Monday, July 25, 2005

What makes somebody a universal hero?

(With apologies to David Colbert, who has a similarly titled chapter in "The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter")

I have a theory. Humans are supposed to respond to stories, because God has designed us to respond to the Great Story - the storyline of the Bible in which God reveals himself and displays his purposes to save people from out of the world. (Incidentally, I'm not sure that evolution has a terribly sound explanation as to why we should relate to narrative! :-) )

I would suggest that one of the implications of that is that there are various narrative motifs which have near-universal human significance. Sacrificial love is one; the idea of a hero is another. I have no doubt that there are learned papers that have been written that explore these themes, though possibly not making the connection with the plotline of the Bible. One of the problems of the Bible is that it is rarely regarded these days as a narrative whole. Christians focus on individual chapters. Non-christians tend to focus on the fact that the book was written over 1600 years by lots of different authors, and overlook the overarching themes. (Like the fact that it starts of with humans created in the presence of God, and ends with humans in the presence of God). Biblical theology seeks to move back towards having a regard for the whole Bible, and I have been strongly influenced by this approach for some years.

Anyway, it was interesting to read in Colbert's book above reference to the idea of a universal hero. Examples of universal heros or Hidden Monarchs - such as "Oedipus, Moses or King Arthur" - or Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling! - abound in "every culture". What are the characteristics of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces"? According to Joseph Campbell (cited in Colbert's book), their story may be summarized as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow books on his fellow man.
Here are some of the characteristics of these heroes:
@ The hero is called to adventure from everyday life.
@ The hero may refuse the call to adventure, but if he does, he will find he has no choice.
@ The hero meets a protector and guide who offers supernatural aid.
@ The hero encounters a first threshold to the new world, and enters "the belly of the whale".
@ The hero follows a road of trials.
@ The hero is abducted.
@ The hero fights a symbolic dragon. He may suffer a ritual death.
@ The hero is recognised by or reunited with his father. He comes to understand this source of control over his life.
@ The hero becomes nearly divine. He has travelled past ignorance and fear.
@ The hero receives the goal of his quest.
@ The hero takes a "magic flight" back to his original world. He crosses the return threshold.
@ The hero becomes master of two worlds.
@ The hero has won the freedom to live.

Interesting how close some of those are to the story of Jesus. Campbell (whose book on the basis of these comments I feel strongly drawn to read!) says, apparently, "every one of us shares the supreme ordeal." However, what Biblical theology would imply is that the reason the hero is significant for us is because we don't all share this ordeal - we are looking for a hero who will do this on our behalf, and who will bestow his favour on us.