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What are some characteristics that heroes in your life possess? Most would say undeniable strength, a kind heart, and a chiseled jaw. However, unfortunately, not all men with these features can really save us. In order to identify true heroes in our lives, we need to identify the true aspects of a hero.
This is important in today’s modern culture because there are many terrible things happening in the world this very moment. There are thousands of kind-hearted civilians doing God’s work and helping stop the monstrosities around the globe, yet can they be considered heroes? Who do we award this high honor to anyone that goes to Africa and gives out a few shots to malnourished children? Joseph Campbell’s “The Self as Hero”, published in 2004, is an informative young adult speech that describes the journey of a hero. Campbell describes the necessary steps in order to be declared a ‘hero’, using examples from various texts, folklores, and movies.
I will validate Campbell’s examples of heroes by evaluating two stories that he uses, The Ramayana by R.K. Narayan and The Odyssey by Homer, as well as Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, and examining four heroic aspects of the journey that Campbell defines. By understanding these texts, we can assess the validity of Campbell’s use of short examples to argue his claim as well as the validity of any story deemed ‘heroic’.
One of the first steps of a hero’s journey is recognized as the ‘call to adventure’.
Each quest has a different call to adventure; Rama begins his journey into the forest to save his wife, Sita, while Odysseus is summoned to leave home and attack Troy. Siddhartha’s dissatisfaction with the materialistic life encourages him to lead a simpler life. However, Campbell does not analyze the fact that some stories have multiple calls to adventure instead of just one. Therefore, there can be more than one heroic cycle within one story. In Pathway’s to Bliss, Joseph Campbell depicts the main purpose of the tale being that “Rama’s wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon king. Much of The Ramayana concerns Rama’s recovery of Sita” (Campbell, 2004). Campbell hints that Rama’s call to adventure begins when Ravana abducts his wife, Sita, from him while they are living in the forest. This can be considered The Ramayana’s call to adventure as the kidnapping forces Rama to begin his heroic expedition. However, this is not the only initiation of the journey that can be identified.
Another call to adventure that scholars have acknowledged is when Rama’s father exiles him to the forest from Ayodhya on Queen Kaikeyi’s demands. Here, Rama physically leaves his home, or ordinary world, and begins his adventure. Both are valid contenders for being the story’s jumpstart. Campbell dismissed the fact that a heroic tale can have more than one call to adventure, like The Ramayana exhibits. This error in Campbell’s evaluation can also be recognized in The Odyssey, originally written by Homer. Many experts argue that Odysseus’ call to adventure is summoned when he is forced to go attack Troy to save the wife of Menelaus, Helen. Others claim that his journey begins when Zeus frees him from Kalypso’s spell and his descent home resumes. We can identify two completely separate adventures with two separate calls. Although if we look at the story as a whole instead of separate parts, a clearer heroic story emerges that fits the general outline that Campbell describes. Scholars may choose to view a heroic tale as having multiple calls to begin the journey or as smaller, separate journeys within a story. Either can be proven. It is safe to say that almost all heroic tales have this step in their plot. Nonetheless, it seems as if Campbell finds one call to adventure, then moves on to the next story for an example. He does not fully analyze the story to identify other calls like I have. Campbell lacks this consideration that is undeniably evident.
As the call to adventure is almost always a sure thing in any heroic story, the role of a woman is not always so certain. Sometimes, the magical aid or guide that a hero meets in their journey is a woman. Unfortunately, this is generally not the case, as many authors would rather appoint a male with such wisdom and power. Traditional authors have valued this idea for centuries. Many writers, who were typically men in the mid 1900’s and earlier, followed typical gender roles. The men would go to war and work while the women cleaned the home and raised the children. Thus, men would go be superheroes whereas the women were incapable. Instead of being a heroic figure, many women have minor roles in a tale. Some writers feel that women play the part of a seductress rather well. Campbell states that if the hero falls under the spell of the temptress, the journey has ended. This is incorrect. Many protagonists, including Odysseus and Siddhartha, despairingly give up and are wooed by a woman. Odysseus describes how his seductress treated him, saying “the gods brought me [Odysseus] to the island Ogygia, where Kalypso lives, with ordered hair, a dread goddess, and she received me and loved me excessively and cared for me, and she promised to make me an immortal and all my days to be ageless, but never so could she win over the heart within me” (Homer, 1952). Through the text, we can identify Kalypso’s compassion for her lover. Nonetheless, it was not reciprocated. It is evident that she was okay with that as they lived together for many years. They still pleased each other.
Yet eventually, Odysseus resumed his journey back home. He collapsed under Kalypso’s temptation; therefore, under Campbell’s standards, Odysseus is not a hero. But doesn’t it make him even more of a hero that he could benefit from the fruits of sin for so long and then reject it? This is in fact a very heroic quality. Siddhartha from Siddhartha also possesses this aspect with his own temptress named Kamala. She taught him that “lovers should not separate from each other after making love without admiring each other, without being conquered as well as conquering, so that no feeling of satiation or desolation arises nor the horrid feeling of misusing or having been misused” (Hesse, 1922). Here, we know that Siddhartha lived with a mistress, Kamala, for many years and became a successful businessman. However, he ended up leaving the materialistic world to go seek self-realization again. This does not fit the ‘cookie cutter’ ideal of a hero that Campbell lists, yet many scholars still consider him to be a hero as he eventually refused the temptation. This also shows that even a seductress with a negative motive can be considered a magical aid and give insight to the protagonist. Even though the book mentions that Kamala was depressed when Siddhartha left, she unknowingly helped him back on his path to enlightenment. She showed him how glorious possessions and love is; however, they also showed him how empty his life would be without a deeper meaning, ultimately causing him to retreat. It is obvious that there are many differing ideas as to what roles women play in heroic tales; they can either help the protagonist or distract them. Through evaluation, a hero can be even more heroic if he falls into temptation and finds his way out. We all know how hard it is to eat only one potato chip, how can you stop yourself from eating the whole bag? For a hero to refuse a temptation in any situation, even if they have already fallen to it, defines the inner strength of the hero. Self-control is an important intrinsic attribute that Campbell does not discuss in “The Self as Hero”.
