When you decide on a major quest in your life, everyone will tell you that you need friends to support you.

You don’t need friends. You need companions.

Nearly every person I know who has accomplished something great tells stories about the way their friends and family reacted to their ambitions at the beginning. It’s discouraging stuff, those stories. These people who claim to love us so deeply are often the ones who tell us to pack it in, go back to the day job, stop risking so much. They’re often the source of our deepest doubt, these people we love. They are the voice we hear in our heads when we are afraid.

They do not do this to hurt us. Your people want to keep you safe from harm and far away from anything that looks remotely dangerous. They are not the ones who will rally around you when you say you’re about to undertake the most difficult task of your life. They will talk you down, tell you you’re crazy, convince other people to hold you back bodily from walking out the door. They will do everything in their not-inconsiderable power to keep you at home by the fireside, eating three meals a day and closing the curtains when the sun goes down.

They will employ guilt and bribery, often at the same time. They will cajole and flatter. They will raise hell if opposed.

They will hold nothing back. They will have no conscience. To keep you from harm they will hurt you ruthlessly. This is the way we are made.

If you truly want to tackle something dangerous and difficult, you cannot rely on your friends or family. It goes against every fiber of their being to help you risk yourself.

This is why you need companions.

What Makes a Companion

It is not the companion’s job to prevent you from seeking out danger. It is the companion’s job to be there when danger hits.

Sancho was Don Quixote’s. Butch Cassidy had the Sundance Kid – in fact, few westerns were written without a companion to the protagonist. Other heroes had entire armies of companions: Finn mac Cumhail had the Fianna, Odysseus had his crew, Robin Hood his merry men.

Companions often love the hero, but their love rarely, if ever, interferes with allowing the hero to face down danger.

If friends and family exist to protect us from danger, companions exist to protect us from our lesser selves. A companion won’t prevent the hero from running head-on into battle, but he will prevent the hero from starting a battle for the wrong reasons. The companion doesn’t stand in the way when we tackle an impossible task, but he will step in if we allow frustration or anger to keep us from performing the task well. The companion is there to lend a hand, watch your back, patch up your wounds, restore your faith – but never to prevent you from needing any of these attentions.

A companion has faith that you can accomplish what needs to be done.

Companions Are Not Heroes

Companions live in the background. In some stories, the companion is never even given a name.

Companions lack ego. They have hitched their star to another person and they are willing to follow. This does not mean they are foolhardy – they will step in when the hero seems to be veering off the path – but they decided, long ago, that they were willing to walk behind someone who has a greater vision than they. They advise, and they may argue, but the final say is always the hero’s purview. Even if the companion disagrees, he will be there when the sun comes up, right where he’s supposed to be, behind the hero’s right shoulder.

Companions are often very smart, sometimes smarter than the hero is. They are often funny, in part because humor is a useful way to argue without arguing. They are not inferior the hero in any way, and may in fact be better at every individual task on the road. They simply lack vision. They cannot create their own quests. They are uncertain of their own ability to choose a worthy one. But they know a good one when they see it.

It is impossible to be a hero without someone at your back who has that kind of faith in you.

The biggest disservice ever done to a companion was the coining of the word sidekick. It turned the companion into comic relief, a goofy, clueless device through which the hero could monologue without looking like a crazy person. It automatically made the companion less than the hero, a dumbed-down mini-version. Batman’s Robin is a sidekick. You can’t take him seriously. He’s all bright colors and stupid one-liners, and he’s about half Batman’s size.

The Sundance Kid, now. He was a companion. He never made the plans – that was Butch’s job – but he was steadier, better with a gun, and got the girl. He was smarter, if less talkative. He was more reliable. He was, in just about every way, better than the hero – but he was the one who followed the plan, not the one who made it. The Sundance Kid was never less than Butch Cassidy. No companion should be less than the hero. They have different things to do.

The companion will only abandon the hero if the hero himself abandons his quest. Even the most foolish, absurd, comic-relief companions will abandon their hero if their basic morality is suspect. This is the tipping point for many a Disney villain – just before the final showdown, the villain invariably goes too far, and their faithful sidekick decides to take off.

When your companion loses faith in you, you have lost your center. It is the warning bell before the doom arrives. It is not uncommon for heroes to lose their sense of purpose. The companion is the moral compass, the guiding light.

