I recently came across Craig Chalquist’s Huffington Post article entitled “Why I Seldom Teach the Hero’s Journey Anymore–And What I Teach Instead.” Chalquist rightly observes the pervasiveness of the hero’s journey in contemporary popular culture and cites the influence of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and A Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the latter book, Campbell outlines the stages of the hero’s journey, which entails an archetypal hero’s departure from ordinary life, an initiation and transformation of self, and a return home. We all have heroes and have been inspired by them to undertake our own ‘hero’s journey.’ It’s curious, then, that Chalquist has decided no longer to teach it.
However, Chalquist is not alone. Campbell’s popularization of mythology has had a fair share of critics. Feminists decry Campbell’s exclusion of heroines and female protagonists. Frank Herbert, author of the sci fi Dune series, takes issue with heroes in general (the fallacy of “Might makes right”). Alan Dundes criticizes Campbell’s Jungian ‘universalism’ (all myths have certain tropes archetypes in common). Accordingly, Campbell’s version of the hero’s journey is too masculine, too macho, too power hungry (we think of Ayn Rand’s egoism), espouses too much psychobabble, and alienates so-called ‘outsiders’ who are already marginalized by mainstream society.
Or perhaps the hero’s journey has been repeated so many times in popular culture that its ‘deeper meaning’ has become fairly superfluous. Do audiences really apprehend the message of a hero’s symbolic transformation in movies such as Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, or even the more recent episodes of Star Wars? In certain respects it could be said that the hero’s journey is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Chalquist notes, “The more mythology I’ve read and taught over the years, starting with teaching the Hero’s Journey to men who’d done time for violent crimes, the less happy I’ve been with this presentation of the Hero.” Interesting, since “men who’ve done time for violent crimes” tend to lack heroism. Would they recognize themselves on a hero’s journey in need of spiritual redemption? Perhaps they’d empathize more with a long list of literary and cinematic anti-heroes, such as Meursault or Cool Hand Luke. Not to mention Thelma and Louise. I suspect that men who have done time for violent crime have more at stake than a general concern for the hero’s journey.
Further, Chalquist states, “The Hero isn’t always a good guy.” Right, and neither are most ordinary people who live ordinary lives. The hero is a person who accepts a ‘call to adventure’ and doesn’t refuse it. Chalquist refers to Gilgamesh as a bad dude. For sure, he’s a monomaniac who stirs up trouble for its own sake. He mistreats his own people and abuses women. Like Achilles, he’s a god-man who has many faults. This is what makes him human. If he were perfect, then he’d walk on water. But he isn’t perfect, which is why the Gods intervene in human affairs and eventually Gilgamesh loses his best friend (perhaps lover) and learns crucial lessons that any Machiavellian tyrant needs to learn.
Heroic power–and fame–comes with great responsibility and duty to one’s culture. The hero eventually learns that virtue resides with truth, justice, and beauty. The hero learns about the gray areas of violence and morality, and is more often than not a diplomatic peace-monger who happens to carry a mighty sword.
To continue, Chalquist adds that “The Hero of myth may or may not undergo transformation.” Oh really? Look again. As the hero undertakes a process of initiation, trials and tribulations are what we perhaps naively call “character building.” After all, as Nietzsche says, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And there’s truth to that. Hence the ubiquitous psychological appeal of the hero’s journey.
By overcoming hardship, the hero is reborn into a new self or being. The hero experiences a death of the old way of life and discovers new values, interests, goals, and objectives. An interesting case is Beowulf. As pagan and Christian culture collides and is synthesized within the narrative, we discover the redeeming qualities of the hero. But we also recognize aspects of weakness and character flaws that require more redemptive work. Crucial questions arise: Is Beowulf indeed God’s hero? How is he similar or different from the Messiah? Is he more like Jesus Christ or an Old Testament hero like Samson?
We don’t witness much psychological transformation in two-dimensional heroes, such as those in early Anglo-Saxon tales, Viking sagas, and Biblical narratives. Indeed, what does Abraham learn? Joseph? Jonah? Samson? David after slaying the Giant? Or what about the Christian disciples, such as Peter who thrice denied Christ? Or even the great betrayer Judas? We can only speculate about how Sir Gawain is transformed after his ordeals with the Green Knight.
Needless to say, heroes undergo transformation. This is why we believe in gym memberships and 12-step programs. But does personal training or rehab make us perfect? More heroic? Perhaps we become more sculpted and toned, or a tad wiser, but our achievements fall short of godly ideals.
An Olympian may be heroic in athleticism, but arete or human excellence is countered by our vulnerability to hubris. In the end, our humanity calls us to our mortal, earthly domain. The feeling of mortal disorientation or cognitive dissonance can feel uncanny and existentially absurd.
We shall always have human perception and understanding, and so as Jehovah reminds Job, our cognitive understanding and abilities are limited. We can’t understand great cosmic and occult mysteries. Of course, we can try. Thus, the scope of personal transformation only can be fulfilled within the bounds of human freedom and strength. You can be a Beowulf or a Gilgamesh, but the mortal clock is ticking. As humans, we can never see beyond tomorrow, which could be the ultimate last horizon.
Chalquist rightly ponders, “Where are the heroines?” Surely, this is an important question. Much contemporary literature and cinema addresses this concern. In terms of Campbell’s hero we must keep in mind that his ‘hero’ is male or female, and sometimes both. In this way, Campbell’s use of the word ‘hero’ is akin to our use of the word ‘actor’ in reference to all sexes.
Rather than espouse a so-called marginalizing hero’s journey, Chalquist offers an alternative in what he calls ‘The Journey of Reenchantment.’ I’m sorry to say that his alternative journey seems rather dull and uninspired in comparison to Campbell’s hero’s journey. Thus, I still prefer Campbell’s version.
The hero’s journey is all about striving toward perfection, not being perfect. We love the hero for all of his or her quirks, foibles, fears, and struggles. The hero tries to be a better person. The hero admits weakness as she seeks out sources of strength. The hero is never really alone in his or her trials.
Yes, we love winners. Inasmuch as we love those who make it to the Olympic medal podium, we also believe in transformation and change. We believe in underdogs. We believe in the merits of therapy, rehab, education, growth and change. At bottom, we believe in people who are willing to change, who work to make change happen, and are willing to start over and try again. We believe in second chances even when life doesn’t always give us a second chance.
In commemorating 9/11, we honor the heroes who made personal sacrifices. They put a ‘greater cause’ before themselves and their own personal interests. Their ambition was to help others and save lives. How often can we say that about our role models today? Do they set aside egoistic interests and values to serve the needs of others? Or do they act only to serve personal gain?
A hero is not perfect. But he or she tries to make the world a better place.
The hero’s journey is about how we can develop and improve ourselves. How can we live extraordinary lives? This does not entail that we become monomaniacal despots or power hungry tycoons. As we know deep within us, a real hero is never the Wolf on Wall Street.
The hero’s journey doesn’t require that we become superhuman. It simply means that we can appeal to heroic exemplars to explore our own humanity. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to make a difference in the lives of others? Can we learn to give the ultimate boons of adventure rather than to receive them?
The hero proceeds by laws, covenants, and a moral compass. When the hero transgresses the laws of chivalry, the laws of God, or the warrior code (Wyrgild), then his or her ego and chaotic appetites are checked and reigned in by transcendental reason.
Whether you’re Arthur, Merlyn, Modred, Morgana or Voldemort, chivalry always wins in the end. Evil is vanquished until another monster wreaks havoc in the shire. The good guy always pulls through. Or so we wish. And wishes are worth living for.