Campbell names the specific steps of a protagonists journey that makes him a hero, including facing a mistress and how they deal with it, yet he barely mentions the qualities that the hero possesses in order for them to overcome the obstacle. His guidelines should not be strictly followed, as they do not indicate the differences in the hero’s reaction to their battle. And even if Campbell did list personal traits, they would differ from reader to reader, from hero to hero. A warrior might see Odysseus as the ideal hero and not consider Rama to be half the man he is. Conversely, a Buddhist might understand Siddhartha’s path as brave and heroic, while dismissing Rama’s journey. And in return, Sleeping Beauty might consider Rama as her ‘Prince Charming’ and not understand why Odysseus and Siddhartha are even considered heroes. As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is opinion. Context, time period, and culture play a huge role in deciphering who might be considered a hero. Each of the three aspects previously mentioned define what their own hero should be like. In my eyes, all three can be considered a hero, even though they do not satisfy every single step. The Odyssey is a Greek epic that was originally written in 800 BC. Odysseus claims his title as a hero externally though fighting monsters while at sea for decades and winning back his wife, Penelope, from suitors by a physical competition. Odysseus recognizes the benefits of physical strength when he claims “there is no greater fame for a man than that which he wins with his footwork or the skill of his hands” (Homer, 1952).
He is relating to his archery skills in which he wins back his wife, Penelope, from hundreds of suitors. Odysseus probably learned these talents while on his journey. He comes back to his community to apply this newfound knowledge and reap the rewards, his wife. This is external pleasure; he can physically win back his wife. On the other hand, Siddhartha was written in India originally in 1922. In comparison, both time periods and cultures will have completely different ideas of what a hero should be defined as. Siddhartha internally claims his title as a hero through battling his personal temptations and eventually overcoming them. In the end of the novel, Hesse describes Siddhartha’s newfound definition of wisdom, being “nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness” (Hesse, 1971). Siddhartha experiences internal pleasure by finally reaching self-fulfillment.
Similar to Odysseus, he too shares this knowledge with his friend Govinda and probably many other individuals. Who’s to say that what Odysseus encounters and overcomes is not as heroic as what Siddhartha does? Lastly, The Ramayana was originally written around 1000 BCE also in India. The values upheld in this ancient Indian poem consist with the culture of Hindus. They believe that “those who have knowledge of dharma say truth is the highest dharma” (R. K.
Narayan, 1993). Rama feels as if it his duty to willingly leave his kingdom on his father’s demands and save his wife, Sita. In order to leave a spiritual and cleansed life, he must practice good dharma, or righteousness and duty. This is an important aspect of Hinduism. Each heroic story has a different audience, so the targeted audience will perceive the protagonist as a hero. A different audience might not understand their definition of courage. Academically speaking, the three stories presented here can be classified as heroic literature by a more universal outline.
Campbell’s steps are general; however, it would be interesting if he uses his examples more in depth to point out differences like I have. In all, heroes can display strength through external battles or inner struggles.
After internally and externally reaching the pivotal point of their adventure, most heroes eventually return back home from their journey. Once they return, the hero shares their expertise with their community. These are both two important steps in Campbell’s description, yet they do not always necessarily go hand-in-hand. He concludes, “The Odyssey is the debriefing of a warrior. He’s got to get back home, to leave his warrior ways, behind him and return to the female inflected world of home and bed” (Campbell, 2004). An important part of the heroic requirements is the return back home. Here, Campbell uses The Odyssey to explain that Odysseus does return home after his journey. He shares his skills of patience and self-control with his family in order to defeat the suitors. On the other hand, Siddhartha never returned home, but he enlightened others. When Govinda physically touched the enlightened one, “he [Govinda] no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha” (Hesse, 1971). Scholars believe that Siddhartha did not return home after his journey. However, we do know that he has shared his enlightenment with his friend, Govinda, an important step in Campbell’s outline. According to Campbell, he cannot be considered a hero for this fact alone. Many would disagree. If a man endures an epic journey, eventually reaching some sort of realization, goes home, and never speaks of it again, what is the point? A true hero will share his newfound knowledge with his community. Siddhartha may not share his insight with his family, but it is safe to assume from this ending that he goes on to touch many. As long as a hero shares his experience, it does not matter whom he shares it with.
I believe Campbell realizes that every example he uses, be it a movie or novel, does not 100% fulfill his indefinite outline. There are exceptions and other factors that play a huge role, including personal attributes. Therefore, he uses shortened examples so that he does not seem hypocritical. If he thoroughly explained himself and only used a few examples instead of dozens, the reader would understand his analysis and appreciate its dimension. Rama is not undeniably strong, Siddhartha doesn’t wear a cape, and Odysseus may not have a chiseled chin.
These characteristics do not define a hero; the characters themselves define their own version of a hero, each being individually unique.
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