Entry 111: Sidekick– What do Porky Pig, Tonto and Dr Watson have in common? The entry title gives it away, I guess. They’re all the sidekick to the protagonist they support: Daffy Duck, The Lone Ranger and Sherlock Holmes respectively. Defined by Wikipedia as a close companion or colleague (not necessarily in fiction) who is actually, or generally regarded as, subordinate to the one he accompanies, the sidekick has a special place in our hearts.
By asking questions of the hero, or giving the hero someone to talk to, the sidekick provides an opportunity for the author to provide exposition, thereby filling the same role as a Greek chorus. Sidekicks frequently serve as an emotional connection, especially when the hero is depicted as detached and distant, traits which might make it difficult to like the hero.
Of course, every hero needs the opposition of a villainous antagonist. The villain often mirrors the hero by also having a secondary accomplice. But these are not dignified by the label, sidekick.
A villain‘s supporters are normally called henchmen, minions, or lackeys, not sidekicks. While this is partially a convention in terminology, it also reflects that few villains are capable of bonds of friendship and loyalty, which are normal in the relationship between a hero and sidekick. This may also be due to the different roles in fiction of the protagonist and the antagonist: whereas a sidekick is a relatively important character due to his or her proximity to the protagonist, and so will likely be a developed character, the role of a henchman is to act as cannon-fodder for the hero and his sidekick. As a result, henchmen tend to be anonymous, disposable characters, existing for the sole purpose of illustrating the protagonists’ prowess as they defeat them.
This truth can be amply demonstrated by viewing Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy and even more so, The Hobbit films: how many orcs, goblins and assorted ghoulish monsters perish under the axes, swords and spells of Tolkien’s heroes. Far too many to adequately sustain suspension of disbelief, in my experience. I remember not playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid in Aruba because no one wanted to be one of the Indians, fated to lose every encounter; so we were each our own hero, pe-yoo, pe-yooing mouth salvos as we invariably avoided the fatal bullet, conceding only wounds to the left shoulder, leaving our deadly right-hand fully functioning into the descending dusk or until some other diversion attracted our attention.
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,/Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;/ Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,/ He was as fressh as is the monthe of May. This is The Squire, from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, and he is my ideal for the youthful sidekick. Nameless, he shines from the fourteenth century as a template of the type, Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde./ He koude songes make, and wel endite,/ Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write./ So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale/ He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale./ Not only was he passionate and accomplished in all the knightly arts, but humility and loyalty were also part of his repertoire, Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,/ And carf biforn his fader at the table.
Now past the mid-point of my sixties, it is futile to aspire to this template and so I must look to a more mature example of the species. Perhaps Sancho Panza, the sidekick of Don Quixote may serve. Panza means paunch in Spanish, so this bit fits. The online Britannica notes that his gross appetite, common sense, and vulgar wit serve as a foil to the mad idealism of his master. This, too, induces sparks of recognition but in the end fails to start a fire.
Ultimately, perhaps, there is no single template that will do because so many of us are, in fact, only sidekicks within our own narrative. To aspire to be a named sidekick outside of our own story is too lofty an ambition for most: who would be so big-headed as to compare themselves to Sam Gamgee? Robin, The Boy Wonder? Or even, Donkey from Shrek? Some may find an image of themselves in the poem Sidekicks, by American poet, Ronald Koertge,
They were never handsome and often came/with a hormone imbalance manifested by corpulence,/a yodel of a voice or ears big as kidneys.
Of course, as we all know, the most important attributes are not those of physicality but those of character, as the poem makes clear,
But each was brave. More than once a sidekick/has thrown himself in front of our hero in order/to receive the bullet or blow meant for that/perfect face and body.
In this song, stanza one looks at the home life of the sidekick and stanza two takes the longer view, while the coda emphasises their essential equality…where not even heroes get to go to heaven.