Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The journey of the hero

There seems to be a bit of fussing lately, both in print and online, about whether 'heroes' is an appropriate word for Beaconsfield survivors Todd Russell and Brant Webb.

Cue literary and cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, whose groundbreaking midcentury study The Hero with a Thousand Faces developed a notion grounded in Jungian archetype theory of a universal narrative pattern he called a 'monomyth' of the hero figure in all cultures.

Obviously there are wrangles to be had around cultural relativism and the ideological implications of this kind of psychoanalytic thinking. For the moment, though, this excellent little Wikipedia summary of Campbell's theory -- emphasis mine -- is food for some thought about the Beaconsfield rescue, and about not only the survivors but also the rescuers:

'The monomyth involves the hero receiving a "call to adventure" – to leave the ordinary world which he has psychologically or spiritually outgrown. After passing "threshold guardians" (often with the aid of a wise mentor or spirit guide) the hero enters a dreamlike world – generally a dark forest, a desert, an underworld or a mysterious island. After a series of trials in which the hero eventually surpasses his mentor, the hero achieves the object of his quest (often an atonement with the father, a sacred marriage or an apotheosis) before returning to his homeland, bringing with him a spiritual boon. Campbell wrote that almost all hero myths, throughout history and across cultures, can be shown to contain at least a subset of these patterns.'

The 'object of the quest' was obviously to get them(selves) out alive; you could say that the 'spiritual boon' was not only the sigh of collective national relief and happiness that went up, but also the new knowledge that the unprecedented rescue techniques and experiments have provided for mining practices and emergency services around the world.


Fyodor said...

I'm quite fond of Campbell's work, and interested in mythology in general. I think the "Bigger than Beaconsfield" Boys are a poor analogy, however.

The perceived "heroism" of the two blokes has much more to do with the culture of celebrity and the association of virtue with innocent suffering, than it does with Campbell's heroic archetype. The key difference is the passivity of the miners' experience: there is no "call" to adventure in their story - they were simply doing their job and were unlucky - and nothing much for them to do apart from keep their spirits up until other people risked their lives trying to save them. Not to denigrate the two blokes, but the real heroes amongst their colleagues, paramedics etc. have already been forgotten, if they were ever noticed.

It's very reminiscent of the media's treatment of Sophie Delezio's run of exceptionally poor luck. Yes, she's a brave and delightful little tacker, but she's not a hero in the traditional sense, and really can't be.

Another good example of the media's desire to make heroes of victims is the extraordinary case of Jessica Lynch, the US soldier who became a hero by getting captured without firing her weapon. It brought the satire "Wag the Dog" to life in extraordinarily vivid fashion.

R H said...

Good comment.

Pavlov's Cat said...

... there is no "call" to adventure ...

Indeed. 'Find a weak point and drive a wedge into it,' as Lord Peter Wimsey once remarked.

So yes, thin, I agree -- but the fussing about the terminology interested me, so I thought I'd stack it up against the best/most comprehensive definition of 'hero' that I know, and see what emerged. I wasn't even really trying to make a case, except in including the rescuers. But the parallels that do exist are intriguing.

comicstriphero said...

Fyodor your comments echo the outcome of lengthy (pub induced) discussions on this issue amongst a group of friends on the weekend.

We came to a general consensus that 'hero' is most appropriately applied to those who do something (normally a pretty big, dangerous or selfless something) for others. So, in this instance, the rescuers.

We agreed that insofar as the miners helped each other through the ordeal, they could be heroes to each other. But apart from this, they didn't really fit the definition.

The more interesting question for us was why there is such a compulsion amongst der meeja to bandy the hero tag about. Does it make us all feel better about people's misfortune?

Anonymous said...


Don't forget that the lads down hole would have been in the rescue crews if it happened to someone else.

Everyone was sucked into a common drama, a collective 'fuck you' to reality, that human determination can be set against millions of tons of rock, for a set time to achieve a possible goal. We love it.

Much more difficult and more genuinely heroic is the continuing daily "get up and do it" of - say - the people running a hospital in civilian Iraq.

In dramatic terms, that is much harder to identify with. Best are stories with a catharsis, or at least a defined end. The lads come out of the hole. Huge relief and tears. Share the physical and psychological release.

Working in an aboriginal homeland beset with the collapse of a moral order? Out of sight, out of mind.

This example points to another limit on heroism - we don't like to see degradation. Rescue the cute cat and we are enthralled. Save the smelly old man and we are not so interested. Hence I don't think anyone pointed out when our lads came out of the mine that they must have stunk. What happened to the piss and shit?

So noticeable too that they cottoned onto the symbolism so well. They wanted to walk out. Put away their tags to end the shift.. all good throat lump stuff.

I really agree with fyodor on this, except that contemporary readings of Campbell as applied to screen media suggest that this story too can be fitted to The Hero's Journey.

