A Case Study on Courage as a Literary Theme

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Whether we call it bravery or courage, today’s subject is defined as “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.” It allows us to find the moral or mental strength to face our fears and make unthinkable choices. An admirable trait, indeed – and one that’s often reflected at a higher level.

In this edition of Theme: A Story’s Soul, we’ll analyze how courage is used as a literary theme in two different books. See how the examples below demonstrate a character’s might, mettle, or lack thereof, and consider how you might be able to explore courage in your own stories.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Sorcerer's_Stone coverExamples of Courage as a Theme in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (MG Fantasy)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone follows the first year of the beloved boy wizard’s education at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It also shows Harry learning more about his deceased parents, the dark lord Voldemort, and what it means to be brave.

Raised by neglectful relatives, Harry already knows how to stand up for himself. So, it doesn’t take him long to start defending his friends at Hogwarts. When a mountain troll breaks into the school and threatens Harry’s classmate Hermoine, Harry jumps onto the troll’s neck to distract him – an act described as “very brave and very stupid.” (176) In other words, courage doesn’t equate to logic or common sense. It requires one to act first and think later – and in Harry’s case, it may mean putting yourself in danger for someone else’s sake.

Neville Longbottom is also a great example of courage – though at first, it’s hard to look past his clumsiness and timidity. His classmates encourage him to speak up against his bullies. In fact, Harry’s best friend Ron Weasley tells Neville at one point, “[Malfoy’s] used to walking all over people, but that’s no reason to lie down in front of him and make it easier.” (218)

Surprisingly, when Nevile finally makes such a stand, it’s to Harry, Ron, and Hermoine – his friends – as he catches them sneaking out at night: “Don’t you call me an idiot! I don’t think you should be breaking any more rules! And you were the one who told me to stand up to people!” (272). Neville doesn’t take on a troll like Harry does, but confronting one’s friends is no small feat. He proves that all kinds of courage exist, from epic and heroic deeds, to smaller acts we benefit from personally.

Nightingale coverExamples of Courage as a Theme in Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale (Historical Fiction)

In Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, two adult sisters face the unfathomable when Germany invades France during World War II. Vianne is forced to let a Nazi soldier billet at her home, while Isabelle joins her country’s Resistance movement. Despite their drastically different paths, they both demonstrate – and learn about – the many faces of courage.

Outspoken and impulsive, Isabelle tends to act before she thinks. When she volunteers to guide Allied soldiers out of France to evade capture by the Germans, her Resistance colleagues warn her to “[p]ut your impetuousness aside” and consider the consequences if she were caught (193). However, this excerpt from a conversation between Isabelle and a British RAF pilot she rescues shows that courage is often in the eye of the beholder:

“You are very brave,” he said softly.

“Or foolish,” she said, unsure of which was more true. “I have often heard I’m impetuous and unruly. I imagine I will hear it from my friends tomorrow.”

“Well, miss, you won’t hear anything but brave from me.” (189)

Vianne also exhibits her own kind of courage. A mother and teacher, she never hesitates to put others first. She feeds her daughter most of their food rations (226) and saves some for her Jewish friend Rachel (252). Later, she leads an effort with a local orphanage to rescue Jewish children from deportation – but not without coaxing. Because for all her acts of courage, Vianne doesn’t view herself as courageous. When other characters tell her she’s brave or strong, her response is often, “Believe me, I am not a brave woman.” (336) Her self-perception shows that people who act courageously often don’t see themselves that way.

The sisters also experience their share of fear – bravery’s opposite – during The Nightingale. War especially worries Vianne, since it brings back memories of starvation, sadness, and her father’s psychological decline after he returned home from World War I (11). Isabelle also admits her fears to herself before her first rescue mission into Spain: “She wanted to feel brave – Edith Cavell risking her life – but here, in this train station patrolled by German soldiers, she was scared.” (200) In other words, doing what we think is right doesn’t mean we’re fearless.

