Literature is rife with deadbeat dads and villainous patriarchs, but some great father figures have been written into our imaginations too. To celebrate Father’s Day, here’s a look at some of the fictional dads we’ve all looked up to or silently lauded in our minds over the years.
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The first name to leap to mind, and the most obvious choice – deservedly so – is the courageous protagonist of Harper Lee’s classic novel about racial inequality in the American Deep South. A lawyer and single father to two children, Atticus takes on the case of defending a black man charged with raping a white woman. Given the novel is set in a (fictional) Great Depression-era Alabama town, Atticus receives a lot of backlash from the townsfolk and his kids too are bullied for their father being a “nigger-lover”. Regardless of the difficulties he and his family face, Atticus strives to instill a sense of integrity and compassion in his children by his own example. Whether he’s telling his kids how to deal with bullies or is himself facing down an angry lynch mob to protect another human being, his words have been the moral compass of thousands of readers for over fifty years. It’s hard to pick a single line to exemplify his fatherly wisdom, so here are a few:
- “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
- “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.”
- “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
- “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anyone says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat.”
- “It’s not okay to hate anybody.”
- “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see through it no matter what.”
- “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.”
Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
He certainly fits the fatherly description, with the long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stick out beyond the rim of his hat. But he also has the wisdom that you’d expect from a Maia sent down to Middle Earth by the Valar, and is “kindly to the young and simple, yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly”. The rare occasions when he’s angry, he grows taller and more menacing, “his shadow filling the room”. He opposes the destructive fire of Sauron with the “fire that kindles and succours in wanhope and distress”. His affection for Hobbits is heartwarming, his will to guide and protect his Fellowship is awe-inspiring. Who can forget how he fought the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and then sacrificed himself to enable to rest of the Fellowship to “fly, you fools!” If ever there was a father figure in literature that guided millions of readers safely out of the darkness of Mordor, it is this guy. So, happy Father’s Day, Gandalf! (Sure never thought I’d say that.)
Harry’s Battalion of Father Figures, The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal series is full of wonderful role models, male and female, for kids as well as grownups. Harry Potter may have lost his father when he was just a year old but he had a whole array of brave, wise, kind men to step in to guide and take care of him once he got away from the Dursleys. The wisdom and protection of Albus Dumbledore, the fierce love of Sirius Black, the gentle practical guidance of Remus Lupin, the unabashed kindness and integrity of lovable Arthur Weasley, the warm and affectionate friendship of Rubeus Hagrid… They each deserve their own entry on this list. No dearth of great men (and great father figures) at Hogwarts.
Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A delightful foil to the rishta auntie machinations of his ever-annoying wife, Mr. Bennett ranks high up on this list because of one glorious moment in particular, when Mrs. Bennett is pressuring their daughter Elizabeth to marry the obnoxious Mr. Collins: “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” SO MUCH WIN.
Uncle Ben, Marvel’s Spider Man stories
We all know Spider Man would have just been another jerk in Spandex were it not for the influence of his Uncle Ben. Spidey may have gotten his superhuman strength and web-slinging powers from a radioactive spider bite, but it was Uncle Ben who instilled in Peter Parker the values that he stood for as a superhero: protecting the weak and the innocent, showing compassion, standing up to bullies. And who can forget the axiom – attributed to Uncle Ben – that has come to define the whole idea of Spider Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Ned Stark, A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin
Okay, so I love and admire Ned’s sense of honour and all that, and despite the gory horror of making his little son watch him execute a deserter, the lesson he successfully drives home with that demonstration (“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”) is actually pretty stellar fatherly guidance. He’s also encouraging of his daughter Arya’s tomboyish ways and fighting spirit, which is awesome given he lives in a world where daughters tend to be weighed down with finery and sold off to kings. (See Tywin Lannister.) And he treats his illegitimate son Jon Snow the same as the rest of his kids – which again, is saying something in a universe littered with disowned and/or mistreated “bastards”. (See again Tywin Lannister. And Robert Baratheon.) However, despite his overall goodness and integrity as a human being, Ned gets a “mixed-feelings” mention in the cool-fathers list because of the matter of Lady, beloved direwolf of Sansa Stark. Dude, you executed your kid’s pet – and that too, on the word of Joffrey, someone who is clearly a piece of cold blond evil spat straight out of the belly of hell.
Will Freeman, About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Will is a 36-year-old bachelor/playboy whose father once wrote a successful Christmas song, the royalties of which allow Will to remain unemployed and lead a fairly self-absorbed and indulgent lifestyle. When he meets Marcus, an awkward schoolboy with a suicidal single mom, he is initially uninterested in being friends with the boy. But the boy is persistent and it cannot be helped – Will soon finds himself involved in Marcus’s life, teaching him how to be “cool”, introducing him to new music and trendy haircuts, buying him Adidas trainers, and their friendship keeps getting stronger. Written with characteristic British humour, the novel is a story of a self-centered bachelor-for-life finding it in himself to care for a boy who needs him, becoming his unwitting role model and counselor, showing him how to navigate the choppy waters of adolescent life in 1990s London.
The Man, The Road by Cormac McCarthy
“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” In this story of fierce, frightening, all-conquering love, a father and son trudge through a post-apocalyptic landscape with nothing but the clothes on their back – and each other. Other survivors have resorted to cannibalism and the man and boy must evade them as they search for food, shelter and safety. Through it all, the father’s desperate struggle is to protect not only his son’s body but also his soul, to keep its hope and humanity alive. Cormac McCarthy dedicated this book to his own son, and has said that some of the conversations between the father and the son in the novel are based on his own conversations with his son.
Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman
Another zombie apocalypse, another desperate father doing the impossible to make sure his family stays safe. In addition to his own family, however, Rick Grimes has the responsibility of an entire group of survivors who depend on his leadership to get them through each deadly day. Sure, Rick gets a lot of criticism for his parenting skills because of how much his own kid runs off into harm’s way while he’s busy being a leader – and because, well, he handed the kid a gun to protect himself and to help out with the zombie-killing in general. But it’s a zombie apocalypse and Carl’s an annoying little brat who just doesn’t listen, people. Cut Rick some slack. He tries. And as a badass, zombie-slaying deputy whose bravery and moral integrity everybody looks up to, he’s the kind of dad anyone would be proud to have.
Prospero, The Tempest by William Shakespeare
There’s nothing a father won’t do for his little girl – including, in Prospero’s case, conjuring up a storm to drive his usurper brother to a desert island so he can defeat him and rightfully reclaim the throne for his daughter.
Baba, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
A (very depressing) novel about moral courage, featuring some great father figures, The Kite Runner is mentioned last only because of how much I wish I’d never read it (I’m telling you, it’s more depressing than The Road). The protagonist’s father, a wealthy merchant in Kabul, is full of love for not only his own legitimate son Amir but also for Hassan, the son of his servant (who we only later discover is also his son, albeit illegitimately). “Baba” is a man of principle, striving to impart higher values to both his boys. “There is only one sin, and that is theft,” he says. “When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.” He is harder on Amir sometimes, lamenting the boy’s apparent weakness of character, and also perhaps out of guilt for Hassan. But Amir has another father figure to turn to as well, in his father’s friend Rahim Khan, who is more understanding of the boy and encourages his interest in writing.
That’s all I’ve got so far. Who am I missing? Add to this list in the Comments section!
Fatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.