139. The Wanderer-Hero

I’ve been watching Doctor Who. Besides kindling a strong desire in my heart to own a fez, the show has reminded me of my very favorite character archetype: a rare, strange and wonderful kind of character, comic and tragic, plain and mysterious—the Wanderer-Hero.

(I should wear a fez. Fezzes are cool.)

The Wanderer-Hero is my favorite kind of character in fiction, and a very rare one. I can think of only four characters that fit the description perfectly: the Doctor from Doctor Who, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Vash the Stampede from Trigun and Father Brown from the stories by G.K. Chesterton.

These four—a time-traveling alien, a wizard, a gunslinger and a priest—have hardly anything in common, or so it seems at first glance. They actually share quite a number of traits, all of which characterize the archetype of the Wanderer-Hero.

For fun, let’s take a look at just a few.

The Wanderer-Hero wanders

There is no home for the Wanderer-Hero, whose destiny is to roam.

The Doctor travels in time and space with no home but his TARDIS, a spaceship and time machine. Gandalf wanders across Middle Earth. Vash roams the deserts of Gunsmoke. Even Father Brown, who supposedly lives in Essex and later in London, spends a surprising amount of time rambling throughout England, stumbling onto crime scenes wherever he goes.

The Wanderer-Hero is comic

Outwardly, the Wanderer-Hero is cheerful, witty or clever.

When confronted with deadly peril, the Doctor’s first reaction is to make a joke. Gandalf has a wry sense of humor. Vash makes a fool of himself at every opportunity; for example, while bravely defending a town from bandits, he wears a trash can lid for a hat. Father Brown possesses a gentle wit and a comically unorthodox manner of solving mysteries.

The Wanderer-Hero is tragic

Inwardly, the Wanderer-Hero endures terrible agonies.

The Doctor suffers from deep loneliness, guilt and self-doubt, besides the sorrow of being the only surviving member of his race. Gandalf fights a long, lonely, thankless battle against a nearly invincible enemy. Wherever Vash goes, innocent people die; these tragedies tear him apart. Father Brown admits to solving crimes by possessing a profound, painful understanding of human wickedness.

The Wanderer-Hero is more than human

In some way, the Wanderer-Hero is superhuman.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, the last survivor of an ancient race of extraterrestrials. Gandalf is one of the Maiar: divine beings sent into Middle Earth in the guise of mortals. Vash is a Plant, a humanoid creature possessing incredible power. Father Brown is only a human being, but his gentleness, wisdom and compassion are almost angelic.

The Wanderer-Hero is old

The courage of the Wanderer-Hero is balanced by the wisdom of age.

The Doctor is roughly nine hundred and nine years old. Gandalf spends centuries wandering Middle Earth. Vash is one hundred thirty-one. Father Brown is the only one whose age isn’t numbered in the hundreds, and even he gives the impression of being an ancient saint.

The Wanderer-Hero always happens to be in the right place at the right time

The character is called the Wanderer-Hero, after all.

Quite by accident, the Doctor always finds himself in exactly the right time and place to avert a catastrophe. Gandalf regularly appears just in time to rescue his companions. Vash helps people wherever he goes. By solving every crime he encounters, Father Brown saves the day—and sometimes the criminal.

I suppose the reason I like the Wanderer-Hero so much is that the character is a paradox: funny and sad, silly and wise, plain and mysterious, ordinary and extraordinary. The Wanderer-Hero has a little bit of everything.

Who is your favorite Wanderer-Hero? Should I acquire a fez? Let us know in the comments!

9 thoughts on “139. The Wanderer-Hero

    • There are heroic wanderers like Odysseus, certainly, but what draws me to this particular archetype is that uncommon, paradoxical mix of humor and sadness. For a character to be silly and serious, frivolous and profound, comic and tragic, is fascinating to me.

      If you think of other examples of Wanderer-Heroes, particularly in literature, let me know!

  1. Amazing post man! I totally resonate as a self-ascribed “wanderer” myself (though the “hero” part is certainly debatable/lacking.) Your list of wanderer-heroes made my arms get goosebumps. I totally want to be Gandalf. I want to be The Doctor. I want to be in the right place at the right time for someone in desperate need. What a story. What a legacy. And yet I also want a home. Deeply desire that kind of permanence and stability in my life.

    Ugh, paradoxxx.

    You’ve given me a lot to think about tonight. Awesome stuff indeed!

    • Thanks for the kind words! Among other reasons, I like the Wanderer-Hero because he doesn’t seem all that heroic. He doesn’t set out on a quest to help people. He’s just there whenever he’s needed.

      As much as I like the idea of the Wanderer-Hero, I can sympathize with a desire for permanence and stability. I’ve spent enough of my life moving around to be very thankful to be settled sort of permanently for a change! 🙂

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  3. Not all those who wander are lost….

    Great post! The fact that you mentioned The Doctor (and his fez) and Gandalf in the same post makes it even better. I think that if we look close, really look, we find a small part of that wanderer inside us. Sometimes it’s a nudge in a new direction, sometimes it’s just our dreams, and sometimes it’s because we’re not home yet. We’re here for a short while, all wandering even if we never wander anywhere far. But that doesn’t mean we’re lost. At least that’s my view. Thanks for posting!

  4. Wow, I was trying to come up with a definition of this type of character, and you nailed it beautifully. Thank you for sharing this with us. (I am now off to read the Father Brown stories, having just discovered Chesterton a week ago, and now realising he has a character like this – is the best thing ever!)

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