18 June 2005

The myth of the hero

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his [/her] fellow [people]."
(Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949)

Around the time Ayn Rand was hard-coding her concept of the hero as a man of reason, a man of exceptional intellectual insight, whose only motivation in life was self-preservation, Joseph Campbell was exploring the concept of the hero from the point of view of myth and religion. Campbell studied the myths and cultures of communities around the world and created an outline of the hero, which he believed was repeated over and over in stories throughout history… irrespective of race or religion. He proposed that all stories were fundamentally the same story, which he named “the hero’s journey.”

Campbell’s myth of the hero, though not hard-coded like Rand’s, was based on the concept of the “archetype” proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung’s archetype was developed, in turn, from the pioneering work done by German anthropologist Adolph Bastian, who believed that myths from all over the world were built on the same “elementary ideas.” Jung named these elementary ideas archetypes, and used this concept to find meaning within the dreams and visions of his patients who were considered mentally ill.

How all of this ties in is in Jung’s proposition: “archetypes are not only the building blocks of the unconscious mind, but of a collective unconscious.” Jung believed that everyone in this world was born with the same basic subconscious model of what a “hero” is, and that’s why people who don’t even speak the same language can enjoy the same stories… the stories Campbell called the hero’s journey.

However, Campbell took this further by suggesting that, “while mythic structure is universal, myth itself must be kept fresh through reinterpretation. Every generation must recontextualize myth to suit their times, to create their own road map for how to fit best into the world.” So, if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about Spiderman or Batman or The Lord of the Rings, or those weird Pokemon characters your son is so crazy about, remember the words of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Adolph Bastian. Or, better still, go out and see the movie “Batman Begins” – at least, that’s what I’m going to do this weekend.

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