POST# 11. THE HERO’S JOURNEY … OR NOT

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell observes that hero myths from cultures all around the world share a basic structure that he calls the monomyth:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The monomyth is only the basic structure or template. Different hero myths add plot devices and stylistic elements to particular myths, which explains why they appear so unique and diverse to the untrained eye. However, some of the diverse plot devices have common features, and, if they appear, tend to appear at predictable points in the cycle. The monomyth has been diagrammed to illustrate the basic cycle and the most frequently recurring plot devices:

pastedGraphic.pdf

[Source: Wikipedia File: Herosjourney.svg]

Scholars of comparative myths, folk, and fairy tales have condensed the concept of the hero’s journey into the following paradigm:

Separation – Initiation – Return.

From a broader perspective, however, this can be the paradigm for all storytelling, especially if one substitutes the word “conflict” for “initiation.” That very substitution was made in a paradigm describing the structure of one subset of myths, fairy tales. The fairy tale paradigm is:

Childhood – conflict – Marriage.

The monomyth and the above two paradigms are similar in a number of ways. Most notably, they’re all cyclical, going from stability to instability and back again, with an enhancement or improvement at the return to stability.

The Trojan War Myth is a collection of heroic myths beneath an overarching theme: the mobilization of western civilization to recapture its honor from an eastern culture that ‘stole’ it. Though the shadow of Xeno’s eye is a re-telling of that myth, I never thought of it as heroic, even though Xeno, a soldier, overcomes obstacles while on a journey that changes him profoundly. The modern parallel story, our invasion of Iraq, is far from a heroic tale as a whole, though there were countless acts of heroism within it. I found myself unable to completely separate the question of whether shadow is a heroic journey from whether Xeno is a hero, in Campbell’s sense of the word. The starting point eventually came to me when I realized that what shadow was really about, the story it actually told, made it different from the Trojan War myth in which it’s set.

Shadow’s real story doesn’t begin until after Xeno leaves the horse and enters the palace with Menalaous. Xeno’s life history up to that point, and the myth of the Trojan War, are mere background elements. They provide setting, and make Xeno’s dark vision plausible. They position him to be in the horse, and explain his readiness to volunteer for the garrison. As a protagonist, he doesn’t volunteer for the story’s real journey or answer any call to it. He inadvertently stumbles into the real story in the palace’s servant quarters, and even then, mistakes it for something else until he, again inadvertently, backs into the truth of what he saw and did when he saved Menalaous’ life.

Campbell describes the climax of the hero’s journey as follows:

“Eventually, the hero encounters the purpose of his journey, the evil that brought him/her into the unknown, the conflict comes to a head, and the hero’s transformed”

There is no purpose to the journey on which shadow sends Xeno, nor does any great conflict come to a head. Xeno observes evil (power politics and emotion-laden propaganda that eventually becomes mythologized), but he doesn’t confront it, let alone conquer or slay it. He merely adapts as best he can. Xeno can’t be a hero because shadow is not a hero’s journey. Nor can he be an anti-hero, someone who undertakes a hero’s journey for the wrong reasons, or who bravely overcomes powerful forces on a corrupt journey (Huckleberry Finn, Danny Ocean of Ocean’s Eleven et seq., Dexter.)  He overcomes obstacles, but his struggle to adapt is a struggle merely to persevere, like a barnacle or a cockroach.

If Xeno isn’t a hero, what is he, and what does that make shadow? Though Xeno lives in antiquity, he serves as a surveillance camera, an audio-visual bug planted in private places, or on a surgical probe deep in the body’s recesses. He doesn’t go from the known into unknown worlds, or into the jaws of vastly more powerful forces, at least not to confront evil or encounter danger. He remains in the known world, but finds himself (yes, inadvertently) in the rarely observed part of the known world, bearing witness to its often unseen machinations. He’s a “camera eye” (apologies to John dos Passos and, apparently, to Rush), showing the all-too-real but unseen universe that’s right under our noses. Xeno as “camera eye” suggests that shadow is an expose. However, exposing “the face that launched a thousand ships” is not shadow’s climax, and is not followed by a denouement. That exposure merely ends Xeno’s first tour de force as the camera eye. What makes it a tour de force, however, is that the 21st century reader knows things that Xeno doesn’t and can’t possibly know, things that make Xeno’s observations prescient. When Agamemnon, leader of the invading western coalition, shouts “mission accomplished” and leaves only a skeletal occupation force because “they will welcome us as liberators,” 21st century readers realize (hopefully) that a parallel story is being told between the lines, the story of a 21st century western coalition that invaded Asia (Iraq) under false pretenses, with disastrous results. Then, as now, the toppling of an autocratic ruler frees local factions to resume their in-fighting. Then, as now, the stronger local factions eventually gain dominance, and the invading western coalition’s sacrifices (in terms of lives and finances) are rendered pointless.

Ironically, Xeno is transformed, though he doesn’t return to complete the hero-journey cycle, and his transformation doesn’t enhance him “with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” As he survives like a barnacle, just hanging on, he becomes alienated, estranged from his current and former culture alike, unable to take comfort in the iconic myths and symbols that people intuitively absorb and accept without question. Unlike counter-cultures, where the alienated reject prevailing myths and symbols in favor of counter myths and symbols, Xeno’s estrangement is from the very concept of myths and symbols as social constructs, because he’s seen how they were manipulated in a way that led people to deceive themselves. This kind of estrangement doesn’t bring similarly minded people together; they merely see other isolates equally adrift and realize their despair is not uniquely their own. That’s another reason why Xeno is “ … so alone. So alone.” (See POST #10. THE STRANGER) The reader undergoes at least a parallel, if not identical transformation, realizing how iconic american myths and symbols were manipulated to fraudulently justify an invasion of an asian civilization in the 21st century.

If Xeno is a camera eye, rather than a hero or anti-hero, leading us through  an un-heroic adventure that isn’t an expose, what is the shadow of Xeno’s eye? Though I call it a parable on shadow’s Smashwords page, it isn’t really a parable, because it isn’t succinct (far from it) and teaches no moral lesson. It’s allegorical, in that it has symbolic and subtextual meanings, but allegory, as I understand it, is a literary device or procedure rather than a genre, and shadow’s symbolic and subtextual meanings aren’t moral or judgmental. the shadow of Xeno’s eye is thus an allegorical something-or-other, but that’s all I know. I didn’t set out to invent a new genre, and don’t think I did. The story just doesn’t belong in conventional ways of thinking. But neither does Xeno. Neither do I.

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