Keys to Exploring Courage as a Literary Theme

What did you notice in the excerpts from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Nightingale? Did you discover differences and similarities about how each book examined courage as a literary theme? Here’s what I found:

  • Dangerous Conflicts: Both books place their protagonists in perilous situations that force them to take action. For Harry Potter, this means confronting mythical creatures as well as his greatest enemy. For Vianne and Isabelle, it means braving the myriad dangers of war.
  • Different Types of Courage: Some acts of courage can be great or heroic, like Harry distracting a troll or Isabelle guiding Allied soldiers out of enemy territory. Others, such as Neville standing up to his friends, are personal boosts of confidence. Whatever the act’s magnitude or impact, courage allows characters to do what they’ve never dared to do before.
  • Fear versus Bravery: In our case study on trust, we saw how trust’s opposite emotions (mistrust, suspicion) provide necessary contrast to emphasize the theme. The same goes for fear and courage (see The Nightingale). Just because we show courage doesn’t mean we’re not afraid.
  • The Protagonist’s Self-Perception: As Vianne shows in The Nightingale, people who act bravely or heroically often don’t view themselves that way. Watch news clips of real people who are recognized for acts of heroism. How do those people respond?
  • Other Character’s Perceptions: Supporting characters in both books sometimes call the protagonist’s actions “stupid,” “dangerous,” or “impulsive.” Consider those characters’ worldviews, life experiences, or relationship with the protagonist, and how those aspects might influence their unique perspectives.

If you think about it, courage is essential to storytelling. It allows our protagonists to confront their fears and persevere despite the circumstances. If they don’t, their goals will slip out of reach, and the things and people they cherish most could be lost forever. Remember our working definition of “theme,” though. A concept can only be a theme if it appears repeatedly throughout a story. Using novel-writing elements such as plot, dialogue, and mirror characters can cultivate courage into a fully blossomed literary theme – and help you create a truly compelling story.

It’s Your Turn!

  • What stories have you read that highlight courage as a literary theme? How does the author accomplish this?
  • What makes bravery such an enduring character trait or storytelling element? How would your story be different if your character gave in to fear?
  • Think of a courageous person from your personal life. How have they demonstrated courage in the past or present?

What topics would you like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.


Sara Letourneau 1 croppedSara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing a fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a guest contributor for Grub Street Daily. She’s also a published poet whose works have appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

  • sjhigbee

    A really good article, Sara – and you’re right, courage is a mainstay of books and stories in all sorts of types. I suppose because I have just finished reading it, I’m thinking of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Miles is born severely compromised due to an attack on his mother when she is pregnant with him. He suffers with brittle bones, stunted growth, developmental problems and severe epilepsy. Dire enough to deal with under any circumstance, but in a warrior culture where his parents were under pressure to expose him as sub-standard, he is constantly attacked and belittled all through his childhood – even his grandfather would rather he’d been killed at birth… So he grows up insanely driven to prove himself and throws himself into all sorts of dangerous situations to prove to himself and everyone around him that he was entitled to exist. His tall, perfectly formed cousin demonstrates another form of courage – when everyone else is ganging up on little Miles, Ivan cuts himself off from the possiblity of being the most popular boy in the academy by siding with Miles.
    And his mother has to demonstate another form of courage, just as testing. She has to refrain from stopping him, or pick up the pieces when he inevitably breaks more bones, or becomes seriously sick. And in this latest book, now she is no longer wholly responsible for Miles, she needs to consider how she will spend the last quarter of her life – which takes yet another form of courage…

    • Sara Letourneau

      Wow. That’s an excellent example of a book about courage, Sarah. And you make a great point that people’s courage will be tested all throughout their life, including transitioning from stage in life to the next (like what Miles’ mother seems to be going through). Thanks for sharing!

  • This is a really neat discussion! I think bravery is a resounding theme in the Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey. It takes Bilbo a while to find his courage.


    • Sara Letourneau

      Yes! The Hobbit is another good example. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in general is a good source of stories about courage.

      Thanks for commenting, Tori!

  • I think it was courage and bravery in Lord of the Rings that first really drew me into the story. The bravery of four small hobbits on a quest to save the world.
    It’s an important theme to focus on while writing, I agree. And one that can be easily overlooked or poorly done.
    Great article, Sara. I especially liked the Harry Potter examples, and Neville.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Absolutely! LOTR is an amazing example of the theme of courage, because so many characters practices different forms of it. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, E.!

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