We use the dictionary for many things; finding the definition of a new word you heard, discovering synonyms to perfect your English essay, and even to read until you fall asleep when you know you need to.
The dictionary is a wondrous thing, but as most of us should know by now; good things don’t come without a cost.
The Professor and the Madman is the story of the ultimate cost behind the 70 year process of making The Oxford English Dictionary.
The first half of the book begins by explaining the background of James Henry (the Professor), one of the two main characters in the novel, as well as Dr. William C. Minor’s life background and life story.
After hearing where these two characters come from and what the future holds for them, I have concluded that The Professor (James Henry) can be represented by a common archetypal character called “The Chosen One“, and Dr. William C. Minor can be exemplified as the “Anti-Hero“.
The Chosen One is a less-common archetypal character. According to TV.tropes, The Chosen One is “an Archetypal character that has been chosen by some force to resolve the plot of the story.”(The Chosen one 1)(Paraphrase) James Henry can be represented by this archetype because ever since he was a young boy he had a desire to learn, and as a result was destined to aid in the creation of the OED. Not only did young James love to learn, but he had a fascination with language, and by the time he was fifteen he had taught himself French, Italian, German and Greek. The author notes this desire to learn as evidence that he was “destined-despite his unpromising, unmoneyed, unsophisticated background-to learn.”(Winchester 36) So, not only do I see James as The Chosen One, but the author does as well when he says that James is destined for extraordinary things, further showing the author’s goal for James’ character in his novel.
The other main character in the novel: Dr. William C. Minor, brings a different character to the the table, one that does not follow the moral standards of a typical hero, but does the overall work of what a hero would do; the Anti-Hero. The Anti-Hero is described as “the protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. They may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic.”(Anti-Hero 1) Dr. Minor perfectly fits this description. Dr. C. Minor begins as a good doctor, dedicating his life to heal wounded soldiers in the most dangerous part of the war, but while Dr. Minor was in the war, he was forced to do things that surgeons and people should never do. These horrible experiences changed Dr. Minor’s mind in such a way that he was un-able to safely practice medicine after the war had finished, and he was sent off to an insane asylum. It was from the asylum that Dr. Minor made an enormous contribution to the OED and submitted new words and definitions by the thousands. Since Dr. Minor helped James Henry create the dictionary, he is a protagonist in this story. However, he was considered criminally insane and at one point killed a man, so he cannot be considered your typical archetypal hero, therefore classifying him as the Anti-Hero. Through Dr. Minor’s ill mannered state, yet helpful contribution to the goal of the story, Dr. Minor is considered the Anti-Hero in The Professor and the Madman.
Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is a prime example of the Anti-Hero (Image from Writers.com)
Both of these archetypal characters have been portrayed in many forms of media. In order for you to better understand what a character like The Chosen One, or a character like the Anti-Hero are like, I will give you examples from popular movies.
A good example of the archetypal character “The Chosen One”, is Anakin Skywalker.
Anakin Skywalker A.K.A Darth Vader was supposedly chosen by “the force” or some earlier prophecy to bring an end to the dark side. A few pictures up, you can see that Obi-Wan was trying to convince Anakin of his destiny, but wasn’t having too much luck as he had to kill Anakin a few moments later (or so he thought).
There are several movies that contain a main character as the “Anti-Hero”, one most famous for which is The Dark Knight. Just by guessing, most people would be able to figure out this “Dark Knight” is not your typical hero movie based on the title, and they would be right, The Dark Knight is an Anti-Hero movie. The movie begins by focusing on a seemingly perfect politician, Harvey Dent, who is doing very well at cleaning up the streets of Gotham. However, there is an unexpected rise of evil, most commonly known as The Joker, who ends up corrupting Harvey into an evil villain known as Two Face. Batman was planning on Harvey taking over his job as the “hero” of the city, but is forced to kill Harvey due to the joker’s ingenious plan to corrupt him(my apologies for those who were planning on seeing this film in the near future). In killing Harvey, Batman saves Gotham, but sacrifices his stigma as a typical hero for it, making himself the Anti-Hero, or Dark Knight.
Image of Batman in The Dark Knight (Photo from Screen Rant)
Not only do these archetypal characters allow us to fully understand our characters while we read the text, they can also assist us in predicting what our character will do in the future of the story.
This book is non-fiction, meaning it actually happened, but what makes archetypes so interesting is that they apply to real life (non-fictioinal) characters as well. If someone in your life is similar to an archetype, you may be able to accurately predict the general outcome of the future, if they continue acting the way they currently are. This also allows me to predict the outcome of the real-life characters in The Professor and the Madman, based on their archetypal behavior.
The professor, or James Henry, is similar to the archetypal character The Chosen One. Based on other archetypal “Chosen One” characters, James will likely face some intense difficulty fulfilling his foretold destiny, but in the end will live up to it.
And Doctor James Minor, seen from a typical archetypal character standpoint, will likely assist James in his endeavors, but face personal troubles, and in the end not be there when their goal is achieved, as the Anti-Hero often does.
I hope that this archetypal perspective on the novel The Professor and the Madman allows you to have a deeper understanding of some of the ideas presented within the novel, and I hope you enjoyed my blog!
“The Chosen One.” TV Tropes. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.
“Anti-Hero.” TV Tropes. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.
Winchester, Simon. The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016. Print.