It seems easier to generate a list of literary dads who aren’t really very good at being daddies than to come up with dads who are. (Or maybe that’s just where my mindset was, for some reason.) Yeah, I know there are nurturing, caring dads out there in the literary realm… but I suppose that, like literary mommies, daddies who are incompetent, testy or just plain nasty make for more interesting characters than ones who are wholesome, supportive and effective at what they do. It’s kind of a corollary to what I call the Mischief, Murder and Mayhem Syndrome in news reporting: most current events junkies aren’t really interested in news stories about unbearably cute kittens playing gently with each other in flower gardens on a sunny day; it’s the awful, the ugly and the bizarre which is far more fascinating. Hmm. Guess that’s not really much of an endorsement about human nature in general, or news junkies in particular, is it?
At any rate, here’s my list of literary daddies that came to mind (in thirty seconds or less) for this year:
Claudius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I like this play a lot, although it’s not a happy one, and as I tell my students, whenever you read Shakespearean tragedy, you can pretty much guarantee a pile of corpses on stage by play’s end --- including the title character. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle… or step-dad, really, because he marries his dead brother’s sister just as the play has started. Which never fails to gross out my students. (Granted, they have a point; what should Hamlet call Claudius? ‘Uncle Dad?’) Claudius makes a show of displaying step-fatherly devotion to his new son, but he’s usurped the crown Hamlet should have had, married his new wife in unseemly haste (Hamlet notes sarcastically to Horatio, his BFF, that food from the funeral became food for the wedding feast), and, we eventually learn, murdered his own brother to become king. And while he repents what he’s done --- well, sorta --- not enough to come clean and own up to his crimes. Unsurprisingly, he meets a nasty (and fitting) end at his stepson’s hand. Sir Derek Jacobi does a masterful job with the role in the excellent 1995 Kenneth Branagh film.
Claudius from Robert Graves’ books, I, Claudius and the sequel, Claudius the God. Yep, ‘nother Claudius --- amusingly, also played by Sir Derek Jacobi in the terrific 1977 BBC television miniseries, back when he was still just an ordinary mortal like the rest of us. This Claudius is the reluctant Roman Emperor of two millennia ago, and I say ‘reluctant’ because he’s no monarchist at all --- wants the Roman Republic restored, in fact. He’s made Emperor, totally unwillingly, by the Praetorian Guard after his mad nephew Caligula is murdered. To universal surprise --- everyone erroneously assumes he’s mentally disabled, to accompany his physical disabilities --- Claudius actually proves a pretty competent Emperor. And he’s dad to a son and daughter, although a pretty distant dad, truth be told… and he’s quite sure the boy isn’t his. Nevertheless, he’s got plans for son to restore the Republic --- which, of course, ultimately come to naught, in a tale worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.
Denethor from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (My obligatory Tolkien reference for the day.) I like book Denethor --- who’s Steward of Gondor i.e. de facto king --- much better than the filmic one, although John Noble did an excellent job with the material he was given. Book Denethor is prouder and not nearly as loony as filmic one --- Peter Jackson’s take in the films is that Denethor is clearly losing his marbles, which I doubt Tolkien would have approved of. Book Denethor is proud, cold, and calculating, yes, but doesn’t lose it until just before dying by his own hand, when he thinks he’s lost his second and only surviving son… whom he neglected in favour of his firstborn. There’s a lesson for dads everywhere: cherish your children while you can, buckos. Ah, yes, which leads to a title for Denethor’s memoirs: Tales Of A Bad Dad.
President Coriolanus Snow from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Truthfully, I’d forgotten his first name --- if in fact I ever knew it --- and on seeing it as I checked with my friend The Google, I rolled my eyes and just wanted to say… “Really, Suzanne? Really? Are we trying to be terribly clever here?” Because, of course, his first name is a not-subtle-at-all reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name: both characters share all kinds of common plot and character points in their respective narratives. (Of course, that’s not something your average teenager/YA aficionado would know. Or care about, come to that, so maybe it doesn’t really matter that much.) That personal snarkiness aside, however, I like President Snow’s character a lot, particularly as Donald Sutherland plays him in the films: he’s utterly ruthless --- although there’s a charming (if creepy) dichotomy as he tenderly relates to his grand-daughter --- cunning, pragmatic, and above all, terrifyingly honest (“Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen. I thought we had an agreement not to lie to each other”) which is as unorthodox in a politician as it is refreshing.
So there we are. Pater familias, indeed.