Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Henry Standing Bear Stands in the Fine Literary Tradition of Loyal and Clever Sidekick

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. She also writes for

One of Craig Johnson’s finest character creations--his strength as a writer, in my opinion--is Henry Standing Bear, first introduced in Cold Dish, Johnson’s first book in the Walt Longmire series. Henry is among good company as the shaman, explained last week. He is also a classic sidekick.

One of the earliest sidekicks is Horatio, Hamlet’s school friend, so renowned as a scholar that Elsinore’s guards trust him to explain why the kingdom is preparing for war and what ghosts signify. Hamlet trusts him as well. To Horatio, Hamlet reveals his suspicions about Claudius, the disgust he feels for Gertrude, and his readiness to fight even if it means his own death. From Horatio, the English ambassadors and invading Fortinbras learn about Hamlet’s anguish. It is Horatio’s tribute that defines Hamlet as a tragic hero.

The Western literary and film tradition is flush with sidekicks although many are far from clever. On film and TV, bumbling figures portrayed by Gabby Hayes or Andy Devine accompanied Roy Rogers, the more talented problem-solver and cowboy.

Butch Cassidy enjoyed the Sundance Kid’s loyalty and help, but Sundance, unlike Roy’s bumbling sidekicks, was as smart and talented as Butch. He just applied himself differently.

True Grit’s charm and appeal is in part due to the unusual sidekick--an adolescent girl matched with an aging blowhard. They are loyal to each other, and they are matched well. Each is intelligent and brave.

Sidekicks both loyal and intelligent
Photo taken in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Henry Standing Bear is not only loyal as Walt Longmire’s sidekick, he is also a keen mind upon whom Longmire relies. Henry’s observations about folks in Absaroka county and the admiration he’s earned through acts of generosity and kindness set him apart as heroic in his own right. He acts independently for good and occasionally outside the law, but he’s ready to accept the consequences of his acts if asking for forgiveness is not enough.

When Longmire acts in his official capacity as sheriff, Henry assumes a subservient role, helping Walt as he can. On the other hand, when the men interact on a personal level, Henry might be judged the one in charge. To that extent, Henry is unlike other sidekicks, notably Sancho Panza, a gullible but fiercely loyal friend to Don Quixote; Friday, a figure from the eighteenth-century’s colonial story, Robinson Crusoe; and Tonto in the television version of The Lone Ranger.

Henry Standing Bear is too much his own man to be Friday, too smart to be Sancho Panza, and too proud of his heritage to be Tonto. Henry is a friend as loyal as Watson is to Sherlock or Ron and Hermione are to Harry. He is as scholarly and refined as Horatio, a man to be admired, a man to call friend.

Reading Challenge:

Read any and all of the works cited as illustrations for literary sidekicks.

Writing Challenge:

Identify your favorite sidekick and explain why.