The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Freshman Seminar for Heroes, Pt. 3: There Is Only The Trying

pt 3

…and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, in “East Coker”

The third chapter of The Hero With a Thousand Faces is called “Return,” because it’s about the hero returning from the realm of the spiritual and the world of the gods. Ergo, it’s kind of a depressing chapter. If the hero has been chilling in a land of spiritual bliss with a World God(dess) spouses, why would he want to come back to the world of… you know, people and normal life? If you weren’t thoroughly crushed when the Pevensie siblings fell back through that wardrobe and suddenly lost Narnia, their years of magical royal life there, you weren’t reading/watching the same story I was.

But one of the things that Campbell talked about in the last chapter, which I didn’t touch on in the corresponding blog post, was the concept of the boon. It’s what the hero received when he succeeded at his quest in the spiritual world, a sort of life-sustaining item or “elixir.” It might be fire (Prometheus) or watercress of immortality (Gilgamesh) – whatever it is, it improves or sustains life. More than that, though, something that Campbell makes clear is that what the hero brings back to humanity isn’t just a physical thing. The hero brings truth with him, too.

The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other – different as life and death, as day and night. …Nevertheless – and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol – the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know.
…There must always remain, however, from the standpoint of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be effective in the light world. (217)

It’s the unity thing again. Our world isn’t all there is, and it’s not divorced as sharply from the spiritual world as we think it is. But it’s just not possible for all or even most of humanity to get that, not all of the time. The physical world is too present; it’s too physical.

Case in point: being a Christian, I know well the Sunday Syndrome. Sunday is a hyper-spiritual day; you make progress, you feel close to God, you vow that everything will be different from here on out. Then the weekdays revert to business as usual. It’s just human nature to turn away, maybe even strain away, from spirituality, except for, as Campbell calls them, “saints.” Or, you know, “heroes.”

So now that heroes have reached the spiritual world – the apparent goal this entire time – it turns out they have to leave it. Or, if they don’t exactly have to, there’s also the fact that they can help humanity, by bringing back the boon of the divine, if they do. And can a hero really resist that? Okay, they might try, but usually, they just end up being brought back anyway. (The Pevensies make a good example here, too.) So in the end, the hero brings the knowledge of the divine back to the waking world, humanity is enriched, and… happily ever after.

The problem is that we have more than one hero. Humanity doesn’t stay enriched for long.

Martyrdom is for saints, but the common people have their institutions,… The boon brought from the transcendent deep becomes quickly rationalized into nonentity, and the need becomes great for another hero to refresh the word. (217-218)

You fight sticky-haired ogres and brave Death By Tickling, and this is what you get: rationalization and replacement. It’s a good thing heroes go through all those ego-obliterating exercises, or that would really sting.

It’s depressing. It doesn’t matter what the heroes do. As soon as they win in the spiritual world, they have to leave it; the assurance of helping humanity is a balm that lasts for, like, five minutes, tops. And maybe it’s not depressing to them, because, as I’ve said, they’ve been through the wringer, and they’re older and wiser, they have more in perspective, blah blah blah. But what about us? What about us, the people the heroes come to – not physically, but spiritually? And what does it say for us if we want to have a heroic moment ourselves?

It says something depressing, yes. But also something… encouraging? This is where the following part of “East Coker” comes in.

And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Campbell says it this way: “How teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand thousand times, throughout the millenniums of mankind’s prudent folly? That is the hero’s ultimate difficult task” (218). But, honestly, I like how Eliot says it better. Eliot brings us all into the fold.

It’s a slap in the face to realize that no one hero is going to affect all of humanity for long. As much as we rag on Jonah for being a massive, pissy baby, and as much as he didn’t really understand the nature of the god he served, he probably recognized human nature better than any of us. Nothing that he said was going to change Ninevah for that long, and he knew it. (Am I going by the actual Biblical account or the VeggieTales movie? I’ll never tell.) Jonah was a champion of genre-awareness, even if that brought along its own host of issues.

But – look. Once a person gets this, the playing field is leveled flat. You’re not Heracles? Neither was Achilles. You’re not Jonah? Good, neither was Elijah. You’re not Sigurd? Neither was Beowulf. (Hey, I know Sigurd and Beowulf aren’t in the same geographical location. I’m just trying to make a point and my Norse heroic knowledge is lacking.)

This is why people are still telling and listening to the old stories, even though they’ve been told over and over and over. We lose the truth, because that’s what humans do; heroes, saints, storytellers recover it, and we lose it again. It’s an ego-obliterator, that’s for sure, because even if you do find the truth and bring it back with the gods on your tail, humanity won’t appreciate it for long.

But that’s okay. Really. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.


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