Note: The following contains spoilers from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Game of Thrones, and 24.
There’s an archetype that has been surfacing more recently in new movies and books, something I’ve been calling the “Marathon Archetype.” It’s seen popularity with the rise of franchises in movies, as well as dramatic television series with long, singular story arcs.
The image that always comes to mind is of one of my favorite scenes in The Lord of the Rings movies. In The Return of the King, there is a moment when the four hobbits have returned home to the Shire and are sitting at a bar, sipping on beers and enjoying the relaxation in one another’s company. I realize this moment was a departure from the books, but on its own it wound up being one of the most powerful, yet subtle moments of the movie adaptations.
The hobbits start out as the equivalent of those in their late teens or early twenties. Though they set out on their adventure in September and return just over a year later, they undoubtedly feel like they have experienced a lifetime’s worth of trauma and sorrow. They still inhabit the same bodies, but they feel much older for it.
And so as they sit there at the bar, among the singing, dancing and drinking of the other hobbits, they can’t do much more than sit among one another, nod and sip their beer. They are old men in young men’s bodies now, having just run the “marathon” of their lives.
Some move forward — Sam gets up and finally asks Rosie Cotton to dance. Merry and Pippin laugh. Frodo has a harder time, as many often do. All understand, to some degree, the weight each of them carries.
This archetype has become more popular as we have had more marathon type storytelling — franchises and TV shows are now structured more like books, with chapters sweeping over long periods of time. Provided the stories are good, we get to see character development on an epic scale.
As HBO’s Game of Thrones continues, you can see this archetype working through Jon Snow’s story arc. He retains his strong sense of ideology, but he is very clearly getting profoundly tired, episode after episode; he is still technically quite young, but his youth is long-gone. That doesn’t mean he is now cynical — the trope version of this archetype is your stereotypical transformation — a rehashed path into cynicism simply because your protagonist saw some bad things. There is a fine line between stereotypes and archetypes, but the difference is significant.
I grew up watching 24, where Kiefer Sutherland stars as CTU agent Jack Bauer. One scene always stuck out for me — at the end of a particularly harrowing season, Jack simply gets in his car and cries. There is no triggering event, and no one would accuse Jack Bauer of being overly sensitive or emotionally fragile. He’s just run yet another marathon of his life, and it bubbles through the cracks as it often does in our own lives.
And this is how, like any archetype, it speaks to the human condition. While we may not have the dramatic narratives of Game of Thrones or 24, we often feel as if we have run some sort of emotional marathon.
Veterans can attest to this — I remember sitting in my car on the day I got out of the Army. I was four deployments deep, had learned and seen things that will remain with me for the rest of my life; in a few years those experiences had been grafted within me and my soul just felt very, very tired. It’s something we all experience in one way or another, at some point in time.
And that’s how we relate to a few hobbits in Middle Earth, drinking beer at a bar.
Featured image courtesy of HBO; final image courtesy of New Line Cinema.