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Tinker, Tailor, Leader, Lancer

November 4, 2009
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Another Wednesday, another conversation that got away. This week on Seamus and Guinevere* Do Literature, we talked about Titus Andronicus for a bit (of which more some other time, probably) and then started talking about another literary trope. Today: the Five-Man Band.

The Five-Man Band is an astonishingly common trope defining the construction of teams of characters. To be a Five-Man Band, a group of characters have to fit the following roles as closely as possible:

1) The Leader. They lead. They often have less personality than anyone else, owing to having to be the leader.
2) The Lancer. Of comparable importance, often comparable power, but also something of a rival to the leader; the dark horse on the team. If you’re going to get a traitor on the squad, it’ll like as not be the Lancer.
3) The Smart Guy.
4) The Big Guy.
5) The Chick. This is the conventional designation for the fifth member – the relatively static (or useless) character who motivates the others, often by being kidnapped. Is often the subject of noble self-sacrifice.

The fifth slot is so called because The Chick often coincides with The Token Girl; however, all the archetypes of the five-man band are named after the genders with which their behaviour is traditionally marked, regardless of the character’s actual sex. I’ve been trying to think of a less offensive name for the fifth bandmate that still sums up their purpose, but no luck so far.

There is also occasionally

6) The Sixth Ranger, named after the Sixth Ranger, who is another character on the same side who isn’t around all the time.

Looking around, it’s amazing how many five-man bands there are. They’re all over literature, often in places that seem entirely aloof from such tropes. Let’s start with that staple of all our childhoods, the Famous Five:

Julian is the Leader. George is the Lancer: constantly poking Julian in his male privilege and demanding to take over the leader role. Dick is the Smart Guy (the most tenuous identification, but he doesn’t do much) Anne is one of the most stereotypical Chicks out there, and Timmy is the Big Guy, biting villains and all that.

The Five are an obvious five-man band, given that, you know, there are five of them. But how about a five-man band with more than five? Believe it or not, the Fellowship of the Ring are totally a five-man band. Even though there are nine of them. It makes perfect sense.

Gandalf is the Sixth Ranger. While the most powerful character on the team, he’s not around for large portions of the book, and on his reappearance maintains a more distant relationship.
Aragorn is the Leader. Not only is he actually the leader, he’s also noble, charismatic, conflicted and of royal blood.
Boromir is the Lancer. Blatant rivalry with the leader, ideas of superiority, and he broke the Fellowship.
Legolas is the Smart One. To be entirely accurate, I’m not sure ‘smart’ is the right word – we’re talking Wis, not Int – but he’s the one who’s more about tracking and perception than fighting. He’s also an elf, which in Tolkienland makes you automatically wiser and serener than humans.
Gimli is the Big One. Further proof that the descriptors can be entirely factually inaccurate whilst still being true to type.
– Which leaves Frodo as the Chick. Noble self-sacrifice? Check. Helplessness and needing to be rescued? Check. Motivating the rest of the party? Check. Hey, maybe The Frodo would be an acceptable alternative for the descriptor.

The other hobbits are incidental. The central structure of the Fellowship is a rock-solid five-man band. It’s brilliant.

It goes back further. Consider the Achaean heroes who besieged Troy. Who’s on the team? We have Agamemnon leading the charge; sulky, not-taking-orders-well Achilles being more interesting; Ajax killing things, Odysseus doing the scheming and Menelaus being a little bit useless in the corner. See? Five-man band.

And finally, some utter genius at TVTropes has spotted something I didn’t think of, but which in retrospect is the most obvious thing ever: King Arthur’s nephews, the Orkney brothers (especially in Malory), are a five-man band unto themselves. Gawain is the Leader, Mordred’s the Lancer, Gaheris is the Smart One, Agravaine’s the Big One and Gareth is the Chick/Frodo.

I’m not even kidding when I say that so much clicks into place when you look at the five of them through that structure. The Gawain-Mordred relationship particularly comes into sharp focus when you reconsider the power dynamic between the two of them as a question of leader and lancer rather than oldest and youngest (which would by itself imply quite a different balance).

And, to go into yet more unnecessary Arthurian fangirling-cum-literary-criticism (whoa, unfortunate conjunction there), Mordred’s such a Lancer; not only within the mini-group that is House Orkney but also, I’d argue, to the story in general during the later books of the Morte Darthur.

Once Lancelot – who functions as the Lancer most of the time, rival as he is to Arthur, and after whom the type was practically named – leaves the team, Mordred steps into the breach as the dark side of the archetype. Arthur even acknowledges the Lancer’s second-placed spot in the pecking order by giving him the regency of Logres over the heads of the ostensibly better-qualified.

The remainder of the five-man band at this stage of the myth is blurry – Gawain is the Big One; Bedivere, Lucan and Gawain’s ghost function jointly as the Smart One, insofar as ‘voice of reason’ counts – and I doubt the trope as a whole can be made to apply, but the Leader/Lancer thing remains relevant and fascinating. I’m also beginning to suspect that I may have to quote TVTropes in my dissertation, which I think is probably an expulsion offence for crimes against Real Literature.

*Yeah. Guinevere isn’t my name, but I have a similarly Celtic and difficult one.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    November 5, 2009 5:29 pm

    Every Wednesday.

    Also, nice pseudonym.

  2. Seamus permalink
    November 21, 2009 4:28 pm

    I’ve followed your example, and taken the pseudonym you gave me, and set up my own blog: http://rarepoetry.blogspot.com/

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