Language and storytelling arose as a means of creating and maintaining social ties. Tribes then spread across the planet, trading materials, goods, technology, information and stories, so it should not come as a surprise that our narratives are similar worldwide. As humans, we make up stories habitually in order to understand the universe, ourselves and others, but we can only do so within established narrative language (as we have seen) and (this is the new part) preexisting forms and genres.
In “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory” (2008), sociocultural anthropologist James V. Wertsch calls such things as language, structure and genre “textual resources” and declares that “textual resources used to produce narratives invariably have a history of use by others” (122). The stories we compulsively tell, the stories we live, are borrowed. If you are a person, you are a plagiarist.
Borrowed content and form can be found in our oldest legends (by this term I mean the surviving versions of those stories). In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), mythologist Joseph Campbell argues that the journey of the hero is the same all over the world: “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 fellow man” (23). We should be careful, however, not to overgeneralize, not to oversee the patterns we are looking for. We cannot squeeze every myth into a single mold, as implied by Campbell’s label, the “monomyth.” These legends are not and have never been singular, but are as diverse as each individual version. Campbell’s narrative, then, is not so much a distillation as it is a retelling of a shared story. Although Campbell’s name is associated with rather unscientific New Age philosophies, his point is valid – if not taken too literally. We can find stories of heroes everywhere, and they tend to follow a similar plot line.
We discover most of these elements in Don Quixote. The makeshift knight “ventures forth” from the back door of his hacienda into “a region of supernatural wonder”: the landscape of his addled imagination. One of Cervantes’ innovations is that the knight is traveling simultaneously through the “common day.” Our knight in dented armor cannot escape the everyday world, and it eventually overwhelms him. There is no “decisive victory,” but when the disenchanted hero comes home, he does bestow “boons” in the form of advice, namely, “Don’t act crazy like I did!”
These changes to the basic story line of myth and romance do not erase the older hero narrative. Rather, the alterations point directly to the familiar plot line by saying, “That is not what is happening here!”
Many writers have since copied Cervantes’ narrative inventions: namely, the introduction of the everyday and the lack of a decisive victory. Whether following the ancient version or its modern variants, we repeat the hero myth. The story may have changed, but the borrowing continues.
Not only do we retell the story, we relive it. I have never met a man who did not strive to be a hero now and then. Even those who have apparently given up can become one in a crisis or with sufficient alcohol (which can also turn them into villains). Most women I know also want to be heroes: a Hua Mulan, a Sojourner Truth or a Rigoberta Menchu. Some of us want to nurse, educate, enlighten or save, others to critique, entertain, discover or decorate. Most of us want – or wanted – to make the world a better place.
Let’s try a little experiment. Does your heart beat any faster when reading the words of “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha: “To dream the impossible dream / To fight the unbeatable foe / To bear with unbearable sorrow . . . To right the unrightable wrong . . . To try when your arms are too weary . . . To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause” (Darion)? No? Oh well, maybe this song does not make your pulse race, but there is another song, poem, book or film – you know its name – which causes your heart to well up with heroism. Yes, even you can make a difference! You are going to help others! You will add beauty or knowledge or wisdom to the world! You may even love unconditionally.
If none of these are true, then some piece of writing has enabled you to heroically accept your limitations, and now you encourage others to acknowledge an uncompromising reality where heroes cannot exist.
Whatever your intentions, how noble they are!
A person who intends to do evil is extremely rare. The great villains of history did not consider themselves villainous. Although they were certainly motivated by a lust for power, they also thought they were bettering the world. Consider Vlad the Impaler (otherwise known as “Dracula”), who was saving his land from the invading Ottomans; Pol Pot, who wanted to make his country a communist utopia; and Adolf Hitler, who was purging the world of lesser beings, namely, the Jews, the disabled and the perverted. It was not villainy that led these men to crimes against humanity. It was misdirected heroism.
Serial killers are out to cleanse the world, punish the wicked or kill the pigs. Some declare they are manipulated by voices or carried away by uncontrollable impulses. In other words, they do not mean to do wrong. Of course, appetites lead many to villainy, but these are instances of individuals privileging themselves above another or the community. Most conflicts arise from competing interests.
Certainly, singers of gangsta rap style themselves as bad guys, yet they also view themselves as counter cultural heroes, responding honestly to the harsh realities of inner city life and the injustice of the class system in America. Some people may model themselves on fictional villains, as did James Holmes, who colored his hair red, called himself “The Joker,” and killed twelve people and wounded 58 others at the Aurora, Colorado premiere of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but he was making the Batman’s archenemy into a personal hero: an agent of anarchy and chaos. The villain of book and film, who intends to be evil, is mostly a fiction.
Some who are not trying to be heroes are instead waiting for one. It is no coincidence that “romance,” which once meant a tale of a man righting wrongs in the name of a woman, has become “romance,” a story about a woman who tames the wandering man. A friend of mine told me many lesbians are holding out for a knight in shining armor, as are many gay men. Even many straight guys are looking for the woman who will save them.
Actually, we all seem to be waiting or wishing for a hero: the Messiah, King Arthur, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Jackie Robinson, Joan Baez, Indiana Jones or Superman. We can see the intensity of hero worship in religion, literature, history, politics, sports, music, film and comics.
We act out many other archetypes as well. Carl Jung named these: the Great Mother (who was the original hero), the Wise Old Man, the Wise Old Woman, the Child, the Trickster, the Devil, the Scarecrow, the Mentor, and so on. Jung has been dismissed, as has Campbell, for being mystic rather than scientific, but if we refuse to think of archetypes as abstractions and locate them in the brain, speech, and writing of human beings, we cannot deny that certain characters repeat themselves in our stories and our lives.
(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Navato: New World Library, 2008. Print.
Wertsch, James V. “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory” Ethos 36.1 (2008): 120 – 135. JSTOR. PDF.