MIND MELD: Who Are The Most Memorable Sidekicks in Genre Fiction?

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Sidekicks. No heroine or hero is complete without Hero Support, the sidekick. So we asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Who have been the most memorable sidekicks in genre fiction? What made them memorable?

Here are their answers…

David Gerrold
David Gerrold is in training to be a curmudgeon. Approach at your own risk. You’ve been warned.

In comic books: Robin.

In detective stories: Watson.

In science fiction: R. Daneel Olivaw.

In fantasy: Samwise Gamgee.

M.D. Lachlan
M.D. Lachlan is the pen name for the fantasy work of author and journalist Mark Barrowcliffe. Mark is the author of Wolfsangel, out from Pyr Books in the U.S, and Gollancz in the U.K. Fenrir, the follow-up to Wolfsangel, will be out in October 2011. Find out more about him at mdlachlan.com

Samwise Gamgee from the The Lord of the Rings is the sidekick in whose shadow all other fantasy sidekicks dwell. Everyone from Elric of Melniboné’s Moonglum to Ron Weasley in Harry Potter has a little of Sam in them even if, in the case of Moorcock, the author is no fan of Tolkien’s.

Sam is memorable because he embodies all the values Tolkien wishes to promote in The Lord of the Rings. He is rural, homely, straightforward, brave and, above all steadfast. He’s not as glamorous as the hero by half – sidekicks almost by definition can’t be – and nor does he undergo the character development of Frodo. But Sam is a little bit of The Shire that Frodo takes with him, a reminder of where he came from, what he values and, crucially, what he stands to lose as the ring takes him. Tolkien, tellingly, referred to Sam as ‘the chief hero’ of The Lord of the Rings. He’s represents what the Fellowship is fighting for. He’s the soul of the book.

Depending on your point of view, he’s a comforting figure or a very irritating one. He embodies a rosy view of class relations – he’s never anything other than Frodo’s servant, though in many ways he’s stronger and more resolute than he is. Tolkien’s view of him shows a view of the social order that itself that was already falling to ruins as he wrote the book.

‘My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914, and recognised as so far superior to myself.’ He’s someone who is given great respect but so long as he knows his place. Sam is not the sort to say ‘actually, I think you’re wrong Gandalf. I don’t think we will go through Moria. I say we go through Rohan and hitch a ride to Mordor down through Gondor.’ He’s a follower, not a leader. In fact, when he first meets him, Gandalf treats him almost as a child.

That doesn’t mean he is incapable of taking action because he saves Frodo countless times.

And this is the heart of why he’s memorable – he’s a sentimental figure, a representative of a gentle, unthreatening, kind world and the hope it might triumph, that honesty and perseverance might be enough against the depredations of the world. The extent to which you like him probably depends on the extent to which you like sentimentality and earnestness. I think we all do, a little. In my case, the operative words here are ‘a little’. Taken too far this sort of thing can turn the stomach.

Sam is typical of a whole slew of fantasy characters, sidekick or not, who essentially can be ‘known’. ‘Ah, that’s what they’re like,’ we can say as we read them and they never complicate things by making poor moral choices or developing away from what they were. They are not at all difficult or challenging and, at the end, they reward the reader with their survival and prosperity – the good guys win. This irritates me hugely in much modern Fantasy. If you can get an easy fix on a character then I find the writing a bit artless and a bit boring. I don’t want the author bossing me by telling me who I should be cheering for and using a series of cheap tricks to make sure that I do – oh, the main character’s young, he’s put upon and fighting enormous odds but he’s brave, resourceful and selfless and – look! – now he’s wielding enormous power. That was fine in the 1950s but we should expect authors to work harder nowadays.

The brilliance of Lord of the Rings, however, is that Sam is just a sidekick – a still point around which the other characters can revolve and grow. And his victory is not emblematic of the whole book. At the end, the Shire is scoured, Frodo is a shadow of his former self and the Elves leave for the west. There’s a bitter sweet feeling at the end of The Lord of the Rings, an almost perfectly pitched sadness to undercut the defeat of Sauron – or a mawkishness, depending on how your bile rises. Sam gives us something to feel uncomplicatedly pleased about.

Or sort of pleased. There is something that nags me about Sam Gamgee and that’s that he survived. I think Tolkien would have had a much more powerful book if he’d left Sam dead on Mount Doom. Also, he’d have had a way to honour those English soldiers upon whom Sam was based – the vast dead of WWI who gave their lives battling in a dispute that was not of their choosing or, often, their understanding.

I think it would be more poetic to have him die at the moment of his victory. That would have been the arty choice. Tolkien is more of a crowd pleaser, as his book sales show, and rewards Sam with a happy life, children and – eventually – eternal life in the Grey Havens. And maybe he was right because there’s part of many readers that wishes the simple virtues of Sam were eternal and victorious. We know they’re not and we’d probably be bored to death by the homely ruralities of the Shire should we live there for ten minutes but, hey, it’s Fantasy, and of a sort that speaks to something uncomplicated, even naïve, within us. It’s that conservative, sentimental impulse, and his expression of it, that makes Sam Gamgee so memorable.

