Friday, January 11, 2008

Lessons of Modern Mythology, Part 3

My third and final lesson from modern mythology (well, final in the sense that I'm moving on to another topic after this, not that there are exactly three lessons to glean from modern mythology) is the hardest one to actually parse. I don't really have a cut-and-dry example of either end to draw from. I just have a general idea. The nature of the hero has changed. Dramatically. Specifically, the universe no longer revolves around and moves according to the hero's whim. In the classical sense of mythology the hero was generally the only one who could achieve the goal at hand and therefore the only figure who mattered. We learn about the hero, the hero's sidekick/companion, if there is one, and everyone else is pretty much an afterthought. Jason had the Argonauts, Achilles had the Myrmidons, Beowulf had, um, a bunch of Danes (I'm pretty sure they had a specific label. I'm equally sure I don't know what that label is), and so on. We are told that the Argonauts and Myrmidons are suitable companions to the hero, but little beyond that. Then there's the sidekick as the next level. Achilles had Patrokles, who at one point went in to battle wearing the greater warrior's armor and nearly convinced everyone he was actually Achilles until he made the mistake of dying. Modern mythology follows this trend fairly faithfully, mostly because it makes a bunch of sense. Tolkien put Frodo and Aragorn amongst the Nine Walkers, then broke it down, sending Frodo to Mordor with his sidekick, Sam, while Aragorn went off and fought accompanied by Legolas and Gimli. On Babylon 5, Sheridan is surrounded by his crew and various comrades. Boy Meets World actually works the pattern pretty well, too, with Cory and his best friend Shawn at first, but eventually adding in Topanga, Eric, Angela, Rachel, and Jack. The concept litters other parts of the spectrum. Buddy cop movies, for one, hearken back to the idea of the hero with the companion who travels through all danger. This is where the point of departure comes in and becomes a bit complicated. The hero's journey is, ultimately, a solitary trip. There are some places the hero must go alone or the hero cannot go at all and win the boon. Campbell explained why this idea remains as a necessary part of the journey when he equated the hero's journey to the internal journey we must all make in order to move forward with life.* Modern mythology, however, recognizes that the hero cannot bear the burden alone. It's why Sam was absolutely necessary to Frodo's quest to destroy the ring. Sam even bore the ring for a while and at the end stood above the flames of Mount Doom, pleading with his friend to do what was necessary. On a different level, it's how I've been able to watch Babylon 5 three or four times now. The main characters are all fleshed out and as fully realized as possible. I learn something new about Garibaldi, G'Kar, or Lando every time through. I can actually ignore Sheridan and focus on his particular Myrmidons, rather than having to think of them as a support cast. This change has come with an increasing awareness that the hero is not necessarily superhuman. We never see a Sheridan who is entirely comfortable with his apotheosis and some characters stand as vocal critics of the transformation while most of those who know him don't exactly give in to worship. In other areas, Boy Meets World being an excellent example, the "hero" never becomes a hero in any classically mythological sense. In either case, the hero cannot undertake everything on his own and at times must turn aside from his path in order to help his friends and companions. As best I can explain it, we see a shift from the hero being the absolute center of the universe to being a pivot point for the universe. They hold a key role, but without them the universe would go on. Episode 21 of season 2 of Babylon 5, "Comes the Inquisitor," illustrates the point nicely. Sheridan is already aware of the fact that he is being groomed to play a vital role in the upcoming struggle, but is willing to sacrifice himself for a "lesser" cause because he recognizes the fact that if he falls, another will take his place. Frodo carried the One Ring not because he was the greatest hero and the only one who could complete the task, but because he was the only one who was willing to do it. Meanwhile, the great warrior hero, Aragorn, gathered all the forces of good on his side, traveled to the gates of Mordor and acted as a diversionary force. There are flashes of this idea in ancient works. Homer's Illiad is really a who's who of ancient heroes on some level. Achilles was the greatest warrior and much of the plot revolved around him, but he died before the end. Surrounding him were great warriors like Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus. Facing him were Hector, Paris, and Aeneas. Homer would, of course, add the epic story of Odysseus's return journey to the classic tales of heroism while Virgil would later go back and make Aeneas in to a great hero in order to write the myth of the founding of Rome and connect it back to a glorious, heroic past. Still, the Odyssey and the Aeneid are epics after the fact. Achilles might have stood as one among many, but he was still the center. Agamemnon would not sail before he secured Achilles' assistance, after all. The Greeks knew that without Achilles they could not overcome the Trojans. I suppose, if there's a lesson to be learned, the conception of the mythological hero has changed to this: instead of being the only one who is able, the hero is now the one who is willing. This actually fits nicely with the idea of the hero's journey as an internal struggle. Difficulty confronts all of us. Some choose to just go with the flow, some choose to try to opt out of the struggle altogether, but some choose to stand for something and try to make good or unmake evil. The battles are fought in different ways, too. The Lord of the Rings unfolds in a world where evil was allowed to fester because the ancient forces of good thought that winning on the battlefield was the only necessary component to victory. By the time of Aragorn and Frodo, however, victory on the battlefield was impossible and became a sideshow. Captain John Sheridan interposed his own fleet in to the middle of an impossible situation and won the day by understanding the necessity of opting out. Modern mythology recognizes that the hero makes a new kind of journey that needs a new kind of hero. Up next: The two worst things that happened to mythology. *This requires putting aside the fact that Campbell was overly enamored with psychoanalysis. I wouldn't necessarily recommend taking that entirely at face value, since psychology has moved just a bit beyond Freud. Still, the underlying assumption that there is something to the way symbols tend to repeat themselves throughout myth and in the human subconscious certainly lends a bit of credence to looking at the various lessons we can learn from the topic.


tilts_at_windmills said...

I just stumbled across your blog and I'm loving your "mythology project."

So after reading your posts, and this one in particular, I've got a sort of half formed question:

When I watched Babylon 5 I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable with Sheridan's role, and to a lesser extent with Delenn's as well, in the second half of the series. The people who challenge Sheridan's authority are variously brainwashed or murderous, but I found myself feeling like they had a point.

I wasn't really able to articulate what bothered me until near the end, when we flash forward a couple of decades and learn that in the intervening time the only leadership has been Sheridan, his wife, and his best friend. No doubt their governance was benign, and it isn't dictatorship since by implication they were elected, but it's hard to reconcile the scenario with healthy democracy--especially given that a lot of the common folk seem to believe there's something Chosen or mystical about Sheridan, and perhaps Delenn as well.

The Hero as King makes perfect sense in a monarchical society, where the king is necessarily imagined to be Chosen, to have some quality other men do not. The Hero as president is more problematic. We all know it's dangerous to elect someone with a Messiah Complex, but it's also dangerous to elect an actual Messiah if you hope to eventually replace him with someone else. Democracy requires the belief that politicians are not special, that their authority is on loan to them from the people, and not inherent within them.

So I guess my question is whether the Hero's Journey only fully works when set in a monarchy, or at least in a heavily hierarchical society. Or, more modestly, whether the Hero's Journey only fully works in a democracy when the Hero doesn't possess political power.

What do you think? And if you're watching Battlestar Galactica, what do you think of how it's handling this tension?

Geds said...

Regarding Sheridan: I agree.

Sadly, I don't think I can really give Straczynski a pass on this one, but I hadn't hit a point where I felt I needed to/could address the issue. I think I'm going to turn this in to a post, though, because there's a lot behind it and I've been thinking about this for a week now...

As for Battlestar Galactica, though, I can't say anything. I've only seen two episodes of the new version and didn't even know it was a serial program when I did.