I noticed something strange when I walked past Target’s toy aisle. It was dominated by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is not a criticism. As someone whose boyhood was in the 80’s and 90’s, I loved the Turtles. I watched every show, practiced every ninja move, and collected every action figure. A giant bin of them is still in a corner of my parents’ basement.
But that was nearly thirty years ago, and the Turtles are still popular. I would never have picked the Turtles as something that could endure to new generations. After all, they are a group of humanoid turtles who use karate to fight an army of robots in the sewers of Manhattan. They love pizza and skateboards and shell-based puns. How is this so lasting?
One possible reason for their staying power is their use of classical themes. Beneath the cartoon silliness is a story that has been repeated since Ancient Greece. This is especially evident in the most important relationship in the series: Leonardo and Raphael.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Turtles are four brothers: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. Their father/sensei is a talking rat named Master Splinter. Donatello is the nerdy tech-genius. Michelangelo is the funny goofball. But neither of them matter right now. The heart of the show is the relationship between Leonardo and Raphael.
Leonardo is the leader. Always obedient to Master Splinter, Leonardo is the epitome of discipline. He is responsible, cautious, and prudent. Donatello and Michelangelo look to him as their unquestioned guide.
Raphael is different. He is the rebel, and is always bristling at Leonardo’s commands. He is driven by fiery passion. Hard-headed and sure of his own cause, he is prone to rage and rash decisions. Although he is brawnier than Leonardo, he lacks his brother’s refined fighting skill.
Whether it is television, a movie, or a comic book, Leonardo and Raphael always butt heads. And their conflict usually follows the same story arch.
First, a danger emerges which threatens New York City. Only the Turtles can stop it. Leonardo and Raphael, however, disagree on how. Leonardo favors the way of caution, and follows Master Splinter’s warnings. Raphael, anxious to move right away, balks at Leonardo’s refusal to act. They argue, and perhaps have a brief fight without a clear winner. Enraged, Raphael storms away, vowing never to return. Undeterred, Leonardo and the others confront the danger, but get caught in unforeseen trouble. Raphael, meanwhile, comes to his senses and rejoins his brothers. Together again, Leonardo and Raphael team up to save the day.
This story arc was designed so hyperactive ten year olds could follow it. But the essential conflict—the responsible leader versus the fiery rebel—should strike a chord for those familiar with the Western canon. It goes back at least as far as Homer.
The Leonardo and Raphael characters are obvious from the first lines in Homer’s poems. The Iliad begins with “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, / murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, / hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…”. Achilles is Raphael. Though nominally at Agamemnon’s command, he chafes at the king’s orders. Like Raphael, his rage overtakes him after Patroclus’s death. Like Raphael, he abandons the war while feuding with his leaders. And like Raphael, he eventually returns for his side’s final victory.
The first lines of The Odyssey, however, reveal a different character: “Sing muse of Odysseus, the man of twists and turns.” Odysseus, the resourceful and patient hero behind these “twists and turns” is Leonardo. Though a king in his own right, he is obedient when called by Agamemnon. When Achilles storms away from the war, Odysseus goes to convince him to return. After Achilles drags Hector’s body around Troy, Odysseus plans the Trojan horse. And after his long journey home, he does not rashly attack Penelope’s suitors. Instead, he keeps his distance, adapts to the situation, and leads his son in their final plan.
Other examples are easy to find. Heroes throughout literature can be divided into Leonardo or Raphael. In Arthurian lore, the careful King Arthur is Leonardo as he tries keeping grasp of Camelot, while Lancelot is Raphael when letting his passion for Guinevere get the best of him. In Njal’s Saga from Iceland, the prudent lawyer Njal is Leonardo, while Gunnar, the burly warrior who cannot seem to follow Njal’s advice, is Raphael. They are even in works like The Chronicles of Narnia. Peter, with his leadership of the siblings and scolding of Edmund, is an obvious Leonardo. Edmund, with his sullen rebellion and abandoning of the family, is Raphael.
From that gloss, it might look like Leonardo is the better character. As an obedient boy, I know I always sided with Leonardo. On a certain level, this makes sense. It seems like society should favor the responsible over the headstrong.
But that conclusion misses the larger story. Yes, Raphael has his vices, and they are obvious. But Leonardo has his vices too. They are just more subtle. But they come to the foreground in the clearest Leonardo-Raphael dynamic in the Bible: the parable of the prodigal son.
The identities should be obvious. The younger brother—rebellious, impetuous, leaving the family for his own schemes—is Raphael. The older brother—obediently slaving at his father’s home—is Leonardo. At the start, the older brother is superior. While the younger brother squanders his inheritance in a foreign land, the older brother follows the rules. But then something happens to the younger brother: while he is in the foreign land, he “comes to his senses.” He admits he was wrong and returns home. Admitting an error is something that Leonardo struggles with.
For all their faults, Raphael characters will always return. Achilles returned to Troy, and even gave his life in the final conquest. Edmund left the Witch and returned to Aslan. And after Raphael storms away, he rejoins the Turtles for the last fight.
Leonardo characters have more trouble repenting for one simple reason: they do not think they have anything to repent of. When Edmund snuck away from the Pevensies to find the Witch, Peter simply thought it was good riddance, patted himself on the back, and carried on. When his father welcomed back his younger brother, the older brother was infuriated that his own rule-following didn’t merit a fattened calf. And when Raphael and Leonardo get into arguments, Leonardo can get really smug.
Before a fight scene in their movie “TMNT,” Leonardo berates Raphael along the usual lines. Raphael is reckless. Raphael is undisciplined. Raphael is foolish to even think he should be the leader instead. The reason, Leonardo explains, is because: “I’m better than you.”
That is the quintessential attitude of the older brother. When the older brother berated his father over the fattened calf, he showed his true intentions. Even though he went through the motions and did all the right things, he did not actually want the father’s love—he just wanted the father’s stuff. This, of course, was the same mistake that the younger brother repented of.
In the same way, Leonardo does all the right things. But his motives are skewed. He does not simply want to look out for his family and obey Master Splinter: he wants to be the best. And he wants Raphael to admit that he is the best.
The Leonardo and Raphael dynamic, then, is not as clear as it seems at first. Perhaps that is one reason why it is so enduring. Instead of a battle between the model citizen and the rebel, it is a battle between two characters with differing sets of virtues and vices. Leonardo’s virtue is his self-discipline, responsibility, and patience. Raphael’s is his passion, sense of justice, and readiness to admit mistakes. These virtues, however, are mirrored in their vices. Raphael’s vices are obvious—rage, impetuousness, and rebelliousness. Leonardo’s vices are more subtle—smugness, self-righteousness, and an internal blindness. But they are just as real.
Whether we are more of a Leonardo or a Raphael, it is a helpful thing to remember. It is also another reason to take a second trip down the toy aisle.