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The Hero of Yesterday Becomes the Tyrant of Tomorrow””

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    Brad Olson, Ph.D., editor of JCF’s MythBlast essay series, is traveling this week, so won’t be able to join us in COHO. Nevertheless, his latest essay, “The Tyrant of Yesterday Becomes the Hero of Tomorrow” (click on title to read), announces this year’s guiding theme for the series – which might be summarized as “decentering the hero” –  beginning with January’s focus on “The Child.”

    This raises questions worth exploring in greater detail.

    What does it mean to “decenter the hero”? After all, isn’t the “hero” (or protagonist – a gender-neutral term that literature teachers like myself tend to prefer), by definition, the center of every tale? Why should anyone feel the need to do this – and what form would that take?

    Our MythBlast writers will be playing with that concept throughout the year, tickling out the nuances – and Dr. Olson offers tantalizing clues about anti-heroes and the shadow side of this archetype – but what are your thoughts?

    And then there is this month’s focus on “the subject of the Child and its relationship to Heroism.” Brad Olson’s observations mirror my own experience: there was certainly no room for nuance in my childhood embrace of the hero. Every hero was Good personified, every villain the epitome of Evil – and in my play, I always identified with the Hero (and especially the Superhero – who may seem an ordinary mortal to friends and colleagues in everyday life, maybe even pitied and ridiculed, but harbors a secret identity that ultimately saves the day).

    Who were the heroes of your childhood stories? Do those same stories satisfy you today, or are you drawn to tales with flawed heroes, whose depth and complexity mirror your own?

    Please feel free to share observations, speculations, memories and more that surface on reading Brad’s essay, or in response to any of the discussion in this thread – which is what makes these “conversations of a higher order.”


    Another interesting essay!

    Will jump into childhood for a moment.
    When it came to books and stories,I think it was the adventure/subject matter that drew me more.

    And the experience of “becoming lost” in a very good story. As well as a love of words and language.

    As for “heroes,” I was more influenced by living people in my life. My Mom and Dad and Grandmother, all educators. But also dreamers and artists each in his/her own way.
    My Mother was my call to adventure in the natural world, the planet. The first time she showed me a leaf or pointed out constellations.

    Or I think of the time she showed the stars to a 24 year old man with Leukemia 😢🥲

    And I cannot build a fire without thinking of my Dad. Or read passages from Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit and hear his voice reciting those poems.

    He would try to save injured animals too (from frogs to woodpeckers—or try to take them to the vet-the frogs) Dad found the dazed woodpecker on the side of the interstate and brought it home. It stayed  on a stump. Then hours later it finally flew away.

    Or the echo memory of Grandmother playing piano jauntily in the house.
    Or her patience teaching me math.
    Or her idea that dancing might be a fun thing to try and it became everything!

    Or my tap Mentor Beale Fletcher (former vaudevillian) what a call to adventure!

    But there was someone not in my family or a book who had a huge influence on me as a tiny child: John Denver…

    It is probably as close as I ever came to looking towards a “hero,” except that word came much later in life through Joe Campbell!
    I think John Denver felt like a “friend” to me every time I heard his music.
    When I was about 3 or 4 my parents took me to a John Denver concert…loved it.
    Also know I’ve retained a strong love of the earth and of trees, animals…

    And then at 11 for me there was another character “Vincent” Beauty and the Beast (but I had great appreciation for the actor Ron Perlman)

    Love of words and poetry.

    I think what Brad said near the end was right on—-about those simpler acts of kindness being heroic.

    It seems like Gandalf says that (movie version hobbit) Saruman believes only acts of great power make a difference but Gandalf believes in the ordinary acts of everyday kindness done by everyday folk. (Sorry for poor transliteration)

    Makes sense to me!

    Yes Children can be very brave!

    God knows some children experience ordeals at very early ages-it’s hard to even imagine some of that—war—-cancer—but if they pull through my God! And aren’t there stories about one sibling saving another siblings life or a friend’s life or trying to rescue animals?

    It shows bravery and heroism can come in very small packages.
    Maybe it’s the difference in “trying to be a hero” and simply doing something, which will be considered heroic by others. (Because one is compelled within to do good)
    Again why Samwise Gamgee universally.
    Have other Thoughts but will stop here tonight. Happy New Year!






    Hi Sunbug,

    Interesting that you mention the television series “Beauty and the Beast,” a title meant to call to mind the fairy tale of the same name (never got into it – can’t recall ever watching a full episode – but I do seem to remember that his character, Vincent, inhabited a subterranean world, beneath the city, which Jung and others equate with the depths of the unconscious psyche). Good to see Ron Perlman is still out there, currently appearing in “Don’t Look Up” (an end-of-the-world satire with a sizable cast of talented actors currently streaming on Netflix) in  bit part as a traditional macho hero.

