Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Hero's Journey

Wow. I don't have notes for 17 stages.

Years ago I read an article titled "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" and very much liked it. After that I gathered some of Joseph Campbell's books and read as much of them as I could absorb. He's prolific and my attention span is like the lifespan of a gnat. I don't recall much of it, but I ran across some notes I took. Here they are.
Star Wars is a “hero’s journey” as defined by Campbell. I always thought of it as a space-based western, but westerns are really our USA hero myths (which is why they are so popular around the world, I suppose). In Star Wars, the story of space faring pilots and their daring escapades is based on the hero's journey, which is an ancient form of mythology.
Now let me shift gears and try to explain my personal definition of mythology in human culture. We start with history, inevitably written by the victors. If the losers write the story also, the better story usually survives. Most people, for example, cannot tell you much about the historical sweep of Persians across the countries of the Mediterranean Sea, but almost everyone knows the story of the Spartans who stalled them. Troy was destroyed in the Trojan War, but notice that it is still called the "Trojan" war - we still celebrate the losers there also.
Once history becomes old enough, it fades, the verifying documentation disappears. Proof of the historical battles are lost in time and eventually lost in memory. Fragments of the tales remain and these become legends. Some truth of the history remains in the legend. Some fictional elements are often added to provide drama. The Trojan War was considered a legend until Schliemann found and excavated the site of the great city of Troy. (I'm not condoning his methods.)
Here people might disagree with me, but I think that legends fade even further, are a bit more embellished and become myth. Some bits of truth will still exist in the myths. For instance, I'm a firm believer that Theseus and Hercules did exist and that Plutarch accurately wrote of them in his works.
So there you have my personal philosophy: History becomes legend and legend becomes myth. I might be wrong, but I am allowed to be and can also remain adamant about my position.
C'mon. You knew I'd find a way to add Leia's picture!
Back to Star Wars! The marvelous special effects of Star Wars provide an artistic rewrite for the Magic of Myth, a space-faring realm where heroes, villains, magic and adversity lead us all on a path of discovery with young Luke, cynical Han and hopeful Leia. Star Wars became the Science Fiction mythological hero's journey that took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
In the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell outlines the stages necessary for The Hero's Adventure. Here's what I had in my notes (I obviously didn't capture them all!).
The Call to Adventure
In mythology, the hero’s adventure begins with the “call to adventure.” The herald of the start of the quest is usually ordinary - a droid, a pig, a deer in the forest. Though the herald is ordinary, the message for the hero is extraordinary, often dismissed at first glance as impossible for the recipient and rejected by them.
The Wise and Helpful Guide
A hero first encounters “threshold guardians,” beings who block the way to the adventure. This wise mentor provides the advice and encouragement the hero needs to continue. Quite often, these guides then die a painful death leaving a lasting impression on the hero. Fortunately they will pass on the exact amount of knowledge needed to proceed, but not quite enough to excel.
The Threshold
The hero leaves his familiar life behind to begin a journey from childhood to adulthood and to a life transformation. This is the part we all feel echoing through our own lives, regardless of how mundane it seems.
Into the Labyrinth
A difficult journey into the unknown, a labyrinth, then blocks the hero and keeps him from achieving his required goals. Quite often the hero will encounter three main trials because we all feel that two is not quite enough and four would be discouraging. Star Wars is a Trilogy! Coincidence? I think not! In real life, of course, we are beset by dozens of such trials, but we're talking fiction here.
Hero Deeds
At the climax of the story the hero's quest takes the hero into direct conflict with the antagonist, usually involving mortal combat. The hero survives and is fundamentally changed. In fact, should the hero encounter his or her younger self, they'd probably slap them for being so frustrating. Often the final challenge occurs in the sacred grove, another mythic motif, representing the enclosure where the hero is changed forever.

In pondering all this, I wondered about the villain in the stories. The villain is the anti-hero, subjected to many of the same trials and tribulations, perhaps with a different mentor. The trials of the journey create the antithesis of a hero in the villain. Instead of arising after failure, the villain succumbs, taking the bitterness of life and focusing on the negative aspects of the trials. The greater the fall, the greater the villain, the greater need for a hero. So many of us love the stories of redemption, which is simply the story of the villain becoming the hero.
Should I have a point in this one? I don't know. I think each person is on a personal hero's journey through life. Not all of them make it through as heroes, but some choose to become victims, essentially taking the route of a villain in their own life. Some simply stop, choosing not to proceed further and become static. Many of us, I'm afraid, simply become the "almost-hero" and are almost content, sensing the heroic just out of reach.
I wax too long on a subject too arduous for my mind. Suffice to say, the greater the trial the greater opportunity to be a hero.
For those of you with great trials, I'm rooting for you! Some of you are already my heroes!

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