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.

3 comments:

HOWMusic(k) said...

"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."

Jason, I agree with what you said here. Could you cite some examples of movies which do not distort and corrupt the original blueprints.

Of course, you already do this in your book "Secret life of movies" but I think some of your audience members might benefit from examples of how you look at movies symbolically, rather than "literally".

Thanks

+Zebra

Jason and the Argonauts said...

Hi Zebra,

Some of the movies I write about in SLM are actually *not* adhering to an obvious mythic narrative, but rather creating quite mundane, yet psychologically authentic, narratives ~ Five Easy Pieces is a good example of this. A movie that creates living, breathing characters in real settings can be a great way to see the mythic narrative in our own lives, because it's the hero's journey (or whatever, but usually a variation on this) condensed into two hours. Taxi Driver is another great example, Night of the Iguana, Last Tango in Paris, The Godfather, Wild Bunch, these are movies that are both realistic and at the same time mythical, because of the depth and integrity of the characters.

More obvious mythic narratives are films that are not so character driven but plot-, idea- or theme- driven, such as The Matrix or Fight Club, Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Natural Born Killers, and to lesser extent, the sort of in-between movies like Vertigo or Blue Velvet, which are not as obviously fantastic works, but still have the mythic narrative close enough to the surface that no one can miss it.

(quick answer, on my way to lunch; more later maybe)

HOWMusic(k) said...

I've been looking through the diagram. Without getting into details, I feel that I might be crossing through the "first threshold" right now.

What can one expect from the "belly of the whale"? Are there any ways that the Hero can prepare for this stage ahead of time?

Parsifal, the pure fool, is the Hero. I doubt that he prepared for anything.. and yet, the value of myth seems to be that we can map out our location in the process as we travel.