The brilliant camharr and I were having a conversation about Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and she said something so resonant and on-point I had to share it (hopefully she’ll find time to blog her own thoughts about it at some point). In an interview, Bujold makes a great point about how non-universal Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” actually is (Campbell apparently knew squat about women’s lives and made the typical male academic mistake of assuming that men’s experience is human experience full stop; we’ll leave aside for now all the other reasons the monomyth is crap). In the hero’s journey, the hero goes out into the world, does some stuff, and comes back home. But Bujold points out that given the exogamous nature of most cultures, the heroine goes out into the world, and keeps going.
And then Cameron gave the most succinct and lovely summation of a heroine’s journey archetype I’ve heard yet:
“Woman loses everything she thinks she needs, discovers her own power, and builds a family who will fight with her to the bitter end.”
Reminds me of a great article I read once about Buffy (and yes, Buffy had its problems, and yes, there are a lot of issues with Joss Whedon’s takes on female heroes, BUT). It pointed out the whole archetype of the hero as lone gunslinger, who protects the community but cannot be part of it, and who must ultimately go it alone to retain his heroic status, and described how Buffy subverts this. Spike articulates it when he notes that Buffy is different — stronger and more resilient — than other Slayers because she has a team around her, and it’s when she tries to go it alone that she (and, I think, the show) falls short. Buffy ultimately embodies a different sort of heroic archetype, one that certainly isn’t exclusively feminine, but I think speaks to more women’s experiences:
The hero is someone who builds and is the center of the heroic family.
The family may be blood relatives, it may be teammates or coworkers, it may be a group of friends or a biker gang. But it’s a collection of people that together function in the hero role.
Art by Howard David Johnson.
Here is the interview Jessica refers to. Spoilers only start in the Q&A portion, halfway down the page.
And I would like to write about the heroine’s journey at some point. Just muddling through my thoughts (and other commitments!) first.
Yes. So much, yes.
I’m always wary of reductivism when discussing myth and literature (I don’t like Campbell, and I tend to roll my eyes at those “there are only fourteen stories in the world!!!” thingies). My dad is a folklorist and one time when we were talking about this he said “The specific does not yield to the general without loss.” (Yes, my dad talks this way.) Meaning that, sure, you can try and lump Apollo and Horus and Nanahuatl all together under the category of “sun gods,” or you can say that The Odyssey is the same story as the Epic of Gilgamesh because both feature a hero who journeys far and goes through the underworld and finally comes home, but to do that you have to lose sight of a million ways in which they are *not* the same—a million specific details that are actually crucial to really understanding these stories. Cultural context is vital; you can handwave it away but you lose something—you lose a ton—when you do that. And the bland, generic thing you end up with—“The Sun God,” “The Hero’s Journey,”—is vastly less interesting than the deep, real, living complexity of Horus or Gilgamesh. The specific does not yield to the general without loss.
Please high-five your dad for me; he sounds amazing, and that’s the problem I’ve had ever since I read The Hero With A Thousand Faces (I’m not a trained folklorist outside of a few college classes, but it’s been a passion of mine since I was given a Jane Yolen collection of folktales for, IIRC, my sixth birthday). Sure, there are some universal elements, but they’re the least interesting thing about most stories.
But…I absolutely believe in recurring patterns in myth and story. And those can be interesting to examine—with the caveat that often the most interesting thing about them are the points where individual stories deviate from the general pattern.
Robert Alter has some great things to say about why genre templates are important in The Art of Biblical Narrative. Forgive me, because I’m going to quote a bunch of text, but there’s so much good stuff about story archetypes packed into Alter’s writing that I really want to share it.
He talks about the frequency of the type-scene in biblical texts (and compares it to the basic plot of many Westerns, which center around a “fastest gun in the West” sheriff), and how the seeming repetition of the same story (the angel announcing the birth of a child, the couple meeting at a well, etc.) has confounded biblical scholars. Did it happen because there were multiple versions of the same story and for some reason the people compiling the text couldn’t pick one or thought it was important to keep them all? Were they confused about whether or not they were the same story? Was it just carelessness or remnants of a messy oral tradition or a completionist obsession?
Alter’s got a different theory:
The variations in the parallel episodes are not at all random, as a scrambling by oral transmission would imply, and the repetitions themselves are no more “duplications” of a single ur-story than our eleven films about a fast-shooting sheriff were duplications of a single film. […]
When I was first reading Campbell and being frustrated at how the most interesting parts of the story kept getting lost in trying to make it some sort of ur-story, I hadn’t thought to relate it to our enjoyment of genre tropes, but I think there’s something really cool there. We like genre tropes because they dispense with a lot of the work for both the storyteller and the audience, functioning as a sort of mutually-understood shorthand. This lets the storyteller put most of her effort into what she considers important, which is usually going to be the ways that her story differs from the standard, and lets the audience know where to focus its attention. It helps distinguish the signal from the noise. Or, as Alter puts it:
And, in any case, as is true of all original art, what is really interesting is not the schema of convention but what is done in each individual application of the schema to give it a sudden tilt of innovation or even to refashion it radically for the imaginative purposes at hand. […]
It also can, in some cases, function as literal shorthand, allowing storytellers to allude to something briefly and evoke the richness of that archetype without having to spend too much time reiterating it:
What I am suggesting is that the contemporary audiences of these tales, being perfectly familiar with the convention, took particular pleasure in seeing how in each instance the convention could be, through the narrator’s art, both faithfully followed and renewed for the specific needs of the hero under consideration. In some cases, moreover, the biblical authors, counting on their audience’s familiarity with the features and function of the type-scene, could merely allude to the type-scene or present a transfigured version of it.
