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submariner's avatar

Why are the English so sentimental about old men?

Asked by submariner (4160points) March 19th, 2013

Grandfathers or other old men frequently appear as figures of pathos in English art. Examples of this range from Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” to R. Dahl’s Willie Wonka books. This does not seem to be as common in American or other European art. What accounts for this?

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11 Answers

Aesthetic_Mess's avatar

Hmm, you kind of threw me off with the “figures of pathos”. Maybe some sort of respect for elderly men who have been through much hardship?

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Maybe because they lost so many men in the wars, and they don’t have a huge population anyways, they value life more than some other countries?

thorninmud's avatar

The war generations displayed amazing character. There has undoubtedly been some mythologizing along the way, but Brits seem genuinely proud of the way their forefathers handled the privations and horrors. Maybe the old men are the living links to that sense of honor.

OpryLeigh's avatar

I have never thought about this but now you mention it, I am English and quite sentimental about old men. In fact, just today, the best stranger I saw was an old man wearing a Winnie the Pooh scarf. Kids wear Winnie the Pooh clothing all the time but the old man melted my heart far more than a kid would!

submariner's avatar

Some more examples:

Tolkien: Gandalf, and Sam’s concern over his Gaffer.
The Beatles: the grandfather character in the film Help.
Benny Hill: Jackie Wright’s character (the little old man that Benny was always patting on the head).
Pink Floyd: “And so for the price / Of tea and a slice / The old man died.”
John Boorman: Grandfather George in Hope and Glory.

It almost seems that English artists use old men to evoke a range of emotions for which American artists might sooner use dogs. Maybe that’s just further evidence that Americans do not hold the elderly in sufficiently high regard.

The above are all 20th c. examples, but I’m not sure the wars can explain it. Old men don’t appear this way in Russian art, as far as I know (think of the grandfather in “Peter and the Wolf”—not the same at all). Also, Tolkien was a WWI vet, so I think he was drawing on cultural attitudes that predate the world wars.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

Because their prototypical old man has always been C. Aubrey Smith ? You gotta love that face.

thorninmud's avatar

@submariner The “Wise Old Man” is one of the Jungian archetypes, so the appearance of an old man—often with magical powers—in art is often consciously intended to evoke that archetype. And as such, it has wide cross-cultural currency. Think of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda in Star Wars, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Master Po in the old Kung Fu series. Tolkien was, I think, looking to tap that deeper archetypal meaning rather than expressing a particularly English partiality.

Could it be that the fondness for your old men comes from seeing in them something that resonates with this archetype? Maybe a sense that they’ve battled the forces of evil and prevailed; that they represent the best in you.

Here in the US, I think we’re just as enchanted by the Old Man archetype, but we have less inclination to see it in our actual elders.

SamandMax's avatar

@thorninthemud Hmm…I liked the reference to Jungian terminology. Symbolically, in the Tarot, old men are depicted as Kings, or Magicians or High Priests. GA.

I think the answers pertaining to the war/s are perhaps the closest to the mark – but I wonder if the elderly in general will be perceived in the same light in future generations – I doubt it.

Pachy's avatar

Great comments above to which I can add nothing, but now I know why I’ve always wanted to move to England.

Aesthetic_Mess's avatar

@Pachyderm_In_The_Room I want to move to England too!

submariner's avatar

@thorninmud That’s interesting—I hesitated to put Gandalf on the list, feeling somehow that he might be in a different category, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I can certainly see how he exemplifies the Jungian archetype of the “Wise Old Man”, now that you’ve reminded me of it. I think the others are different, though. They exemplify the archetype of the “Codger”. I don’t know if this figure is universal or specific to the English, but nobody does it better than they do.

[Edit: Maybe Grandfather George from Hope and Glory and Grampa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are both.]

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