Heroic Archetypes and Heroic Functions

The Thor and Odin archetypes, as you extend them to Hector/Achilles etc: This is powerful stuff. A possible organizing principle for everything to follow in this thread…. Oh, the irony. I am smirking a benevolent smirk, for was it not you, Sir, who were so above archetyping a while ago in my hero thread? ;) As you see, you cannot help yourself. You must.

I write this in response to the above quote from Andreas’s comment to my previous post, Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence. You’re not wrong, Andreas, in that I’m trying to organize heroes across stories, which, yes, I had given you a hard time for doing earlier in your heroism thread. At the same time, I think there is a difference, and it’s a really important one.

Two Sides of the Same Structural Coin

Required heroic reading.

Both approaches are structural in foundation. Joseph Campbell founded his Monomyth on Freudian and Jungian psychology; Dean Miller founded his on Georges Dumézil and his trifunctional hypothesis, which I know relatively little about but he mentions all the time in The Epic Hero. Warriors are the Second Function, and Miller examines them case by case. Campbell tried to define his heroes by their essence (i.e. Whether or not they were, at heart, a martyr or a warrior or a child or whatever), whereas Miller defines heroes by what they do, by what results of their actions. Thor is Thor because he defends, he maintains, he follows orders. Odin is Odin because he destroys, he tears down, he never, never yields. I’m tempted to call Miller’s a more pragmatic approach … but I think that’s more a product of my affection for both Miller and pragmatism.

Breaking Stereotypes

First off, Miller’s system transcends archetypes. Jesus and Achilles are very different archetypes (one a martyr, one a warrior), but they serve similar functions within their respective tales. Recognizing those similarities is insightful, and I don’t think the archetypal system allows for it. Furthermore, a functional analyst skips over the pitfall of stereotypes, a trap Campbellians, at times, seem eager to leap into. The characters are allowed to be who they are, as opposed to who someone outside the story determines they should be, expects them to be—be they heroes, villains, men, women, or minorities. And when they do or don’t behave in line with those expectations, that may be because of a host of influences, including culture (their beliefs), societal structure (their opportunities) and their own idiosyncratic desires—not necessarily because of some rigidly defined, transhistorical metaphysics. It’s more likely to me that it’s so difficult to find examples of female heroism in ancient Greek myths because they were very sexist, and so they didn’t want stories about female heroism, and much less likely because it is part of the Essence of the Feminine to yield to the Power of the Masculine or whatever.

Perhaps I am being overly-critical of archetypes and overly-generous to functions. Perhaps the more important point is to keep any categorical tool a half-sketched outline, instead of a rigid stencil. But continuing …

The Politics of Storytelling

A thousand faces crammed together to look like one European male.

Examining a story by function is much more elastic than the Monomyth, which must cram every story into its one model, oftentimes bending over backwards to do so. But the Monomyth also does more than that; the Monomyth makes every story One Story. Every myth is a heroic myth and every story supposedly illustrates a very specific kind of self-actualization. It is patriarchal, strongly Judeo-Christian, and oddly American-Dream-ish. We should wonder why it resonates so well with us….

Functional analysis, in contrast, preserves the integrity of the story, allows it to operate by its own logic instead of a logic imposed upon it, and it respects the beliefs of the storytelling system.

A concrete example: Buddhist and Christian monks. Both devote their lives to institutions that consume them; both are filled with overwhelming compassion for their fellow human beings (at least the good ones are); and both serve those people—these are their functions. But they arrive at these functions through two very different belief systems. The Christians, on the one hand, surrender themselves to an eternal God, through whose intervention they believe is the only road to salvation in Heaven. The Buddhists, on the other, meditate on the obliteration of their sense of self because they believe that only in that way can they escape the cycle of suffering. Their salvation is oblivion. Theravada Buddhism is, in fact, an atheistic religion—a qualitatively different beast from Christianity. They may have a similar effect within society or even on the human psyche, but the particulars of their beliefs are different. They can’t both be right about the facts of the universe. That, to me, is not trivial, nor is it to them.

