Once a Hero, Always the Hero?
After a lengthy journey full of hardship and struggle, the final threshold has at last been crossed. The dragon’s been slain, the maiden rescued, the treasure recovered, and the kingdom restored. As our Hero takes a victory lap, credits roll and the Happily-Ever-Aftering begins.
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There’s a natural tendency to assume the hero’s journey story arc, as it plays out in myth, fairy tale, film—and even in our own lives—always arrives at a happy ending. Though we rarely see what happens to heroes after their story ends, the default setting imagines they remain ennobled and heroic, dispensing good deeds all the rest of their days.
Alas, “once a hero, always the hero” is, at best, wishful thinking.
The Star Wars saga comes to mind, especially given George Lucas’ acknowledgment of Joseph Campbell’s influence.
In the original film trilogy (released between 1977 and 1983), the experience of young Luke Skywalker closely mirrors the trajectory of the hero’s journey. The concluding trilogy in the series (released from 2015 to 2019) returns to the same universe decades later, where we are introduced to new characters, catch up with old friends, and learn of yet another threat from “the Dark Side.” Luke has long since disappeared, off to parts unknown, and much of the urgency of the first film of the final trilogy (The Force Awakens) is focused on the need to find Skywalker so he can lead the battle against this new evil.
In December, 2017, The Last Jedi—the second film in this end trilogy—arrived in theaters. In its opening moments Rey, a young girl with a natural ability in the Force who served as the central figure of the previous film, has tracked Luke to a remote planet. As she approaches, Rey holds out Luke’s old lightsaber as an invitation back to the fray. The Jedi Master casually tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder in what seems a classic “Refusal of the Call,” and the audience settles in for a rollicking adventure following the old formula, ready for Luke to relive his glory days.
Turns out, that’s not where the movie goes. Rather than simply rehash what’s been done before, the story breaks open, introducing new themes, exploring the tension between polarities (not just good/evil, but also attraction/repulsion, uniformity/diversity, and more), and passing the torch (or lightsaber?) from one generation to the next.
Star Wars fandom erupted. Even though this episode received critical acclaim as the first film in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with something new to say, many fans were disappointed.
The gripe that seemed to generate the most heat centered around the realization that Luke Skywalker is not the hero of this trilogy, but rather a curmudgeonly mentor to the young female protagonist. Despite the fact that several decades have elapsed in that galaxy “far far away” and a new generation has stepped up to the plate, many had trouble letting go the idea of the aging Jedi Master as the once and future hero.
At least Luke goes out on a high note. Heroes do not always end well after their story is told. Joseph Campbell tells of a darker turn that can occur.
Campbell represents the primary task of the archetypal hero as that of facing a monster:
The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of “my and mine.” The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world — no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions.
Throughout his opus, Campbell often refers to this figure as “the tyrant Holdfast”:
For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps. (289)
Often, in myth and fairy tale, the hero who overthrows the tyrant Holdfast succeeds to the throne and restores the land—hence the Happily-Ever-Aftering—but Campbell warns of a danger that can follow, where the hero “becomes the tyrant ogre (Herod-Nimrod), the usurper from whom the world is now to be saved” (299).
We can find echoes of this theme throughout mythic lore. As one example, in Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin warns King Arthur of the birth of a child destined to be his downfall (Mordred, nephew of Arthur, in some tales conceived of incest between Arthur and his half-sister). To avert this catastrophe, Arthur orders children born on May Day to be sent out to sea where all perish save Mordred, who miraculously survives. Arthur’s selfish deed spawns dire and dramatic consequences decades later.
Similarly David, the hero-king of ancient Israel (who slew the giant Goliath when just a shepherd lad), seduces and impregnates the beautiful Bathsheba, then uses his royal office to arrange the death of his lover’s husband to conceal his own adultery.
The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today. (303)
(Campbell offers valuable clues as to how to do exactly that—crucify oneself—which often involves letting go and yielding to the creative moment, in Creative Mythology, one of JCF’s featured works this month).
The metaphor of the Hero’s Journey can serve as an invaluable tool for re-imagining and mythologizing one’s life—but there are times it can also be a bit of a straitjacket. As Abraham Maslow says in The Psychology of Science: A Renaissance, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
There are times when I am called not to be the hero, but a mentor—and other times when my role is, at best, that of mere bystander, witness to what’s unfolding. And when I identify only and always with The Hero, regardless of circumstance, that’s when my inner Tyrant Holdfast is most likely to emerge.
What I have learned over time is that the Hero’s Journey isn’t always all about me (a lesson that bears repeating): “Once a hero, always the hero,” no more.
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