Sunday, January 20, 2008

Chapter 16 ~ Hero's Journey

Photo by
Lauren Hill

When we study Greek mythology at Santa Inez High, I always begin with the creation of the universe. First there was only Chaos, and Night, I tell my freshmen, holding up a picture book I inherited from my teacher sister, Jane. Then Mother Earth emerged, the progenitor, the creator of all living things, but she was barren. So she gave birth to Father Sky, who lay over her and rained down upon her. This mother-son coupling populated the earth.
My students squirm in their seats when they hear the incest story, and later tales of the many guises Zeus took before making love to mortal maidens--a bull, a swan, a golden light--but they feel quite comfortable with the mythic hero's journey. Here is the handout I give them:

From ancient times until today, the same story has been told and re-told and re-told again. The names may be different, the locations may be different, but the archetype remains the same. Prove it for yourself. Choose a hero from films or books. Look at the structure beneath the surface to see whether Joseph Campbell was right when he said there is really only one great story and one “hero with a thousand faces.”

Choose one of these protagonists to consider:
*Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings
*Harry in Harry Potter
*Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
*King Arthur in The Sword and the Stone
*Odysseus in The Odyssey
*Daniel in The Karate Kid
*Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
*Simba in The Lion King
*Bruce Wayne in Batman
*Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien
*Moses in The Ten Commandments
*Jesus Christ in The Passion of Christ
*Oscar Schindler in Shindler’s List

Now apply the story you chose to the list below. Does the hero you selected have most of the following attributes? If he does, he fits into the hero’s journey archetype (or original pattern). Scholars have determined that hero’s stories throughout history and across cultures share most of the elements listed here.

1. Mysterious Birth
2. A Call or Summons
3. Danger/Temptations
4. Companions
5. A Wise Advisor or Guide
6. Descent into Darkness
7. Suffering a Wound
8. Transformation
9. Return to Community with Gift to Others

I didn’t write the original handout, but borrowed it from another teacher and made some modifications. My students love the exercise, and so do I. They are intrigued by plot similarities in popular movies. I’m glad to give them a chance to apply the hero archetype to their own lives. If they are depressed, or in trouble, or having problems of any kind, applying this pattern can help them find meaning in their suffering.

When I finally read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, I was disappointed to realize that the hero’s journey archetype is not as clear cut as my handout implies. In his book, Campbell recounts hundreds of stories from the mythology, literature, religion and history of many cultures, and each one has a different shape. There are many themes examined in the book which don’t appear on the handout, and some on the handout that I’m not sure I saw in the book.

As I gathered more information on the web and by hand, I found more variations. One teacher’s handout says heroes typically have special weapons, the gift of prophecy, and a signature battle trick; another discusses recurring themes of bride theft and atonement with the father; a third says heroes are neither fools nor invincible, and that their paths are never clear; a fourth replaces the wise advisor with supernatural help.

Despite an abundance of scholarship on the topic, there seems to be no agreement as to exactly which elements are required to make a journey heroic. More helpful perhaps than Campbell’s convoluted book was one web site I found which boiled the journey down to four stages beginning with the call, as depicted below.

According to that site and others, the hero’s journey is a manifestation of the collective unconscious—a body of recurring ideas, images and stories which are carried in the subconscious of all human beings. These are ancient ideas that have been passed down from generation to generation, much like birds are born with the knowledge of how to sing the song particular to their species, the song their kind has always sung. This collective unconscious and all it contains, including the archetype of the hero’s journey, is part of what it means to be human, according to Carl Jung.

The four-part mandala worked best for me because it simplified the pattern. But after I got my diagnosis, I found that I could fill in most of the blanks on the complex handout, too.

The mysterious birth of my journey would be the lactation. At 50 years old, without a newborn baby, my breast shouldn’t have been producing milk. Still, I didn’t find it particularly alarming—until I got the call about the biopsy. That set me on a quest to recover my health. The danger I faced was death by cancer. The companions coming with me were my family and friends. The descent into darkness would be the upcoming surgery and the mastectomy would be the wound.

Or maybe Eddy was the wound—my handsome progeny whose own descent into darkness had led him to insanity. Maybe the call was his first admission to the hospital and the real quest was for the salvation of my son.

But where was my wise advisor to provide the answers? I realized forlornly that I didn’t have one. Both my parents were gone, and I had rejected God 30 years before, cursing and calling Him names as I fled through the parking lot of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton, where my mother had gone to die. Since then, I’d come to think He probably didn’t exist, or if He did, that He’d had a sex change operation and been reduced to lower case. And even in that scenario, I had no right to ask her for help now. That would be like going through an extremely messy divorce, then coming back 30 years later with your hand out.

And what about my transformation? What was I going to become? A one-breasted schoolteacher with a maniac son? Although the hero’s journey archetype suggested so, it was hard to believe that I would pass through the next stages not only undamaged, but improved. And if I did, if I did somehow miraculously manage to transcend this illness, to accept disfigurement, to trust in my fate and my son’s without bitterness or resentment, what could I possibly bring back to the community?

What would be my gift?

Read the next chapter HERE, or buy a paperback copy of the whole novel HERE.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home