I also really like how Alter talks about the enjoyment that comes purely from manipulating the convention, aside from any deeper meaning, but then gets to exactly why the convention itself is important as more than just a foundation to build variations on — the convention draws connections between a storyteller’s version of a story and other versions. It lends a sense of profundity to it, a sense of having a place in a larger pattern. And while that’s similar to Campbell’s idea of a universal, Jungian ur-story that’s floating around in everyone’s brain, I think it’s a lot more interesting because it gets at the intentionality of making that sort of claims to universality that repeating heroic archetypes suggests.
In all this, of course, we must keep in mind that what we are witnessing is not merely the technical manipulation of a literary convention for the sheer pleasure of play with the convention, though, as I argued at the end of the previous chapter, significant playful activity on the part of the Hebrew writers should by no means be discounted, even in these sacred texts. The type-scene is not merely a way of formally recognizing a particular kind of narrative moment; it is also a means of attaching that moment to a larger pattern of historical and theological meaning.
And here at last we get to what I really love about his analysis (emphasis mine):
Instead of relegating every perceived recurrence in the text to the limbo of duplicated sources or fixed folkloric archetypes, we may begin to see that the resurgence of certain pronounced patterns at certain narrative junctures was conventionally anticipated, even counted on, and that against that ground of anticipation the biblical authors set words, motifs, themes, personages, and actions into an elaborate dance of significant innovation. For much of art lies in the shifting aperture between the shadowy foreimage in the anticipating mind of the observer and the realized revelatory image in the work itself, and that is what we must learn to perceive more finely in the Bible.
The most plausible hypothesis, then, is that these intriguing instances of recurrent sequences of narrative motif reflect a literary convention that, like other narrative conventions, enabled the teller of the tale to orient his listeners, to give them intricate clues as to where the tale was going, how it differed delightfully or ingeniously or profoundly from other similar tales.
I love it because THIS is what’s lost in Campbell’s attempts to reduce everything to one story:
There is so much pleasure, as an audience, in having the storyteller violate our expectations of where the story is going to go instead of confirming them.
The structure, the repetition, the genre tropes — they’re what make that pleasure possible. As my former boss and mentor, Jordan Weisman, used to put it when talking about creating good speculative fiction: “Emphasize the familiar so the audience can appreciate the exotic.”
So much of the enjoyment of genre fiction comes from the departure of what we expect, just as dissonance, not consonance, is what creates the sense of movement in a piece of music. But just as dissonance is meaningless noise outside of the context of tonality, those departures don’t mean anything unless we’re familiar with the archetype.
So, I do love this line—“The hero is someone who builds and is the center of the heroic family”—because it is a particularly feminine pattern. I don’t think it’s the only feminine mode of heroism, but it’s a really nice trope to put alongside the Campbell-esque Hero’s Journey.
Yeah, I don’t believe there’s a single mode of heroism, but I do think that there are patterns, and it’s important to ask why those patterns get repeated over other ways stories could go.
I will add that I spent some time trying to think of classical or ancient myths that fit this pattern—a woman gathering together a heroic family—and almost all of them either end tragically (Deirdre of the Sorrows, most of the Amazon stories), cast the woman in an adversarial role (Calypso, Ishtar, Queen Medb, Louhi), or both (Helen of Troy, Medea).
I don’t think you can separate stories of female heroism from the patriarchal context a lot of them come from, a context that was generally suspicious of female heroism or leadership (I mean, consider the Greeks insisting that the only female form of arete was beauty). The idea of a woman being the star of her own story, rather than a figure in a man’s story, was already potentially problematic (and, unfortunately, still gets treated as a problem today, but we’re making progress at least).
So I think it’s telling that the sort of feminine leadership that is clearly positioned as heroic today was more commonly a characteristic of female villains — women that needed to be stopped! — for a lot of human history. I mean, if you’re part of a patriarchal society in which women and children are essentially men’s property, the idea of a woman being the one to choose and build a family (rather than merely being the vessel through which a man does it) is a pretty blatant power-grab.
The examples where the woman pulling together a chosen family is treated within the story as a heroic figure, and triumphs, are pretty rare: Isis, Penelope, Ariadne are the ones I came up with off the top of my head. But it’s interesting many of the classical “hero’s journeys” can be looked at as a thwarted or tragic “heroine’s chosen family,” if you come at it from a different angle.
Ooh, that last is a brilliant point!
CAMERON, DID YOU SEE THIS LAST SENTENCE? NEW VISTAS JUST OPENED UP IN MY BRAIN. :D