In Gavin Extence's The Universe Versus Alex Woods, teenager Alex is hit by a meteorite, an epileptic, and a victim of bullying. The reader never stops rooting for him. Here are 10 underdogs in literature, picked by Extence.
The opening shot of Star Wars: a small rebel spaceship passes overhead, pursued, a few moments later, by Darth Vader’s ‘Star Destroyer’, and – famously – the latter ship just keeps coming and coming. No words are spoken, but that first thirty-second shot gives us everything we need to know about the situation: the rebels are small and ill-equipped; the Empire is huge and terrifying. What’s more, this vast disparity in scale humanises what could otherwise be a rather cold and mechanical spectacle, and before a single character appears on screen, we already know which side we’re on.
The point, of course, is that everyone loves an underdog – and the archetypal underdog story goes right back to David versus Goliath and beyond. Nevertheless, this is one well-worn narrative device that has produced, and continues to produce, a wealth of unique and wonderful characters. So – from the obvious to the obscure, taking in the quirky, the unlikely and the morally questionable – here is my list of ten great literary underdogs.
1. Owen Meany, A Prayer for Owen Meany – Barely five foot tall, with a permanent high-pitched scream for a voice (rendered ENTIRELY IN CAPITALS), Owen Meany is my favorite underdog of all time – and possibly the unlikeliest hero in all of literature. Funny, tragic and completely adorable. If you’re not crying by the end of his story, you’re probably a psychopath.
2. Vernon Little, Vernon God Little – Little by name, and metaphorically little by circumstance. After being wrongly implicated in a shooting at his high school, and hounded by the media, Vernon does what any sane fifteen-year-old would do: heads for Mexico, gets drunk with the locals, and embarks upon a roadtrip in search of a Hollywood beach-hut paradise. As plans go, it’s not the best . . .
3. Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings – Despite his short stride, the indomitable Mr Baggins agrees to walk several thousand miles to throw a ring into a volcano (the cheerily named ‘Mount Doom’). Along the way he encounters blood-thirsty orcs, murderous wraiths and a giant spider. This is not a story that resonates closely with most of our day-to-day lives; it’s just a fantastic story with a fantastic underdog. To quote The Simpsons: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Or, in this case, hobbit.
4. Ron Weasley, The Harry Potter books – Originally, I had Harry Potter on the list – but bad glasses and erratic hormones aside, the Boy Who Lived actually has quite a lot going for him: he’s great at sports, magically gifted, generally revered in his community, and has a bank vault full of gold. Weasley, in contrast, has a shock of ginger hair, a hand-me-down rat, and a face (I imagine) that only a mother could love. He also has to grow up in the shadow of his famous best friend and five older brothers (Percy the prefect, Fred and George the class comedians, Bill the Banker and Charlie the dragon-tamer). Those are some tough acts to follow.
5. Pi, Life of Pi – A skinny, shipwrecked boy versus a 450lb tiger and the vast Pacific Ocean. I don’t think I need to say much more. My money’s on the boy.
6. Kilgore Trout, various Kurt Vonnegut novels – The sparrow-legged, out-of-print science fiction writer with an unfathomably endearing name. Reduced to selling his stories as ‘filler’ to pornographic magazines, Kurt Vonnegut’s recurring anti-hero could stand in for every human being who has tried and failed – but keeps on trying nonetheless. And there’s a beautiful pathos in that.
7. Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – In contrast to many on this list, Bromden is a giant of a man – who just happens to think of himself as a very small man. An apparent mute, of Native American descent, Bromden is confined to a mental institution and symbolises all of society’s downtrodden and powerless. So there aren’t many fictional endings as cathartic as his – when he rips up the nurses’ control panel, hurls it through the window and escapes into the great American wilderness. Just thinking about it makes me want to whoop.
8. Captain John Yossarian, Catch-22 – The perennial victim of Catch-22. In order to escape the horrors of World War Two, Yossarian has to request that the army’s psychiatrists discharge him on the grounds of insanity. The only problem is that any such request will be viewed as incontrovertible proof of his sanity, as you’d have to be insane not to make the request. After 500 pages of vicious circles, this is another book with an ending that is simply sublime.
9. Satan, Paradise Lost – Of course, there’s no reason why an underdog has to be an entirely sympathetic character. Yet neither is the Satan of Paradise Lost an entirely unsympathetic character. Fellow poet William Blake famously described Milton as being ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it’, and this pretty much hits the nail on the head. In Paradise Lost, Satan is recast as the flawed (quite deeply flawed) tragic hero, while God suffers the same dramatic problems as Superman: it’s difficult to engage emotionally with a being who is devoid of human frailty. Satan may not be the underdog we can all root for – he’s not Woody Allen – but he does, at least, have ambitions and failings and vulnerabilities we can relate to. ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’, he rasps from the fiery pit. If you’ve ever wanted to quit your well-paid office job and pursue your dream of becoming a novelist/stand-up comedian/circus performer, you can probably see where he’s coming from.
10. The Tortoise, "The Tortoise and the Hare" – As in "The Tortoise and the Hare", the greatest under-animal story ever told. A parable of cock-sure athletic prowess versus plodding determination. As a bit of a plodder myself, I could not be happier with the way this story turns out.