Monday, March 19, 2007

The Tragic Hero In Children's Literature

This question came up at work: "Is there a tragic hero in Children's Literature? Please focus on the books written for those in the 3rd - 7th grade. Any thoughts on why a character is a tragic hero, or why there are none."

My initial, off the cuff responses:

any King Arthur or Greek Myth retold would probably work

Peter Pan by Barrie, tragic hero is Pan

Blubber by Judy Blume; the main character’s flaw wanting to be part of the popular crowd which backfires on her (under this, I think any other of the current mean girls / wanting to be popular books, such as Koss’s The Girls, would also work.)

DiCamillo’s Despereaux (the supporting character of the rat, I forget his name) and, while I haven’t read it, I think her Edward Tulane would also work

Harriet the Spy, tragic hero Harriet? Perhaps a stretch, but her “flaw” in reporting/ investigating leads to her being excluded by her peers

The Dustfinger character in Funke’s Inkheart / Inkspell books

The Tree in The Giving Tree

The Fish in the Rainbow Fish – his flaw is wanting to fit in with his peers so he conforms and loses what is unique about him (I guess you can tell I’m not a fan of this book!)

Plus these titles were added by a colleague at work:

Luke from Among the Hidden (Shadow Children Series).
Matteo from The House of the Scorpion

So: do you agree or disagree? What titles would you add?


Gina Ruiz said...

Harry Potter is a pretty tragic hero.

Then there's the missing piece from the Missing Piece meets the Big O.

Nancy said...

Harry Potter
Artemis Fowl
The Baudelaire kids

Anonymous said...

What do we mean by "tragic"? Because I'm wondering how Spiderman is a tragic hero and I'm coming up all his uncle died.

k said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
k said...

I would add to the list A Series of Unfortunate Events (the whole series), Love Story (a must for every young girl), many of the S.E. Hinton stories, Black Beauty... to name a few off my cuff. So I guess I fall into the category of, "Yes, I believe there are tragic heroes in children's literature." I think children are very perceptive. They know the world is not all sweetness and light. At young ages they are grappling to define tragedy. Then as they become older, they grapple with trying to understand it in the same way as adults. They are fascinated with stories that help them along their journey. By the way, Liz, thank you for adding me to your links. It was a very encouraging moment for me.

9:22 PM

RM1(SS) (ret) said...

Beautiful Joe.

Mary Lee said...

Would you consider Salamanca Hiddle in WALK TWO MOONS a tragic hero?

Cheryl Kobe said...

Uncle Adam in A CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE. A truly fantastic middle grade novel.

Andrew Karre said...

I wonder if it's possible to have a strictly Aristotelian tragic hero in a children's book. Do the flaws of even YA protagonists rise to the level of tragedy? I'm not making a qualitative judgment at all--a tragic hero isn't inately any better than another kind of hero. It's just that most YA flaws aren't fatal or insurmountable, and they don't tend to lead to a great reversal of fortune (i.e., death, eyes ripped from sockets, etc.). The flaws aren't but-for-this-he-would-have-been-a-great-King-of-Denmark type flaws. I think if YA had "tragic heros," the books would have higher body counts.

Lindsey said...

Definitely Edward Tulane. I am not sure about Dustfinger because is the hero of the story (Dustfinger IS a great character)? To me tragic hero is the main character and he is somehow fated to perform a task that will destroy him. It would have to be a pretty depressing book.

Brooke said...

This is too juicy a topic, so I've left a longer response over at The Brookeshelf. Please feel free to come over and tell me off if you disagree!

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. He does terrible damage because of his flaws and ultimately gives his life to atone.

It's not contemporary enough to really count, but Frodo in Lord of the Rings would qualify, too.

Liz B said...

Definately hop over to the Brookeshelf at for some interesting observations.

Andrew, I think part of the question is what IS the definition of tragic hero (something Brooke explores more, above.) Because kids lit is often "sense of hope" ending, I think that either (a) the tragic hero in kids lit "learns his/her lesson" about their flaw, something that doesn't always happen in adult lit, or (b) the tragic hero is not the main character (which, arguably, means its the tragic sidekick / uncle/ etc.)

Let me add that I had a very personal reaction to the query -- wondering if the query arose in one of those "oh kids lit could NEVER have a tragic hero because it's just for kids" moments, and that (again, this is all my overreading) somehow the implication was that kids lit would be inferior if it was without tragic heroes.

Cheryl, welcome! And Bonny, if you have a URL please share! And I think that Nathaniel is a great example of a tragic hero.

Anonymous said...

Lyra and Will in The Amber Spyglass, the whole series really, but it tore me up when they had to separate at the end.

Anonymous said...

I think that Harry Potter certainly will be a tragic hero if he has to die to kill Voldemort in the end. And I agree with Sonja: Lyra and Will had a pretty tragic ending.

Nancy said...

Uh oh. I think I just found out more than I wanted to know about the Bartimaeus trilogy. :)

Serves me right for taking so long to get to it.

Tristi Pinkston said...

What about The Little Prince?

And I agree about Rainbow Fish -- I have serious issues with that one too.

Anonymous said...

Looks like my other comment disappeared, so here's a paraphrase of it.

This came up recently with a 6th grade colleague who teaching ancient Greece and wanted some age appropriate examples to support Aristotle's definition. A tragic hero has 1) nobility (by birth or wisdom or goodness) 2) a tragic flaw 3) a reversal of fortune 4) recognition that the reversal is, to some extent, his/her OWN FAULT.

We've got lots and lots of reversal of fortune in children literature -- e.g. all those orphan books! But the books often begin rather than end with this reversal (Secret Garden & Little Princess are classic examples of that model) and the protagonist's Terrific Feats (as opposed to Tragic Flaws) help them overcome the tragedy that FATE has sent their way.

The best classical example of a tragic hero in modern children's lit is probably Dumbledore. He is wizard nobility because of his wisdom. His stunning reversal of fortune is a direct result of his one flaw -- his propensity to trust a person with unwavering loyalty and the absence of a peer he can turn to to moderate his beliefs and obseravations. And Rowling does not rob us of his moment of recongintion -- it's brutal.

I'd also recommend Bruce Colville's retellings of Shakespeare's plays. Macbeth is a deeply compelling story for 4th-7th graders . . .