aeneid, Chronicles of Narnia, cs lewis, cumaean, dragonlance, Fantasy, neil gaiman, neverwhere, old bailey, pigeon lady, reepicheep, sibyl, T5W, tasslehoff, tom obedlam, Top 5 Wednesday, verin, virgil
This week’s Top 5 Wednesday is pretty tricky. First of all, the difference between a book’s minor and side characters is debatable. The prompt uses examples from Harry Potter to clarify (Ron and Hermione are side characters, Lavender Brown and Cho Chang are minor characters), but where would you classify Ginny? Or Luna? Or Professor McGonagall? And that’s just in the Harry Potter universe. Most narratives are considerably shorter with less clearly defined character roles.
But, being the extremely courageous book blogger that I am, I squared my shoulders and made some executive decisions. I think I’ve found some good ones!
5. Old Bailey, Neverwhere
“Information, then? Roof-maps? History? Secret and mysterious knowledge? If I don’t knows it, it’s probbly better forgot. That’s what I says.”
This is a solid choice – Old Bailey is only in a few scenes of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere but he made a big impression on me (I keep trying, without success, to fit him into my novel). Old Bailey is one of the first people Richard Mayhew, the protagonist, interacts with once the fantasy components of the story really get moving. Old Bailey is a transient elderly inhabitant of London Underground who primarily avoids normies by living on the roofscape above the metropolis and talking to his birds (also killing and roasting said birds). He’s not a particularly powerful person, but he’s in the know. That’s why his pores are so big – they’re full of secrets.
Old Bailey reminds me of two other pigeon-loving softies from movies and TV: Tom O’Bedlam from The Invisibles by Grant Morrison (my favorite comic) and The Pigeon Lady, played by Brenda Fricker, in Home Alone II. You might not know Tom O’Bedlam , but I bet you remember The Pigeon Lady!
Old Bailey is a similar kind of character: an urban hermit, full of secrets, with a soft touch and a kind heart. One of my favorite tropes and definitely one of my favorite minor characters.
4. Tasslehoff Burrfoot, Dragonlance Chronicles
“Was it something I said? Whatever it was, I didn’t mean it. I haven’t meant anything I’ve said for years. Except what I just said. I think.”
Tas is the little one. Okay: where to begin? The Dragonlance series is horrifyingly massive. It’s the Doctor Who of fantasy novels. The first was published in 1984 and 125+ have followed since. Along the way, various authors have left their mark on the world of Krynn (some with a fair amount of skill, some…not).
Tas is one of the characters in the original trilogy. And initially he is relatively minor (think: Merry in Fellowship of the Ring). Later on, he gets to be the protagonist himself in a few books. But I mean c’mon: 125+ books. Everybody gets their fifteen minutes eventually.
Tas is a tiny, adventurous Kender who looks like a twelve-year-old and does not feel fear. Literally: it’s a racial trait of Kender. They are physically unable to feel fear, as well as gifted with an extraordinary sense of wonder and curiosity. At his worst, this makes him Jar Jar Binks-ish (stupid choices, tactlessness). But he’s only rarely at his worst. And at his best, Tas is a smart-mouthed, loyal and funny kleptomaniac with a penchant for making powerful friends and time-traveling. Yep. Time traveling!
You guys I fell down a black hole on the Dragonlance Wikipedia page just now. If you want to know more about Tas, Kender, Krynn or the Dungeons and Dragons campaign that the whole series is based upon (who knew?), feel free to click that demon link and lose an hour of your life. Tas would approve.
3. Verin Mathwin of the Brown Ajah, The Wheel of Time
“Verin merely sipped her tea and watched; Verin’s eyes could be most disconcerting.”
Verin Mathwin is short and plump with dark eyes and an ageless face. She’s a witch. More precisely, she’s a member of the Brown Ajah, which means she’s devoted to knowledge and to the collection of ancient wisdom. Essentially she’s a magical librarian slash archaeologist who, comparatively, blends into the crowd of Aes Sedai witches.
The thing about the Brown Ajah is that they are notorious for being vague and distracted, bookish and eccentric. It is exactly this reputation that allows Verin to dissemble, to fade into the background and to be underestimated, even by those who know her well. In an attempt not to ruin my favorite twist in the entire series, I’m not going to tell you how Verin’s story ends.
But I will tell you that it’s a really, really good ending that shocked many devoted readers of The Wheel of Time. And I’ll tell you that, in my opinion, Verin is the most epic and badass minor character in the entire series. If you’ve read them, you know that’s saying a lot!
2. Reepicheep, The Chronicles of Narnia
“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world into some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
Reepicheep is the leader of the Talking Mice of Narnia. After being raised by dryads, he becomes one of Caspian’s most loyal knights and is one of the major insurrectionists in the Narnian Revolution, even though he stands only a little over knee high. Reepicheep almost died in that rebellion and in fact was only saved at the last minute by Lucy Pevensie (specifically her magic cordial) and by Aslan (who restored his tail, “the honour and glory of a mouse”).
Reepicheep is a courageous and skilled warrior, but the real reason I love him is because he’s also a hopeless romantic. He’s greatest dream comes true: he sets out alone to find Aslan’s country or fall off the edge of the world at the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It’s a bittersweet, heartbreaking, inspiring end for one of the best minor characters in the series.
1. The Cumaean Sibyl, The Aeneid
“The night is near, Aeneas, and we waste our time with tears.”
The Cumaean Sibyl was a semi-mythical priestess of Apollo who regularly acted as the mouthpiece for the god’s prophecies from his oracle at Cumae, which was an ancient Greek colony near Naples. In Book VI of Roman writer Virgil’s famous epic The Aeneid, she prophecies Rome’s future and leads Aeneas through the underworld. Since her introduction in classical literature her portrait has been painted by both Raphael and Michelangelo (she’s the most prominent Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling below).
There are references to her scattered throughout Western literature. So she’s an awfully famous minor character. But, ya know, she’s been around for at least two millennia. She’s minor these days. I bet’cha that more people on earth are familiar with Kylie Jenner than with this tragically beautiful minor character.
Like most classical demigods, the Cumaean Sibyl has a dark backstory with many gruesome, symbolic details. Though given amazing, godlike powers of prophecy by Apollo, the sibyl does not love the sun god. In fact, they first met when she was young and she rejected his advances. She only assented once he promised to give her eternal life. It was only as the years went on and she grew older in the god’s service that she realized that he had gotten his revenge for her early rejection: eternal life, but not eternal youth.
The Sibyl of Cumae’s amazing strength and wisdom is engendered by years of hardship. As the priestess of Apollo, she must endure the “embrace” of Apollo with every prophetic trance. She cannot die, so she just gets older and older until finally she becomes a novelty worthy of the epigram of T.S. Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Wasteland”:
“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβνλλα τί ϴέλεις; respondebat illa: άπο ϴανεΐν ϴέλω.
“I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”
After years of prophesying, her body has broken down to dust. And still she lives, withered to nothing, caught in a bell jar, speaking truths.