The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, November 21, 2005

Who is the "Hero" in the Hero's Journey?

During the past thirty years, much has been (rightfully) made of Joseph
Campbell's breakthrough research in cultural anthropology, most
famously published in "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." In this book,
Campbell examines the many cultural expressions of the heroic role
model, and in doing so helped to establish the universality of human
hopes, dreams, and lives.

Hollywood, in particular, has embraced this vision, which powers dozens
of films a year, and has become clich├ęd wisdom in development executive
suites all over Southern California. Of course, the question of the
nature of heroes enters other arenas as well. In the political arena,
shaping doctrine around strong leader figures is one way to promote
ideas to the public. Heroic firefighters and soldiers appear in ads
for one party or another, and our elected officials trumpet their
military service-or are criticized for their lack thereof, or are
called cowards or even traitors if they disagree with the plans or
opinions of an opponent.

Whether one wishes to understand the "Hero's Journey" as a tool for
fiction, or desires to rise above the rhetoric a bit, it's useful to
define just exactly what a hero is. This is, after all, the human face
of the story. If the "Journey" is important, even more so is the
person taking it. If we, as a culture, tend to worship and follow
heroes, it is vital to have a definition of exactly what this is.

Of course, each of us should search our own hearts for the definitions
that help us guide our lives. With that understanding, I'd like to
present a definition that has worked for this writer and citizen for
many years.

"A hero is a man or woman who holds to their deepest values, regardless
of the stress or pressures."

This applies to soldiers in combat, teachers in the inner city, mothers
sacrificing for their children, artists resisting commercial demands,
teenagers resisting the call of drugs or alcohol or premature
sexuality. It demands that the "Hero" understand his or her deepest
values, and often, the entire purpose of a story is to force them to
confront these deeper truths, stripping away superfluous ego-identity.

Culturally, this means that a person of Heroic dimension doesn't
necessarily share our point of view, our political beliefs, even our
morality. To understand this is to understand how an apparent moral
monster can be lionized by his followers. When we disagree with a
leader, and are forced to dehumanize him in order to justify our own
position, we diminish our capacity to understand the human condition.

We must hold to our values, and be clear about them. The entire world
of advertising-whether Madison Avenue is selling cereal or an unpopular
war-is based on anchoring some goal to basic human drives. Those who
are uncertain of their values are like straws in the wind, blown by
whoever plucks their strings. No wonder we cherish those who seem
clear and strong in their identity, who stand by their choices even
under stress. No wonder we respect these men and women even as it
becomes clear that flexibility and compromise might be the better way.
At least they believe in SOMETHING!

If we are to grow beyond sheep needing a shepherd, we must be strong
ourselves. We must know ourselves deeply and honestly, and find the
bedrock of our own morality. From this place it is easiest to determine
when a leader is truly worthy of emulation or admiration or obedience.
When we walk this road of self-discovery, we become heroes ourselves,
experiencing the adventure of our own lifetimes.

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