Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Journey of the Hero : An Irresistible Archetype

I have been thinking not just about character attributes, ie: static qualities that define an individual at a specific point in time but I have also been pondering the evolution of the character and the journey which they take from the time the novel opens until its close. I am reminded of Joseph Campbell's characterization of the mythic hero of literature from works such as Gilgamesh, Aeneas, Aeneas, Hercules, Sinbad the Sailor etc. Books, plays and novels abound with themes of this kind, with characters that do not only literally travel across the landscape (as well as those who do not) but who, most importantly, experience the journey of personal growth and understanding. I am struck by how universal these characterizations are, and how prevalent, not only in ancient mythologies and early historical texts, but throughout modern literature of all kinds. In my recently completed novel, Keeping the Elephant Dry, I discovered my hero to have traveled along these very well-defined lines without any deliberate authorial intent. It makes me think of Jung's unconscious archetypes! Am I susceptible to these universal literary trends and tendencies without being consciously aware of it? Perhaps it is because somewhere inside us we all yearn to be a hero, and imagine ourselves traveling these personally arduous paths to the ultimate reward of enhanced wisdom for ourselves as well as our broader community.

The Hero's Journey:
The hero or heroine, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is depicted sympathetically in order to establish an immediate empathetic connection with the reader (critical if the reader is to willingly accompany the hero on his or her journey!) Some background is presented to provide context for the hero either in the form of social or physical environment, or personal history. Often the hero is subjected to some kind of polarity in his or her life that is pulling them in different directions and serves as an ongoing cause of stress. The hero is then called forth, as a result of external pressures or something rising up from deep within, and must, as a result, contemplate the beginnings of change. They feel the fear of the unknown, the dread of change, a degree of uncertainty, and briefly attempt to turn away from this call. The hero then comes across a mentor of sorts who provides a source of strength, training, or advice that fortifies the hero, who subsequently reaches within to a source of wisdom and courage in order to undertake the requisite journey.

The hero commits to the answering the call and enters a new region with unfamiliar rules and values. The hero is subsequently tested and acquires allies that will assist him or her in the challenge that lies ahead. Near the middle of the narrative, the hero confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. The ordeal. While the hero is ultimately triumphant, there still remains the conclusion of the adventure: the journey home and the ongoing threat of things again becoming unraveled. Often a chase scene conveys the desperate urgency of the mission. At the crescendo, the hero is once again severely tested on the threshold of home, undergoes one last ordeal and emerges on an even higher level than previous (increased wisdom perhaps). As a result of these actions, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning of the novel are finally resolved, and the hero returns home bearing some message, understanding or influence that has the power to transform the world just as the hero has been transformed.

The Archetype and What it Means for Writers Today:
I am utterly intrigued to know whether any other authors have found these kind of hero-journey elements emerging within their own work with or without deliberate intent, and what they think of these of the dramatic possibilities inherent within this archetype. Is it less engaging precisely because it has been so well-utilized? Do you feel an irresistible urge to tweak the formula? Or perhaps the mere existence of an ongoing literary theme that has been prevalent in story-telling for thousands and thousands of years, proclaims, utterly regardless of our own personal inclination, the universality of an idea that has been, and continues to be, appealing to all readers. I find this unexpectedly comforting, in a world that increasingly feels as if it is being torn apart by political, economic or religious strife, that at one point in time we all had the same heroes. Or the same kind of heroes at least. There is hope in that.


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