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Characters That inspire: Arthur Dent from 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

July 27, 2022
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
5 min read time

Which characters inspire your writing? Nottingham-based screenwriter, filmmaker and festival programmer Sam Kurd shares a special kinship with a great literary character and their archetype.

 

Arthur Dent, "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy"

"Douglas Adams’ incredible sci-fi story has been through a number of incarnations, from a BBC radio series in the 70s to a series of novels, a TV show, and a movie. There’s also a continuation by Eoin Colfer but I still haven’t read that one yet!” Kurd exclaims.

“It follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, the hapless every-(white middle-class!)-man the protagonist of "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy." He discovers his house is about to be demolished to make way for a new road, shortly before the Earth itself is demolished to make way for a new intergalactic road. Arthur escapes with the help of his friend Ford Prefect, who it turns out is an undercover alien and a freelance contributor to the titular interstellar travel guide. Soon Arthur finds himself zipping around the galaxy, completely unable to find a decent cup of tea anywhere. Wackiness and dry surreal humor ensue.”

 

How Our Relation to a Character Shapes Our Lives

Kurd’s love for the character comes from a parallel personal storyline.

“I’m mixed race, born to an English mother and a Palestinian father. We moved to Jordan when I was around 6 or 7… and I was miserable. I couldn’t seem to learn Arabic fast enough, and I had a lot of trouble making friends. Kids (and even some teachers) seemed to bear a grudge against me for having an English mother – British Colonialism had left some ugly scars, to be fair to them. So, lonely and bullied, and increasingly withdrawn, I turned my back on my Arab roots and the culture around me and focused on my English side. And soon I discovered the books that would be instrumental in developing my sense of humor and Englishness.”

“Arthur Dent was one of the first characters who ever spoke to me,” Kurd continues, “because he was everything I was looking for, mixed with everything I felt I was. He was a perfectly ordinary middle-class Englishman, who embodied perfectly ordinary middle-class ideas, happy to go about his perfectly ordinary life – until he was suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world, one he could barely make sense of. He was a fish out of the water, just like me, and an unlikely hero. Dressed only in his pajamas and dressing gown, he traveled the universe and got to meet weird and wonderful characters - without actually doing very much.”

 

How Plot Plays into Character

Some would say that Arthur Dent is a passive character, having to deal with it all as it comes.

“Arthur isn’t a typical protagonist because "Hitchhiker’s" isn’t a typical story. He’s a very passive protagonist, at least when it comes to the story. He’s dragged from pillar to post, befuddled and bumbling, because the universe doesn’t make sense to him, and its dangers aren’t always obvious. He’s not typical Hero material, especially not in the Sci-fi Action Hero mold. When thrust into awkward spots (like being subjected to a Vogon poetry recital), he uses his wits and thinks on his feet. Failure is always a very real option. The man can’t even get a decent cup of tea in space!” 

“He never really gets to grip with the universe and all its strangeness, despite his friends’ explanations and help. He also doesn’t ‘get the girl’… more or less. He tries to pursue Trillian, to the point of getting surprisingly macho in the third book, but she’s just not into him. When he does find romance, it ends tragically. Even finding a parallel Earth doesn’t work out. Arthur Dent just can’t catch a break. He’s kind and decent, always horrified by causal callousness that the other characters had become jaded to. Adams’ universe is a kind of comic cosmic nightmare, a cold unfeeling world where there’s no higher power and nothing matters... so you’ve got to laugh, right? Arthur doesn’t laugh, he gets mad and tries to change things, even though it’s ultimately futile. He may make mistakes and he may just be clinging on to his sense of reality by his fingernails, but he doesn’t get ground down by it.”

“That being said, Arthur’s biggest flaw is his rigidity, his inability to adapt. He was so used to his life being a certain way, that when faced with monumental change it takes him a very long time to come to terms with his new world. Granted, he’s just had his house and planet demolished on the same day and that’s a lot to take in, but he doesn’t seem to start finding his feet in the universe until about four books in.”

 

The Archetype

On the Jungian Character Archetype, Arthur’s mostly the Everyman (mixed with a dollop of the Innocent, I think). He craves order, he longs for a return to the lost status quo. He just wants a decent cup of tea and for the universe to stop being so bonkers for five minutes if you please. He certainly never would have chosen the adventure, he’s not the adventuring type, not at first. Even when he’s set off on his own in search of the meaning of life, he’s much happier settling down and being a simple Sandwich Maker in a simple quiet society.”

And where does Kurd feel he falls in the Character Archetype? “I’m not sure that people are simple enough to be slotted into the character archetypes, because the real world doesn’t run by stories' rules. And by virtue of that extremely boring answer, I may have shown myself to be The Everyman! I do see strong elements of The Caregiver in me, though, or at least that’s what I aspire to be, inasmuch as anyone can fit an archetype.”

Kurd can’t see the character being expanded on much.

“I don’t know how much more there would be to know, to be honest. I’ve resisted reading the continuation book for so long, simply because of how much the original books and radio show meant to me growing up. I suppose there’s always room in the universe for more hi-jinks, but for me Arthur Dent represents a very particular kind of middle-class Englishman whose stories are kind of played out. I’d prefer to see original stories in a universe just as kooky and out-there, like Cat Valente’s novel ‘Space Opera’. Now there’s a hoopy frood who knows where her towel is."

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