All boys yearn to be apprenticed to a master, to learn a craft, or a skill. They aspire to become a master themselves. When they do not see the point of learning a skill; when skills are lost on paperwork and tests; when there is a lack of adventure, purpose, and ultimate meaning to their work and activity, many become frustrated, angry, or worse, apathetic and lazy. When the spirit of a boy is squashed by an adult attitude towards work which is disconnected from larger purpose, he will become lost. He will seek out either the poor baubles of pleasure that leave him empty and fruitless, or he will find ways to vent the energy from within–often in destructive ways. Where is the sense of work as “gift” wherein man works for the betterment of others through the skills and talents he has mastered? He is called to be protector and provider, and yet in our culture, boys are not given a vision of true masculinity.
We have forsaken many of the paths boys have had throughout time to help them become masters. We have lost the culture of apprenticeship. Gone are the evocative words like journeyman, or aspirant–the one who is apprenticed to a master and learns a trade. I am not speaking here merely of the old medieval guilds, though they are a good example of work in the context of humane culture. One’s trade or craft can be hands-on craftsmanship, like woodworking or welding, or graphic design and sound recording, or it could be the writers craft, or the craft of public speaking.
Boys need to have apprenticeships. They need a master who can inspire them and lead them into a craft wherein their strengths will flourish. Unfortunately our school and work cultures are not always set up to provide for apprenticeships where boys can come to a better understanding of where their talents lie. And work is often not experienced in the context of faith, the family, and the common good of a society in which the young lad lives, moves, and relates with others. The grand narrative of the master and the apprentice is an important one in education. Where can we find inspiration to recapture this narrative of education and work?
I recently picked up a book which I believe captures the thrill of apprenticeship better than most books I have read. The story is an adventurous coming of age tale. The book is Ranger’s Apprentice written by John Flanagan. It is the story of Will, a ward of the King’s castle in a land called Araluen. He has dreams of becoming a warrior, but his slight stature bodes ill for these aspirations.
All the children in Araluen are chosen by craft masters to become apprentices. Some brawny boys are chosen to be apprenticed to the battle master. Will hopes for this, but he soon learns that his fate lies elsewhere, and little does he know the greatness that awaits him.
Standing in the shadows of the castle hall on the day of the choosing, is a Ranger. The Rangers are misunderstood by many people in the kingdom. They are a secret and elite corps. Their errands are hidden from the view of ordinary folk. They tend to slip into the shadows of forests, and then arrive on the scene of some injustice to set things aright. They are the eyes and ears of the king; they are incredible archers, warriors, and strategists. Some think they are sorcerers due to their uncanny ability to appear seemingly out of thin air. They live solitary lives in log cabins, and practice an asceticism akin to the hermits of old.
Will is tested by the Ranger standing in the shadows. The Ranger’s name is Halt. He is grim man, but noble, heroic, and greathearted. Though Will views the Rangers with the same suspicion that most folk hold, his attitude quickly changes as he begins a new life as a Ranger’s Apprentice. The narrative of Will’s epic journey is enthralling. I know boys, girls, men and women, who love these stories. I know one lad who loves them so much that he reads late into the night under the covers with a flashlight in hand–to the chagrin of his parents.
I believe that this book captures the adventure of apprenticeship and the quest for mastery. Will learns the truth about his skills and talents, but more importantly he learns true wisdom under the guidance of Halt. He learns how to be someone with a great heart, who dedicates his life to the service of the king and to others. i have not read many young adult books that capture the relationship between a master and an apprentice, between a boy and a man, like this one. The character development is excellent, especially in the first four books. The narrative tends to weaken a bit in book five, but the story is still compelling, and the adventure continues with tales of friendship, heroism, and chivalry.
In some ways, the Riverside Rangers aspire to be like the Rangers in this book: generous, courageous, great hearted, close to nature, and loyal to the true King. Riverside definitely puts Ranger’s Apprentice high on the list. And we will continue to have our archery tournaments to test our Rangers’ skills!