Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1486

The Guardian of Isis is the story of a young boy whose courage, determination, and self-reliance enable him to overcome formidable obstacles and begin to become a man. From the beginning, Jody senses the importance of self-discipline; in training himself to scale the Cascades, he is exercising a kind of...

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The Guardian of Isis is the story of a young boy whose courage, determination, and self-reliance enable him to overcome formidable obstacles and begin to become a man. From the beginning, Jody senses the importance of self-discipline; in training himself to scale the Cascades, he is exercising a kind of self-discipline. He must learn to exercise that same kind of self-control in his words and actions. He must learn the duty he owes his fellow colonists, to accept responsibility for their welfare as well as his own. He must learn when to value the wisdom of his elders and when to insist upon obtaining the knowledge necessary to adapt to new situations. In addition, he must learn to be patient with the ignorance and slow progress of his society. Jody considers his return to the surface— after he has planted the dynamite— a rebirth, but in fact the entire adventure is essentially this boy's rebirth into maturity.

A secondary theme is Jody's role as a misfit isolated by his insistence upon truth instead of myth and rationality instead of conformity. Jody's independence brings him into conflict with the colony's laws. Circumstances and his own reactions force him to make a series of decisions, most of which test the limits of his physical courage, and all of which help to define his character.

Another significant theme, although one less overtly developed, is the corrupting effects of pride, ambition, and bitterness. Mark London's bitter hatred causes him to continue living in the past, a mistake which Olwen has not made. He rejected her because his pride would not allow him to love a woman whose physical appearance does not conform to the colonists' standards. He lied about her treatment of him because the story he told made him seem heroic to the other settlers. His enduring bitterness toward her is the culmination of a series of deceits which began with Guardian's well-intentioned insistence that Olwen mask her actual appearance. This cycle of falsehood is not broken until Jody learns the truth about Olwen and so can begin to restore her reputation.

A striking contrast to London's hatred of Olwen is Guardian's devotion to her. Although initially he was merely a robot programmed to raise the five-year-old child, Guardian has fully accepted this responsibility, and he has been humanized by his concern for Olwen's welfare. In this respect he differs markedly from Jody's grandfather, who has used illness and rejection as excuses to withdraw from the struggle to show his fellow citizens the truth.

The novel's protagonist, Jody N'Kumo, is the youngest Third (third generation of the settlers) and a grandson of the youngest First, with whom he shares not only a name, but personality traits and physical appearance as well. He is of east African ancestry. Because Hughes relates the entire experience from Jody's point of view, the emphasis is upon his personality rather than his appearance. Jody seems to be always in trouble, probably because he does not automatically accept the traditions of the settlement. Instead he thinks for himself, and he readily says what he thinks. An observant and logical person, he frequently questions the community's rules, and he openly expresses his disagreement with them. He particularly violates the ban on inventing devices to make work more efficient, and he intends to defy the taboo against leaving the valley where the settlement is located. Jody knows that his independent nature makes him unpopular, and he realizes he is especially disliked by Mark London, the virtual dictator of the settlement and a brother of Jody's deceased grandmother, Carrie.

On the other hand, because the other settlers treat him almost as an outsider, Jody has developed a remarkable degree of self-reliance and persistence. Since he wants to explore the taboo parts of the planet, he is conditioning his body by climbing a little farther up the Cascades each day. That training enable him to survive his mission to the interior of Isis.

Olwen Pendennis, the Keeper of the Isis Light on Lighthouse Mesa, now lives in the Bamboo Valley, deep in the interior highlands of the planet, but originally she and Guardian lived in Cascade Valley, the only part of the planet where humans can survive without life-support equipment. Having never experienced human contact prior to the arrival of Pegasus Two, Olwen was unprepared to deal with the settlers, and especially with a young man only a year older than she. Even though Guardian insisted that in the settlers' presence she always wear an opaque mask and a spacesuit covering her entire body, Olwen did not anticipate their rejection of her.

Olwen's physical appearance is more reptilian than human; Guardian has altered her body to enable her to survive in Isis's hostile atmosphere. Her broad, unlined face with its wide nostrils and thick lips is very much like Jody's, but she blinks like a reptile, her nails are curved like claws, her "deep and iridescent bronzy-green" skin is scaly, and her forehead is "strangely shaped and bumpy." In contrast her long, thick, wavy silver hair is beautiful. Even more beautiful are her "brilliantly deeply blue" eyes which to Jody seem to be "more beautiful, intelligent, more alive than the eyes of any person or creature he had ever seen." Her eyes reveal Olwen's human origins.

Olwen possesses the technology which the settlers have likewise rejected, possibly because of the terrible conditions they left behind on Earth. Once full of anger and impatience, Olwen has learned forgiveness and patience. Repeatedly she has tried to help the colonists and to warn them of dangers, but each time the colonists have failed to hear or to understand her message, instead regarding her as a witch-like enemy. While London's lies were the primary source of this fear and hostility, Olwen is too wise and too generous to place the entire blame upon him; she insists she too was partly to blame because she misled him by concealing her true appearance. Forgiving the settlers' rejection, she remains eager to help the colony.

Initially Guardian was Dacop 43, merely a data collector and processor, but Olwen's dying mother reprogrammed him to care for her five-year-old daughter. Like the computer in Hughes's The Tomorrow City, Guardian has made logical changes in Olwen's appearance; however, lacking human emotions, Guardian cannot anticipate the settlers' reaction to her. Given his general appearance—"immensely tall, limned with silver-gold light" and his crystalline eyes—it is not surprising that the settlers worship him as much as they fear Olwen. During his long association with Olwen and observation of the colony, Guardian has learned much about human nature. It is he who tells Jody the truth about the early days of the colony and explains why only Jody can plant the dynamite to save the settlers. Guardian also eases Jody's fear by showing the young man that this adventure is essentially a rite of passage: had the N'Kumo people remained in East Africa on the planet Earth, by the time he was twelve Jody would have been a lion-killer and so would have faced death and conquered fear.

Guardian, as Hughes's spokesman, emphasizes the theme that life is a series of infinite choices, provided that the individual's mind is free. He reassuringly prophesies that eventually leadership of the colony will pass to the person with the "boldest, clearest vision." Thus, he insists that Jody's role in saving the settlers must not be known to any of them; this secrecy will reduce the chance that Jody will fall prey to London's pride and sense of personal superiority. Moreover, as Guardian wisely observes, the facts that Jody can reveal, that he has been to the top of Isis, spoken to the Shining One, and faced That Old Woman, these should be enough, because the re-education of the settlers must be a gradual process.

A physically impressive old man with shoulder-length white hair and a glistening beard, Mark London has gained political control of the colony, primarily because of the myth which has developed from accounts of his youthful adventures. Once, near the Beginning Time, London left the valley and climbed to the forbidden mesa known as Lighthouse Mesa. There he encountered The Ugly One (now called That Old Woman) with her equally fierce and evil beast, but his life was saved by The Guardian of Isis, also known as the Shining One. As Jody eventually discovers, London has never told the entire story of his relationship with Olwen, whom he has caused the colonists to equate with evil and death. Pride and resentment have hardened London, causing him to hate both Olwen and the elder Jody, who as a young boy followed London to the mesa, met Olwen, and was the one actually rescued by Guardian. Moreover, London's inability to accept people different from himself extends also to those of other races; certainly he seems to resent his sister's marriage to the elder Jody.

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