Kat Howard
Kat Howard‘s short fiction has appeared in a variety of places. As yet, none of her stories have sidekicks in them. You can find her on twitter as @KatWithSword, and she is an editor at Fantasy-Matters.com.

My favorite sidekicks come from my favorite movie, The Princess Bride. I love Inigo Montoya and Fezzik. As we first meet them, they aren’t the sidekicks of The Man in Black, but rather Vizzini’s henchmen. But circumstances change, and they wind up helping a Westley who has been mostly dead all day plan a castle assault with nothing but a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak. Inigo and Fezzik are true and loyal friends, have their own unique talents, and enjoy trading rhymes. What’s not to love?

Speaking of love, my next favorite sidekick is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that merry wanderer of the night, Robin Goodfellow, sometimes called Puck. In service to Oberon, the King of Faerie, Puck is a shape-shifting mischief-maker, a catalyst for action, and marvelously witty. He is also a great deal more than he seems, which makes Puck the perfect character to turn the traditional actors’ apologia at the close of the play into a valedictory of the theatre.

Every king needs a fool, but some fools are closer to Feste than to Puck. And while I don’t doubt that both of them would bristle at the word, next on my list of favorite sidekicks is Matthew, Raven to His Darkness, Dream of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Matthew gets to ask many of the questions that we, as readers would ask. He offers perspective and commonsense. With the exception of Dream’s older sister, it is Matthew who is most likely to speak truth to the Dream King. And at the end, it is Matthew who shows that sometimes the greatest and most painful duty of the sidekick is to be the one who survives to tell the story.

Laura Anne Gilman
Laura Anne Gilman started her professional life as a book editor for a major NYC house. In 2004 she switched that around, becoming a full-time writer and freelance editor. Laura Anne is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus novels for Luna, and the award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy from Pocket, as well as the story collection Dragon Virus. In 2012, she will be dipping her pen into the mystery field, as well. A member of the on-line writers’ consortium BookView Cafe, she continues to write and sell short fiction in a variety of genres.

The role of the sidekick is to combine the position of Outsider/Other, so that the audience has someone to have things or events explained to them, and also to provide respite to the narrative – be it comedic relief, or some mirror to the hero’s psyche/development.

My favorite two sidekicks fill those roles, in very different ways.

First: Number Ten Ox, the peasant sidekick of the sage (and drunkard) Li Kao, from Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds/The Story of the Stone/Eight Skilled Gentlemen. His main characteristics are strength and loyalty, but with humor and gentle cunning that evolve naturally from his character, and grow the longer he associates with Li Kao, bringing the sage into good deeds simply by that association.

Second: Lummox, from The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein. You could argue that, in the end, Lummox is revealed as the heroine and John Thomas the sidekick, but that’s part of the appeal for me, in this pairing: that she was able to ‘be’ the sidekick for so many humans, all the while – to her mind – raising and nurturing them. It’s the big reveal of the sidekick, that they’re often the brains and/or common sense of the pairing, without whom the hero would falter or fail.

Summer Brooks
Summer Brooks is one of the co-hosts of the Slice of Scifi podcast.

Many of the characters in stories that stick out in my memory are part of teams, or work with a complementary partner. A true, clearly defined superhero support specialist is becoming harder to find!

For this task, I’m primarily sticking to novels, because with TV series, movies and comics, I’d likely end up arguing with myself over who rated above whom.

The first sidekick I thought of was an animal, a familiar to be exact. In the Vlad Taltos saga by Steven Brust, Loiosh is a jhereg, and it’s safe to say that there were more than a few times where Vlad Taltos may not have survived if Loiosh wasn’t there to have his back. The way Loiosh can spy for Vlad, and also take him down a peg with the snarky commentary when necessary makes him a unique character.

Next for me would have to be Ron and Hermione, Harry Potter’s best friends. Though both Ron and Hermione grow into being equals alongside Harry, and Hermione actually starts off as tagalong, it’s the rocky starts that build the strongest teams.

I’ve also wondered, between the Harry Potter books and the Buffy TV series, who really kickstarted the “Scooby Gang” sidekick format?

My honorable mentions have to go to Bob from The Dresden Files, and venturing into genre TV, I must include Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, and Doyle from Angel (not to start any arguments, but Doyle was a much better sidekick than Wesley. Wesley didn’t become a true sidekick in my estimation until Season 5).

16 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Who Are The Most Memorable Sidekicks in Genre Fiction?”

  1. Archie Goodwin gets my vote as the greatest sidekick in detective fiction. Besides being Nero Wolfe’s legman, part of his job was to kick the obstinate Wolfe in the butt when needed. For those not familiar, imagine Sherlock Holmes as an eccentric recluse and Sam Spade taking the place of Watson.

    Since P. G. Wodehouse’s brand of British humour isn’t considered “serious literature” can we count his work as genre fiction? If so then Jeeves wins the title of greatest sidekick in genre fiction hands down. He rescues his charge Bertie Wooster–and/or one of his pals–from disaster (most often in the form of betrothel) in *every* novel and short story.

