Henry, a boy from Boston,  comes    for an extended stay with his aunt, uncle, and girl cousins on their farm  in Kansas.  He meets Zeke,  a neighbor boy   about his own age, who invites him to play baseball  and even volunteers   to coach him when  he realizes that Henry is new to baseball.  
             Then Henry and his cousin Henrietta  manage to open a cupboard in Henry's attic  room, and all hell breaks loose--not figuratively speaking. 
            During the    crisis  that follows Zeke comes to the front door, bat in hand, to practice with  Henry.  When he hears a girl scream from  above, he opens the front door and runs upstairs.   He doesn't know anything about magic or  cupboards, only that his friends are in trouble and he has a baseball bat.  
            Zeke is not the hero, but he is heroic.  After that   encounter, the first of many, he says to the family, "I don't know what's going on, but I will help you." He is twelve.  Maybe thirteen. 
            Behavior  like that, and lines like that spoken in character, lead the reader to respect the seriousness of the sometimes extreme violence that recurs   in all four  series.
            Henry, like Harry Potter, discovers that he has magical powers of his own.  Harry is a  wizard, but Henry is from another world;  though his powers are not inherent  like Harry's, he can invoke them at  need and at great risk to himself.  
            In contrast, Ender Wiggin and Peter the High King are  not magical.  They are  exceptionally trained and specially appointed, Peter to rule Narnia, and Ender to command a fleet of space ships.       Ender's Game is not a competition in gym class, but a war in outer space to save the  human race from annihilation.    Ender   commands of the human fleet because he was chosen and trained beginning  at age six  to fight this one battle--and it comes when he is still a boy.   
             Readers  may discern for  themselves the distinct world-views of each series.   The point is, they   have a point! Their  books are a lot more than one inventive stunt  after another.  Because of that, rereading them is always rewarding.   Also,  their heroes have this in common: when it is time to stand,  they stand with what they have,  and do not run.  

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JJ from Virginia writes:
June 28, 2010
Thanks for mentioning three of my favorite characters - and one it seems I need to get to know. I think you might like the second book in the Foundation series. The books have stronger characters and narrative as you go, along with some interesting surprises. Have you tried any of Asimov's robot novels? I think they're great.

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