Archive for February 6th, 2012

A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt1)

Part One: The Fellowship of the Humors

I’d like to retread ground I’ve walked on before.  Nearly a year ago I talked briefly about using the four humors when putting together a quarter of character within a narrative structure, using a Cracked After Hours video as a basis.  At the time the concept was a new one to me, but I’ve been looking at it more and more in the months since, especially after discovering that my wife and I had accidentally created four point of view characters for our current novel that map perfectly to the four humors.

Let’s do a quick recap of the four humors, or four temperaments, for those who not aware of them.  It all started with out of date notions of psychology, explanations of human behavior in terms of the balance and imbalance of the four primary bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  This gave rise to four primary temperaments based on which of these essential humors was most in control of a given person.  Blood was sanguine, phlegm was phlegmatic, yellow bile was choleric, and black bile was melancholic.  While our understanding of bodily organs and our various internal fluids has evolved (at the time, blood was associated with the liver) and humorism no longer holds sway in psychology or medicine, the concept of the four temperaments has held on within fiction.  It’s the basis of an immediately recognizable quartet of individuals.

The sanguine individual tends to be an impulsive pleasure seeker who, in an extreme, might even be hedonistic.  We actually have a phrase in English that dates to this old four humors explanation of temperament, “hot blooded.”  The choleric individual tends to be ambitious and will take charge of a group and be its leader.  The melancholic individual tends to be a loaner, a perfectionist, and may even be a fatalist when taken to the extreme.  The phlegmatic individual is accepting, loving, and often a willing follower.

To oversimplify it within team dynamics, we have the choleric leader, the phlegmatic side kick, the melancholic outcast, and the sanguine comic relief.  This is a vast over simplification.  For one, the phlegmatic may not always be the choleric’s side kick, and the sanguine can be tragic as often as comic.  However, these simplified designations are helpful when considering just what role the four have within a group, and how it creates the classic group dynamic we’re accustomed to.  It’s one we even see starting in childhood.  Within the Scooby Doo stories, Fred is choleric, Daphne is phlegmatic, Velma is melancholic, and both Shaggy and Scooby (who are basically one character anyway) are sanguine.

This is a fantastic construct because it creates characters with natural in-built conflicts, and characters that viewers will be able to map themselves on to based on their own tendencies.

Let’s look at the Lord of the Rings.  This is a rather more complex series of groups that are constantly breaking apart and reforming.  At points there are just two characters together, at points there are as many as nine between the formation of the Fellowship and Gandalf falling in Moria.  But I’m going to break it down into two groups, based largely on the period between the fall of Gandalf and the breaking of the Fellowship.  They’re easy groups.  We’ve got the hobbits, and we’ve got the non-hobbits.  Among the non-hobbits we’ve got Aragorn as the clear choleric leader, Boromir as the dour melancholic who wants the ring for his own purposes, phlegmatic Legolas who makes only one active decision in the entire trilogy and serves otherwise as body-guard and ass kicker, and sanguine Gimli, turned into classic comic relief for the purposes of the movies.

The hobbits are a little more difficult.  It’s easy to consider Frodo the leader as he’s our protagonist through the movie (well, Sam actually is, but that’s another discussion), but he’s almost a textbook example of the melancholic, both within the temperamental definition, and the more modern idea of melancholy.  He’s the one who breaks the Fellowship by setting out on his own, and spends most of three movies bemoaning how unfair the world is.  Sam is the easy one to peg, he’s the phlegmatic follower.  At no point does he ever do anything but.  This even leads to my biggest disappointment in the movies, the moment when Sam briefly hesitates in giving the Ring back to Frodo.  In the book there’s no hesitation, as his devotion to Frodo is stronger than anything, even the allure of the Ring.  That leaves Merry and Pippin, who are so often “Merry and Pippin” that it’s easy to overlook them as their own characters, but that’s unfair.  Merry, even though he’s on the adventure to help Frodo, is actually the choleric, which doesn’t have to be synonymous with leader.  But he does take the lead at several key point, especially when the hobbits are fleeing toward the ferry.  Pippin is the sanguine, though he actually goes through more evolution than any other character.  At the beginning, he’s the one complaining that Aragorn isn’t aware of second breakfast, brunch, tea, lunch, or any of the other hobbit meals.  This rash nature ultimately gets him in trouble when he just has to look into the Palantir.  This also becomes the defining moment for his character arc, but that’s another topic.

There’s two wild cards: Gollum and Gandalf.  Gollum is easy, he’s a hot-blooded, single-minded sanguine, through and through (ignoring the split personality).  Gandalf is harder.  It’s easy to say, as with Frodo, that he must be choleric because he’s a leader.  But he’s also the one character who is the most at ease on his own within the story.  Thus, I would actually peg him as a melancholic, as he’s a loan wolf often concerned with the larger fate of the world.

That means within the story we get the following groups:

  • Full set of each (the Hobbits leaving the Shire)
  • 3 Melancholics, 2 Sanguines, 2 Cholerics, and 2 Phlegmatics (the Fellowship)
  • Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic (Frodo and Sam heading to Mordor, and led by Gollum)
  • Choleric and Sanguine (Merry and Pippin, luring the Ents to war)
  • Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric (The remains of the Fellowship, trying to save Merry and Pippin, and getting into every major battle)
  • Full quartet (Gandalf rejoining the above group in Fangorn)
  • Melancholic and Sanguine (Gandalf and Pippin setting off with the Palantir)

These personalities lead entirely to the dynamic within each group.  It makes the trudge of Sam and Frodo rather tedious, as there’s no leadership qualities in any of the characters, so the Melancholic is bemoaning his fate, the Phlegmatic is commiserating, and the Sanguine is plotting his take down of the other two.  It makes the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli throwaway fun, as there’s nothing to really ground the group, which is why their adventures of body counting can transcend to the frankly silly.  Merry and Pippin?  Ah, that’s a little more complicated, and something I’ll talk about on Wednesday.

Now that we’ve pigeonholed everyone into four categories, and I’m already well over 1000 words, I’m going to turn this post into its own three part epic.  Tomorrow I’m going to look at how different characters within each of the four temperaments can be from one another.

Part Two: The Two Cholerics (Coming tomorrow)

Part Three: The Return of the Sanguine (Coming Wednesday)

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