    And I, too, enjoyed John Denver’s music – and I appreciate how you point out that, even though he filled that role for you, as a child you didn’t think of him as a “hero,” but rather a friend, only recognizing him as a hero in retrospect.

    Today I can recall so many people in my life that I looked up to and admired – but, at the time, I would never have thought of either of my parents, nor neighbors, relatives, or family friends, as “heroes.” My view as a child was more black-and-white: heroes are good guys – the main good guy (with special emphasis on “guy” – a female hero was an exotic concept, something that maybe applied to Batgirl or Wonder Woman in the comics).

    Heroes were extraordinary, and could not lose – and, as a child, I had trouble separating a fictional hero from the actor playing him on the screen. I grew up watching back-and-white episodes of Superman in syndication; I remember intense confusion and misunderstanding when I eventually learned that George Reeves, start of that series, had blown his brains out (how could that be – Superman was bulletproof!).

    And, of course, it the subtleties of the antihero would have been lost on the young me.

    Fortunately, we grow up – and as we mature, so does our understanding of what a hero is (if we’re lucky).


    Thank you for your lovely  response Stephen!

    As for B&B it was an introduction to poetry…my Mother introduced me to Robert Frost (his poetry) so she was the first call to be fair…and Shakespeare

    But the treasures I found in the subterranean world of Vincent were:

    Not only more Frost and Shakespeare, but Dylan Thomas, William Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde, Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Renoir Marie Rilke.
    So I went on my own quests into libraries and bookstores to “find” these wordsmiths and their poems. And in the process found more poets and poems. (Gerard Manly Hopkins for one.) In some way it was the sound of words and how they were woven together  that called me even more than the writers!

    You are the 2nd person in two days, who has mentioned “Don’t look up.” So think I might watch that soon.


    It is interesting how early on in some stories, the idea of hero definitely has that “this vs that” Good guy vs Bad Guy.
    And it’s quite understandable how that can make an impression for everyone at very young ages. For sure!

    What I loved and love about Joe Campbell’s perspective is how the “Story” is brought back into play. The journey-the lessons on the journey-the new views or perspectives.

    As you have said, not all the journeyers who become heroes in others’ eyes later, even have that in mind when first called to adventure!
    And those journeyers seemed to me to represent a potential within all of us…

    If one looked deeper, one might see that deeds do not have to be Big to be great.

    George Reeves?
    That is heart breaking Stephen…very painful 😥 especially for a child to find out! That fragility of life…

    Christopher Reeves was not invulnerable either 🙁

    But he used what time he had to make a difference…

    The way I see “heroes” and journeys and stories has continued to grow over time.

    I’ve begun to see “hero/s” or journeyer/s as something which represent/s a universal point/or points of “awareness,” or even shift in consciousness…

    Something which is a reflection of a potential within all…which may only be sleeping.

    I know Brad’s essay left me with other thoughts and questions but am hoping others will jump into this discussion as well!

    Thank you Stephen! 🙂




    The popular heroes of my childhood, the very ones described by Brad in his reflection, were analytic blanks, devoid of the shadow elements we have come to expect in the modern anti-hero iterations. I think back to the fifties and sixties and wonder at my champions’ lack of psychological complexity. Mostly male, they seem to have no emotional pulse. They could lift entire planets but found it impossible to sit still and reflect. They could subdue evil but remained incapable of introspection. I cannot imagine the Lone Ranger sitting by the camp fire, and asking, “What’s it all about, Tonto?” Or Tonto musing, “In a way, Kemosabe, aren’t we all wearing masks?”

    Superman, at least, was possessed of a longing for his lost Krypton, as, it is said, we are all longing for our lost village. My own sense of displacement as a recent migrant to California at age 11 made it easy to identify with the Man of Steel. I identified with his isolation. But DC comics also gave us the antidote to the lonely protagonist: in the Justice League of America, individuals came together as a team as opposed to the solitary I-Alone-Can-Fix-It sort of demigod. They gathered to promote the good as they understood the good. A noble concept.

    I do not pretend to be an expert on the illustrated fiction of that era but thanks to DC the idea of a woman superhero was not beyond imagining–not just Wonder Woman, either. Supergirl was very important to many young readers. And Marvel’s response to DC’s Justice League brought us the invisible woman. (I know Stan Lee is sacrosanct these days but did he really have to make his single female paladin invisible. American society of the fifties had enough invisible women already.)

    Importantly, the Fantastic Four also brought us the wounded healer archetype, each of its Fantastic Four members dealing with what amounts to a kind of super-disability. The Thing, especially, has the fate of Hephaestus, the hobbled god, imposed upon him and only through overcoming his resentment, does the former “Ben Grimm” ascend in Campbellian style to acceptance of the call. Like Achilles he sulks. He must be lured out of his tent.

    The hero archetype is alive and evolving in the Marvel Universe. Can’t wait, as the teaser on the comic book’s back page used to say, “for our next exciting issue!”