Today’s Companions

Few, if any, business resources recommend anything like a companion. This is both peculiar and understandable – peculiar because I know of no successful person who does not have a companion, and understandable because no successful person I know would be able to admit how dependent they truly are on their companion.

They’re often executive assistants. Vice presidents. Secretaries. Advisors. They refer to themselves jokingly as seconds-in-command, right-hand men. They’re indispensible.

I’d never recommend to anyone to find a business partner. A partner implies an equal, someone who has the same amount of vision, presumably in a different direction. If their vision varies from yours even slightly, you no longer have a partner – you have an enemy. That’s what happens when two heroes’ visions clash. They need to separate and go on their separate quests. Business partners only work when one naturally takes the place of the leader – the hero – and the other naturally falls into the supporting role – the companion.

If neither of you knows which is the hero and which is the companion, the entire venture will fall apart.

If both of you know, it cannot fail.

Sir Gawain’s Dwarf

When I was a child, I had a gorgeously illustrated version of an Arthurian legend about Gawain called The Kitchen Knight. Gawain arrived at Arthur’s court with a companion, a dwarf who would ride out with him on his adventures throughout the book. There wasn’t a single picture plate in the story that didn’t feature the dwarf somewhere, yet he was never named and rarely spoken of. He ate at Gawain’s table, wore his colors, and carried his armor. He never had a line of dialogue.

This is his story.

Gawain had been at King Arthur’s court for a full year, and no one yet knew his name, for his first request of the king when he arrived was that no one would enquire. His second request was that he and his companion, the dwarf Cortney, would be allowed to work in the castle for that year to earn their bread and a place to sleep. Cort worked in the stables as a lad; he had taken care of Gawain’s horse for years and knew the trade. Gawain was sent to the kitchens, hauling buckets of scraps out to the pigs and bringing water to boil, passing by the jousting yard a dozen times a day. Cort stood in the door to the stables and watched him watching the knights, and shook his head. Gawain was the king’s nephew, and too proud to claim knighthood by nepotism. If Cort had been three feet taller and had an uncle who was a king, he would never had hesitated in taking his place at court, but Gawain had his ways. So Cort curried the horses and Gawain carried his buckets, and they waited for a chance for him to earn his spurs some other way.

The way turned out to be a lady. A very proud lady, with red hair, who would not give her name either. Cortney rolled his eyes. Mystery is all well and good, but when everyone insists on going anonymously it becomes more inconvenience than anything. Impossible to call them to dinner, for one. The lady said she requested the aid of one of Arthur’s knights to rescue her sister, who was being held against her will by the Red Knight, who apparently also lacked a Christian name. Cort didn’t like the looks of the lady, but he could feel Gawain tensing beside him and knew he’d be falling on his knees the moment she finished.

She would object, of course, but Arthur liked the lad and wanted him to become a knight one day. The year was up, and the wind had been right for some while. Cort went to saddle Gawain’s horse and his own squat pony, and to tell the lads not to stable the lady’s horse, for she would be riding out again soon.

Gawain emerged two steps behind the furious lady, who swung herself into the saddle and began to ride without a backwards glance. Cort handed the reins of Gawain’s horse to him and said, “That’s the one, is it?”

“Ay,” Gawain said, looking after her. “That’s the one.”

The dwarf glanced behind him and noted quietly, “Sir Kay’s here. Try not to kill him; the king likes him.”

Gawain did fight, and did not kill Kay, and was knighted for his trouble by Sir Lancelot himself. Cort had been keeping an eye on the horizon, and pointed their mounts after the path the lady had taken. They caught up to her before nightfall, and Cort wished they hadn’t. She spent the next two hours explaining to Gawain how offended she was that she should be given a kitchen boy for a champion. Gawain tried to assure her of his ability; Cort said nothing. By the time they came to an inn, Cort was glad the lady refused to eat with them. They had the innkeeper at their table, and Cort told the man how Gawain had beaten Kay, and they went to bed cheered.

The next day, they came to a knight dressed in black blocking their path. The lady sneered and told Gawain to turn back, and Cort silently handed him his armor and buckled on his shield. Gawain won the fight, and the lady, Cort was pleased to notice, had nothing much to say for several hours.

