When you're a "meek" (8.70), kind of small, twenty-nine-year-old dude and your long-term girlfriend has nicknamed you "Mole" (2.5), you might not be used to thinking of yourself as the hero of a modern-day romance.
That's certainly true of Roland Mitchell, who doesn't spend much time imaging himself as anything other than what he is: a barely-employed postdoctoral researcher and part-time instructor whose career prospects seem pretty slim, and who feels trapped in an inescapable relationship with his girlfriend of eleven years.
He's really living the life, huh?
And yet, somehow, Roland does find himself playing the role of a modern-day knight in Possession, and by the end of his "quest," he finds himself with four good job offers, a much more compatible partner, and a brand-new sense of his own artistic talents. Who says nice guys have to finish last?
"Roland" might not sound like a particularly heroic name, but it actually has a long history of associations with knighthood. Roland is the name of hero of the twelfth-century French epic poem La Chanson de Roland, and that same Roland is the inspiration for the sixteenth-century Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso (Orlando is Italian for Roland. The more you know.)
A knight named Roland is also the hero of Robert Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came ("childe" is a term for a knight, not for, you know, a child), and it's definitely safe to say that A. S. Byatt had that poem in mind when she was writing Possession. After all, Robert Browning is one of the real-world models for Possession's Randolph Henry Ash, and it makes good sense to use Roland Mitchell's name to draw another connection between him and his literary hero in this way.
Why is Byatt making you work so hard to guess what she's up to, you ask? Well, think of it this way: it would have been way too obvious for Byatt to name her protagonist "Lancelot" or "Galahad" or "Gawain" or "Tristan." Sometimes, a little bit of subtlety can go a long way.
When Byatt first describes Roland to us, we learn that he's "a small man, with very soft, startling black hair and small regular features" (2.5). Byatt has said that her American publishers complained about Roland's "weediness" and would have preferred it if she'd created a more conventionally heroic character, but, as Byatt says, "English people like weedy characters!" (source). American audiences had to wait for Aaron Eckhart in the movie to get what they wanted, we guess.
There are two crucial things to recognize about Roland's physical appearance. The first is that his "smallness" seems to emphasize his "meek" and non-threatening personality—the very personality that Maud Bailey falls in love with precisely because she wants someone gentle and kind in her life.
The second is that Roland shares certain physical characteristics with Randolph Henry Ash, who has "a flowing head of very dark brown hair, almost black but with russet light in its waves," and whose "very large dark eyes looked out at the world steadily enough, fearless but with something held in reserve" (15.2). These resemblances should come as no surprise: the two men are counterparts, after all.
Another of Byatt's points, we think, is to show that devoting your life to literature and academics can be just as heroic as anything else.
In England's traditional class system, Roland grew up as part of the "urban lower-middle class" (23.65). Although he attended public schools as a child and teenager, his mother ferried him around from school to school and hired a tutor on top of it to make sure that her son would get "an old-fashioned classical education" (2.4).
Roland continued to do "steadily and predictably well" in university (2.8) and eventually earned his Ph.D. At the beginning of Possession, however, his academic career seems to have reached a dead end. He's "essentially unemployed," and is "scraping a living on part-time tutoring, dogsbodying for Blackadder and some restaurant dishwashing" (2.4). There are plenty of part-time instructors today who can feel his pain. It can be a tough life for an academic.
At the start of Possession, Roland is convinced that his former teachers and prospective employers find him dull. He doesn't feel nearly as interesting as his rival, Fergus Wolff, and he's afraid that his scholarly methods—he's an old-fashioned textual scholar—are underappreciated in the new landscape of literary theory. As the novel's narrator tells us, when Roland applied for a permanent job at Prince Albert College, the same department where he did his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he
[…] was interviewed, out of courtesy he decided, but the job went to Fergus Wolff, whose track record was less consistent, who could be brilliant or bathetic, but never dull and right, who was loved by his teachers whom he exasperated and entranced, where Roland excited no emotion more passionate than solid approbation. (2.13)
For all of his anxiety about seeming dull, though, we readers know that Roland is actually a passionate scholar—one who loves his subject matter so much that he keeps portraits of Randolph Henry Ash on his walls at home, and is instantaneously swept up by the mystery of Ash's correspondence with an unnamed woman. Roland may seem meek and mild, but in his case, still waters run deep.
Fortunately for Roland, things are looking up by the time Possession draws to a close. By the end of the novel, he has offers for tenure-track positions at universities in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Hong Kong, and James Blackadder has also offered him a paid, full-time research fellowship that would give him a chance to keep studying the newly discovered works of Randolph Henry Ash. Talk about reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.
But our hero isn't just about the books. There are women in his life, too.
Poor old Roland has gotten himself into a hot mess with his long-term girlfriend, Val. For years, he's wanted to end the relationship, but he just can't bring himself to do it. Not only is he anxious about hurting Val, but he's also unsure if he can support himself financially on his own.
What to do?
Like Randolph Henry Ash before him, Roland soon finds himself in the unexpected position of having fallen in love with another woman. What shocks him most isn't his infidelity to Val, but the fact that his heart is leading him toward another human being at all. For ages, all that Roland has dreamed about is being single and celibate, completely free of romantic and sexual responsibilities and expectations. As he confesses to Maud Bailey:
"[…] what I really want is to—to have nothing. An empty clean bed. I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked. Some of that is to do with—my personal circumstances. But some of it's general. I think." (14.28)
Imagine Roland's surprise when this would-be celibate finds himself swept up in an old-fashioned romance instead. But that's one of the points Possession is trying to make: love, like any kind of passion, is to some extent inexplicable. It just happens, and no one can really explain why. All you can do is decide to go along with it, or not. But that's life.