The use of the word 'hero' a la fyodor is just pop culture crap from dumb journos who can't find a better way of entering the story. But the absolute passivity of the central characters can't be Campbellised.

I think that is a big, fat hole in the theory.

It does descant on our quite extraordinary attachment in cinema to passive heroes, only now being transcended, which says something strange about our culture.

And I suspect there is something of the womb in this whole story. And the absolute dependence of the small child.

- barista

Pavlov's Cat said...

One of the reasons I love the Indiana Jones movies so much is that they are such a knowing play on this whole narrative archetype. It's as though whoever wrote them had sat down with a copy of Joseph Cambell and set out to both parody it and follow it, simultaneously.

I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding going on here. I'm not making claims for or against the use of 'hero' by meeja or anybody else; the corrrectness or incorrectness of such usage doesn't actually interest me much, in the same way that, say, Lindy Chamberlain's guilt or innocence was not, for me, the most interesting aspect of that story. I'm much more interested -- in both cases -- in archetypes and the way they do or do not inform our responses to things, and in the way that, in order to make sense of events and derive meaning from them, we try to impose some kind of common narrative shape, after the fact, on what are frequently random events.

elsewhere said...

What about Vladimir Propp and his 20 (or was it 22 characteristics) of hero status, in which Jesus rated the most highly and King Arthur has about 16 characteristics? Didn't the structuralist stuff predate the Campbell stuff? (You see I am STK's faithful pupil.)

I'm sorry, but my impulse has always been to vomit at the very mention of Campbell's hero thingie, not to mention such spin-offs as 'gods in everyman' and 'goddesses in everywoman.' These books, along with their atterndant goddess and hero quizzes, were a staple of shared households, along with rune-casting, in about 1991 if I remember rightly.

That being said, I found your reading of the inherent symbolism in the miners' escapade most interesting.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Now now, don't be blaming Campbell for the dross spawned by his work. Yes, of course all right-thinkers (among whom I more or less count myself) despise the archetype theorists (at which point I can't see why one can't integrate at least some of it into a correct world view, especially considering how powerful and convincing it is); actually I was kind of disappointed that nobody has bitten about this till now!

Re symbols, I managed to leave out what was by far the most important one: gold, of which the miners were in quest (Fyodor, there you go -- a motive!), is a sort of Jungian über-symbol for spiritual integrity and wholeness. Viewed though a different theoretical prism, of course, gold is more of a sort of anti-Jungian bit of literalism about Eddie's chequebook.

elsewhere said...

Well, I quite enjoy astrology, if that's any consolation!

Fyodor said...

Dunno 'bout that, Ms Pavlova. Gold is traditionally a root of some evil, and its pursuit often an unheroic & doomed venture.

A better analogy would be the dwarves digging for shiny stuff in the Black Pit they called Khazad-dûm. Dig too deep and you might uncover something truly nasty.

Of course, some people say Tolkien was ripping off Wagner's story about the Nibelungs' cursed gold, but both Wagner and Tolkien were tapping into a theme running through both Germanic and Celtic mythology, namely the lure of faerie gold.

The character of Alberich (elbe is German for elf; "rich" is cognate with latin "rex" and German "reich", kingdom, but also "wealth") in Der Ring des Niebelungen is rendered as a dwarf. His name was also anglicised as "Oberon", i.e. Titania's husband, the king of the fairies. Interestingly enough, in different stories he is the sorcerous brother of Merowech (or Merowig), the legendary founder of the Merovingian dynasty, the first of Frankreich, or France.

Incidentally, under Pierre Plantard's "Priory of Sion" hoax, the Merovingians are supposed to have incorporated the bloodline of Christ. Dan Brown certainly did well for himself not stealing that story. I hope he suffers the fate of that other greedy bastard, Crassus, and chokes on the gold.

[See? You knew I had a point coming, didn't you?]

Pavlov's Cat said...

Not sayin' it's true. Sayin' Jung's sayin' it's true. I blog the way I used to teach -- just put the stuff on the table, and people can eat what they want. Or not.

It's the fate of anyone quoting any theorist to be interpreted as meaning that they go along with the theorist. But I think of most theories as just tools for digging out meaning, which is my gold. Your reading of gold is cognate with the opening paragraphs of Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, which I was going to put up here but Perry Middlemiss beat me to it, the rat.

He did however leave out my favourite bit, which supports your theory:

'A passion for the gold itself awoke in them an almost sensual craving to touch and possess ... Such were the fates of those who succumbed to the 'unholy hunger'. It was like a form of revenge taken on them, for their loveless schemes of robbing and fleeing; a revenge contrived by the ancient, barbaric country they had so lightly invaded. Now, she held them captive -- without chains; ensorcelled -- without witchcraft; and, lying stretched like some primeval monster in the sun, her breasts freely bared, she watched, with a malignant eye, the efforts made by these puny mortals to tear their lips away.'