Saturday, January 09, 2010
The Hero's Journey
The most basic model for a myth—at least of those that have survived to the present day—is that of the Hero’s journey. This is a familiar, three-act narrative that involves the hero’s removal from a comfortable, ordinary life (usually through the arrival of some alien element or threat), whereupon he must embark upon a quest. During the quest, he encounters previously unimagined worlds and entities by which he is tested; at some point (usually around the end of the second act), the Hero loses everything and experiences a period of despair and seeming defeat. Finally, overcoming his own resistance, limitations, or weakness, he discovers an aspect of his being previously hidden from him and manages to turn the situation around, thereby overcoming all obstacles and returning to his homeland triumphant. The Hero’s victory is more than merely a personal one, however, since it invariably entails some kind of redemption or salvation for others in need of the Hero’s intervention: it is only by conquering evil and saving his land or people from ruin that the Hero becomes a man and enters into his true, predestined nature as a cosmic (archetypal) being: a servant, and equal, of the gods.
Although the Hero invariably has to overcome and destroy seemingly evil forces in this quest for wholeness, in psychological terms all hostile or alien elements represent disowned aspects of the Hero’s psyche. As such, they are crucial to his empowerment and self-knowledge. This is why evil characters are vital to the action in any myth story—just as vital as the Hero, in fact, since without them, there would be no story at all. When the Hero prevails and things are brought into right balance, when order is restored, everybody wins, and this includes the seemingly “evil” or adverse figures: through their destruction they can be re-integrated into the collective once more. (Take for example, the Star Wars trilogy, in which Darth Vader’s death is the prerequisite for his redemption.) The process being mapped, then, is that of individuation through integration.
Myths might be seen as being a form of ancient psychological training which both describe and enable initiation into higher (and deeper, more integrated) modes of consciousness. True myths, then, are not written so much as revealed—they represent inner and outer journeys that occur in the lives of exceptional individuals, that are then passed down to the community as a means for allowing its members to partake. Exposure to higher-deeper consciousness—even at a distance—accelerates the community’s process towards the same.
Modern myths can hardly be said to serve the same purpose, however. Strictly speaking, even so-called ancient myths have been divested of much of their original meaning, having been so heavily re-interpreted to suit our modern sensibilities. Rendered linear and logical, they have become simply “stories.” How much more so, then, in the case of popular mythic narratives found in movies, which rearrange and reinterpret the same basic archetypal components into rational, all-too-literal (as opposed to symbolic) meanings in an attempt to give rise to “new” narratives. In fact, since the same basic components are simply being reshuffled to appear new, what is occurring is a distortion and corruption of the original “blueprints” into arrangements that—though they may be more “diverting”— are far from maps to individuation.
In fact, as we shall see, they may actually have been designed towards the very opposite end.