The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Freshman Seminar for Heroes, Pt. 1: It Started Out As A Bad Feeling

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One of my favorite things about A New Hope is how Luke starts out. His uncle buys a couple droids and it turns out they have a little experience in the Rebellion – not to mention a mysterious message from a beautiful girl! Exciting! That’s all Luke wants, really, some excitement. And it looks like the droids will deliver!

Then Luke gets knocked unconscious, witnesses the burnt carnage of his family’s murdered remains, almost dies, sees his only remaining family/mentor cut down by a terrifying force of evil, almost dies again, finds out that terrifying force of evil is his beloved father, loses his hand, almost dies again, finds out his best friend was taken because of him, almost dies again, watches his only mentor die AGAIN, almost dies again, almost dies again to save his father, fails to save his father…

So much for excitement.

If it weren’t so depressing, it’d be almost funny, the contrast between how Campbell, in the chapter “Departure,” says a hero’s adventure starts and how it continues.

A blunder – apparently the merest chance – reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood. (51)

Forces. Nudge, nudge.

That’s the beginning, sure – two important droids end up, by “the merest chance,” right where a passing Jawa caravan will pick them up and drop them right into Luke Skywalker’s lap. But what starts out most casually, sometimes even comically, as “a blunder” turns a lot harder, and more terrifying, and way more painful.

But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration – a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. (51, emphasis mine)

It’s such a dissonant concept – all you do is try to deliver a message, and for your troubles you end up dead and reborn. “It’s not fair!” Luke complains, and while maybe at the moment it sounds a bit petulant, when taken as a token of foreshadowing, he’s not exactly wrong. None of it is fair. He didn’t ask for that trail of dead family and dead friends and dead mentors. All he did was try to deliver a message.

That cognitive dissonance clings to this entire chapter. It’s all about The Call, how the hero enters (or is dragged kicking and screaming by destiny into) the Other, that spiritual realm outside the boundaries of established civilization. On the one hand, it sounds nice, the Other, full of Special People who are better than the other 99%, the ones who answered The Call – the ones strong enough to make it past the threshold of the unknown.

On the other hand, the Other contains ogres with sticky hair, wild women who tickle people to death, and gods who drive people crazy with fear. The Other contains a monster who is also your father, Force lightning, and crispy dead family members.

Sure, Pan can offer up the wisdom of the universe as well as terror-induced madness, and those tickling wild women can apparently make good wives and cooks, which was probably important to male Russian peasants back then. Sure, Luke gets a lightsaber and a sister and a best friend and pretty rad powers, along with a mythical status amongst the galactic yokels, to make up for, you know, crispy dead family members. He saves the galaxy from Palpatine and Vader, which is definitely a bonus for the galaxy, if not for his ego, and he gives Anakin Skywalker the opportunity to save himself.

But I’m going to be honest. The hero route doesn’t look particularly appealing.

Everybody should probably want to save the galaxy if they’re given the opportunity, or at least do it even if they don’t want to. The galaxy is a pretty important place to a lot of people – people who would needlessly suffer if Luke hadn’t gotten over the threshold of the unknown and fought past those metaphorical sticky-haired ogres, no matter how many people died or were hurt because of him. But with a lot of stories, you can take out the whole “the world is depending on you” shtick and you still have heroes, facing down that “a dying and a birth” shtick regardless. And it sounds great on the surface! Who wouldn’t want to be a hero? I’d love to be a hero. Except that I wouldn’t.

I’m not a masochist. I’ve never been convinced that a life is better just because it’s harder. There’s no virtue in sweat for sweat’s sake, or even for virtue’s sake. A life is pretty great, IMHO, if it contains strong relationships, financial stability, a desire to reach out and give back, and a handful of cats. Nowhere near that list is how Campbell says a hero gets over the Other’s threshold: “the passage… is a form of self-annihilation” (91). If The Call is something that heroes want, that’s good – and it has to be good if heroes listen to it – why should answering it require self-annihilation?

The only answer is that it’s right. Self-annihilation is right, on some level. Self-annihilation destroys our ego and our fixation on ourselves. What’s beyond our own identities has to be essentially, categorically, straight-up better. The personal can only be inferior; the self, as important as it is to us, can only be incomplete without what’s found outside it. We are our own walls, separating us from “the real world” with all its spiritual implications. Getting to the Other means abandoning selfishness and self-centeredness that would say, “My own survival is the most important thing to me.”

It’s the comedy/tragedy part of the monomyth: the self a hero was born into is part of the tragedy – practical self-preservation – and they have to die on some level to be reborn into the comedy – radical self-abnegation. Luke “died” on Bespin, when he let himself fall into nothingness rather than join the father he’d wanted to know so long; he was reborn then, too, into the Jedi who could help his father join him. The ending of that story isn’t the laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, and it’s even sadder when you think about how this part of Luke’s story begins and concludes with crispy dead family members. But he saved the galaxy and his father, at the risk of his own life – and, maybe even more significantly, his own present happiness and peace of mind.

It’s sad, but it’s good. That’s the only answer I can come up with.

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