They came a field full of blue pavilions, and a tall man with a thousand fighters all dressed in blue, and a field cleared for combat. This time, the lady begged Gawain not to fight, fearing for his safety. They would turn back, she said, and they would return with several more of Arthur’s knights. Gawain said nothing, eyeing the tall man in the distance, and Cort answered for him. “He won’t, Milady. He doesn’t know how.”

“Doesn’t know how to turn back?”

“He promised you he’d rescue your sister. He can’t break the promise, and he won’t ask for help.” The lady stared at Cort. He added, by way of afterthought, “People give it to him, though. All the time.”

Gawain fought the blue knight and defeated them. They sat side by side in chairs brought out to the green, and Cort bound up Gawain’s wounds and some chit of a girl bound up the blue knight’s. The blue knight swore his allegiance to Gawain and offered him his army. Gawain told him he would ask for it if he could not convince the red knight to fight him honorably in single combat, and the two men shook hands and parted. The lady stood open-mouthed until Cort coughed pointedly behind her. It turned out the blue knight knew her. Her name was Linette, her sister’s Linesse.

Gawain revealed his own name and lineage. Cort noticed the lady liked him better when she found he was related to the king. He didn’t know why Gawain wouldn’t ever tell people right off. Save a lot of trouble and not a few insulting remarks. He never would, though. Cort knew that too.

The red knight, the lady said, was strongest at midday, and Cort wished she hadn’t said that. “Fight him when dusk is falling and he’ll be a less powerful force to reckon with,” she said. Cort sighed and went for the armor. Linette’s sister was watching from a high tower. He could see ribbons. When Gawain won, the girl would not see him. She told him to come back in the morning. Gawain was heartbroken. Cort tried to reason with him. Women can be that way. Ungrateful. Gawain sulked until he fell asleep by the fire. Cort poked the embers and didn’t quite register the noise behind him before he was bodily picked up and whisked away in someone’s saddlebag.

It was the lady. Cort had that figured halfway through his midnight ride, which is why he hadn’t knifed his way out of the saddlebag when the rider slowed to cross the river. Gawain would be looking for him, but he should see what the lady wanted. It was always possible she wanted Gawain.

She did.

The lady Linette talked with Cort all night, asking what manner of man his master was. Cort answered as best he could. The pride. The need to win. The need to pursue something greater than himself. The ordeals he put himself through – “more than he needs to, but he thinks he deserves it, for some reason” – and the way he had hidden his name from Arthur. Cort didn’t bother. He never had seen the point. Sometimes Gawain tried to be too noble for his own good.

It was morning before they were done, and Gawain had just regained the gates, angry and exhausted and hollering Cort’s name. The lady looked surprised, and looked down at Cort. “Does he prize you so highly, then?”

“I suppose,” Cort said. “Who else is going to tell people his name? You better let me go down. He’ll fight that knight of yours again in a minute.”

Gawain and Linette were married that very evening. Cort spent the night with a pretty-faced girl he danced with at the ceremony, and lay in bed awake. Tomorrow, it would be something new. Gawain would tell him. Meanwhile, he’d better get the horses ready.

Heroes Don’t Go It Alone

Being asked to accomplish something no one else has ever done is an immense burden. You need someone at your shoulder to know that you will do what you said you would do, and to lend a hand when you need one, and to check you when you stray. If we were completely infallible, we wouldn’t be human. We need someone at our side to catch us when we fall.

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There Are Three Portals. Choose Wisely

THE APOLOGUE: WHAT CAME BEFORE

I grew up believing in stories the way some believe in God.

Stories were how I learned what was good and what was wrong. They were how I discovered there was a greater purpose to one's life than simple, immediate pleasures. Stories taught me that there were always keys to all the doors, that there were always words that would grant safe passage.

Stories taught me that there was such a thing as a hero's life, and that it was the only one worth living.

Go on.

THE LETTER: VIGNETTES AND VARIATIONS

Between each story I think a lot. I scratch out drafts, change words, decide to tell it through someone else's eyes. Every morning, I write out a sketch of what I'm trying to grasp, and over time it's taken the form of a letter.

These letters are personal, unpolished, and precarious. They're also where you'll first hear about new unfurlings as I create them. If this all sounds like your brand of whiskey, tell me your name, and give me a place where letters of this sort can be received.

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