     

  2. In detective fiction, Magersfontein Lugg is Albert Campion’s manservant and companion in crime. Their generally hostile interaction is refreshing.

     

    Tolkien knew what he was doing in having Sam survive and be happy. The climax of the book is not Mount Doom. That’s the big satisfactory explosive ending. Having Sam and Frodo die then would have been a neat closing off, but it wouldn’t have told us anything. We need first, The Scouring Of The Shire, to show us what the evil means in the ordinary lives of ordinary people, and then we need to realise that Frodo is permanently damaged. If Sam were melancholy and occasionally sad, we might not realise that Frodo is really properly messed up. We see Sam as essentially recovered because that’s what a good sidekick is for – to throw the main character into contrast. That’s why Watson needs to get married – because Holmes never can. Tolkien was a far more skillful writer than he’s given credit for. Much of what people dismiss turns out to be important to the story as a whole.

  3. Couldn’t agree more on Jeeves, Michael. I slightly got the wrong end of the stick and thought we were just doing fantasy. I’d have included Jeeves and, of course, Watson if we were doing wider genre.

    I wasn’t saying kill both Sam and Frodo, Julian! Killng them both would be a little too much. I agree with most of what  you’ve said about Sam. And, as for Tolkein being a skillful writer, you’ll get no argument here. He’s a great writer. Could have dropped Tom Bombadil, though. That said, I liked the barrow wight – a proper Norse ghost popping up in fantasy fiction.

  4.  

    MDL, I know what you mean about the ending (well, ending #1 of #3) of LOTR. They have just dumped the ring in the lava, and the whole thing is going to blow up. All their friends have been involved at the sharp end of a horrendous war. Suddenly they’re back in Minas Tirith, the most honoured people in _the entire world_ and out of the seven friends that they left in mortal danger, eight have survived. Everyone gets the girl (except Gimli, unless they meet up out West in an additional unwritten appendix) or the boy. Even grumpy, disfunctional Eowyn gets sorted out nicely. Of course, she can’t wait to leave her home palace/stable and move somewhere a bit more sophisticated, following Eomer around with coasters. 

    It’s the total happy ending that makes endings #2 and #3 that much sadder, and which leaves us feeling, as we close the book having read it for the umpteenth time, a bit melancholy. It’s what keeps us coming back to it. Could we have had that same feeling if ending #1 had been the sad one? Maybe – but it would have been a different book.

    I note that in the final volume of HP, the one that really abandons all pretence and chucks in huge lumps of LOTR, she can’t bring herself to do away with any of the big three. She goes through the supporting cast with a chainsaw, but she had the two couples marked out from day one, and they were going to get their happy ending. And because she went for the big happy ending, we don’t get the same emotional impact as the end of LOTR.

    Not sure if there are any sidekick killing books – I can’t thing of any.

    Best sidekick twist – The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. Dr Sheppard fills in for Hastings – with unexpected results.

     

     

     

  5. Sidekick killing books – Elric of Melniboné. The battle crazed Elric kills Moonglum. ‘I had not expected this,’ being Moonglum’s final words – about the effect of having his soul stolen, rather than Elric’s attack.

  6. If we’re including movies, we’d have to add Chewbacca. True his vocabulary is limited, but he’s big and loyal.  However, since we seem to be sticking to books, I would say Bunter, Lord Peter Womsey’s manservant, Ivan, Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin (a lot like Chewbacca, in some ways), Rufo, fom Heinlein’s Glory Road, and Carolyn Kaiser from Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. 

  7. @tam : I’m actually not quite sure.  Dragon Page “Cover to Cover” may come back as a completely random event now & again, or it may undergo a metamorphosis and come back as something completely different (ob quote: a man with three buttocks!)

    I want it to continue in some fashion, but it’s not something I can do on my own (already have my hands full with 3 jobs and doing Babylon Podcast!).  I have a bruise on my forehead from repeated contact with the wall, from venting frustration at my inability to entice a full stable of book reviewers into my lair, er, website.

    There are a handful of new reviews, both written and audio, that will be coming along soon.  As for new full shows, that’s a question for the gods of literature and speculation.

     

  8. Much as I hate to agree with my friend David Gerrold, he’s dead right:

    In comic books: Robin. In detective stories: Watson. In science fiction: R. Daneel Olivaw.

    In fantasy: Samwise Gamgee.

    – Mike Resnick

  9. Much as I hate to agree with my friend David Gerrold, he’s dead right:

    In comic books: Robin. In detective stories: Watson. In science fiction: R. Daneel Olivaw.

    In fantasy: Samwise Gamgee.

    – Mike Resnick

  10. Much as I hate to agree with my friend David Gerrold, he’s dead right:

    In comic books: Robin. In detective stories: Watson. In science fiction: R. Daneel Olivaw.

    In fantasy: Samwise Gamgee.

    – Mike Resnick

  11. Much as I hate to agree with my friend David Gerrold, he’s dead right:

    In comic books: Robin. In detective stories: Watson. In science fiction: R. Daneel Olivaw.

    In fantasy: Samwise Gamgee.

    – Mike Resnick

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