    Spot on, jbonaduce! Your observations certainly strike a chord with my experience, John – though, truth be told, near the end of the sixties my interest in Supergirl, Batgirl, and Wonder Woman was less hero-driven and more a function of erotic cusp-of-adolescence fantasies (one of the few sources, apart from indigenous peoples highlighted in National Geographic and lingerie entries in the Sears & Roebuck catalog, of the female form, with visible, relatively clearly defined breasts, accessible to a lad from a strict religious background).

    When I was a really young child, in the primary grades, that absence of shadow elements you note in childhood heroes may not have been a bad thing: whether in comic books or on television in the 1960s, that might have been appropriate to my age (even the characters in the darkest of fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm seem to lack emotional complexity).

    I am reminded of this exchange from the Power of Myth:

    CAMPBELL: A fairy tale is the child’s myth. There are proper myths for proper times of life. As you grow older, you need a sturdier mythology . . .

    MOYERS: So there are truths for older age and truths for children.

    CAMPBELL: Oh, yes. I remember the time Heinrich Zimmer was lecturing at Columbia on the Hindu idea that all life is as a dream or a bubble; that all is maya, illusion. After his lecture a young woman came up to him and said, ‘Dr. Zimmer, that was a wonderful lecture on Indian philosophy! But maya—I don’t get it—it doesn’t speak to me.’

    ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘don’t be impatient! That’s not for you yet, darling.’ And so it is: when you get older, and everyone you’ve known and originally lived for has passed away, and the world itself is passing, the maya myth comes in. But, for young people, the world is something yet to be met and dealt with and loved and learned from and fought with—and so, another mythology.” (from the chapter in the Power of Myth book on “The Hero’s Adventure”)

    Though I may not have been ready for it as a child, I really appreciate how the Marvel franchise knocks it out of the ballpark in this area – every superhero is either struggling or has come to terms with their own shadow energies – and the film version of DC Comics follows suit (indeed, one might even say DC started this trend on the big screen with Batman, as far back as the Michael Keaton version).

    And the sense that there are myths appropriate to different ages and stages of life certainly ring true for me. Here is Joe again, from the Power of Myth, speaking of his own experience of this dynamic:

    Slaying monsters is slaying the dark things. Myths grab you somewhere down inside. As a boy, you go at it one way, as I did reading my Indian stories. Later on, myths tell you more, and more, and still more. I think that anyone who has ever dealt seriously with religious or mythic ideas will tell you that we learn them as a child on one level, but then many different levels are revealed. Myths are infinite in their revelation.”



    Perspectives and perceptions change over time. As one grows Will Rogers makes a fine point about seeing from another person’s moccasins.
    “Hero” is no longer clearly defined.
    I don’t want to risk too simple a cliche, but I remember reading a Joe Campbell passage where he said: one person’s demons were once another person’s gods…that’s a bit broad and relates to different subject in philosophy. Just noting how different perspectives change views.
    I was thinking about the Harry Potter series…and how the protagonist fell into all those “hero” traps as well as moodiness…but what impressed me more was the “tragic anti-hero” Snape, the one hated through most of the series by the protagonist…and yet felt braver than them all…

    Harry’s Dad was a “white hat” to Harry obviously because of his loss…(father quest?)  and James was championed by others: his bravery and skill. But James also  had a mean streak as a teenager and well not all was as it seemed.
    Perhaps one trap of the hero is the blinding blinkers of “righteousness.” And judgment by “appearance?”

    So there is much more nuance at play now with journeyers in heroic adventure/experience/struggle…more dimensions. And as said above dealing with that shadow side…facing it/struggling with that/finding balance in all facets/alchemically transforming or integrating the shadow side? or completely  choosing the “ring” or “falling to darkness/shadow?

    Needed a redo/re-edit wound out on a tangent without leaving a cup empty for a question (hehheh.) I would be a very poor journeyer indeed if I attempted to tell the veil of mystery everything I thought was behind it! Alas! Needed a rewind. Or patient guide/s (haha!)

    Without defining: sometimes to me it feels as though there are myths where the hero/es have to relate to a social order.

    And other myths where something universal is at play and the hero/es have to deal with that.

    Would that make any difference where a “hero” or journeyer is concerned?
    Or anti-hero…or turned hero?

    Or perhaps that is Maya/illusion and I’m forgetting that beyond pairs of opposites both social and universal are born from one place?

    Regardless…I love the idea Brad said at the end of his essay:

    Perhaps the anti-hero, having vanquished the conventional, classical hero, has done us the favor of forcing us to discover we don’t need heroes “out there” in the world. We need to find heroism within ourselves, we need to discover that we already are the heroes for which we’ve been hoping. That is the truly heroic turn: to attempt to consciously reach beyond the archetype in an effort to become unflinchingly empathetic, mercifully humane and entirely human human beings.

    So To find our own courage is quite heroic in just being human and kind!

    And maybe just maybe that’s where those beautiful innate compassionate qualities come back into play!


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