Joseph Campbell, meanwhile, would say that they are not different and not only are they not different they are actually mistaken about their own values and beliefs. And then he would pronounce what they believe, regardless of whether or not they agree with him, just the way a psychoanalyst would tell a person what they are feeling and thinking, regardless of whether or not that is rooted in reality—and science—at all. I pointed out before on your blog and I’ll continue to do so here how Joseph Campbell got the lessons taught by many myths and stories wrong. Completely, dead wrong. Miller doesn’t because Miller isn’t trying to define what they mean, only how they function. The stories themselves and the cultures they come out of define what they mean.

The Elegant Analysis

Third, by analyzing the stories and heroes on their own terms, the functional system sidesteps the ponderous psychological cosmology that one has to drag along to make sense of Campbell’s interpretations, which makes it a more elegant system, simpler but no less penetrating, and keeps it open to the stories’ polymorphous insights, instead of reducing all stories to the same Monomythic epiphany. There are similarities across cultures, across stories, but there are differences too. And I much more easily believe that those similarities arose out of a common humanity, a shared evolutionary ancestry, and sober examinations of our absurd lives, just as those differences arose out of geography, economics, and the fickle whims of Fortune.

The Monomyth is certainly alive and well in our world, not least of all because we have books like The Writers Journey, by Christopher Vogler, telling us to write one way, and an entire industry, Hollywood, banking on the reproduction, ad nauseum, of that one story. It can, at times, be very powerful. But it’s just one story. And we only started consciously writing to that story in the 20th century. I want to read other stories, stories written way before Joseph Campbell or even Dean Miller. I want to read what they have to say and not least of all so I don’t have to read another inane Monomyth ever again.

A Final Caveat

Of course, I must always remember—and I completely own up to this very real possibility—that I could simply be bending over backwards trying very hard not to look like a hypocrite. 🙂

Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence

I saw Captain America: The First Avenger last week. I thought it was good. A solid OK. It was a good comic-book movie, as opposed to say, The Dark Knight, which was an excellent movie-movie. But I digress….

Captain America Comics No. 1

Damn straight.

A Different Hero Then and Now

I was intrigued with how they would dance around the problem of propaganda in this film, because, c’mon, if there were ever an iconically, jingoistically American hero, it’s Captain freakin’ America. He’s punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first comic after all. But people didn’t roll their eyes at that. Well, to be fair, I don’t know what people did when they saw him. But I know what people didn’t do. They didn’t drag his name through the mud for encouraging a politics of aggression and militarism. They didn’t hold him accountable for throwing out due process of the law. They held him up, instead, as a hero.

Two Kinds of Hero

Thor's Battle Against the Ettins (1872)

Fighting for.

Dean A. Miller, in his indispensable book, The Epic Hero, identifies two kinds of heroes in Icelandic sagas: Thor (“willing to follow, serve, and represent”) and Odin (“absolutely resistant to any form of subordination to a directive principle”). They are both extremely powerful, necessary in their own ways, crucial in the right circumstances. Miller uses Thor and Odin as his labels for the kinds of heroes that they are (actually, “Þórr-warrior” and “Óðinn-warrior”), but he could have just as easily used Hektor and Akhilles, Arthur and Launcelot, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. Captain America very clearly is a Þórr-warrior; he’s fighting in defense of the established order, in order to preserve it, to save it. America means something to him, and he’s willing to defend it with his life. Which is interesting to me, because, for the past few decades, American mainstream popular culture has overwhelmingly chosen Odin over Thor.

Tyranny and The Man

Odin, the Wanderer (1886)

Fighting against.

The Vietnam War is often cited as a turning point in the popular consciousness of America. It wasn’t when we started to become suspicious of our government; it was when we started to assume it was guilty of … well, whatever was wrong at the time. Anti-heroes started springing up like mushrooms. Federal agents became more and more sinister, agents of The Man. Common people couldn’t turn to the government for salvation because the government, more often than not, was the source of the corruption. This is still, I would argue, our default setting with regard to Authority, and so I think our default hero is still someone who tears down social structures, as opposed to someone who defends and maintains them.

Heroic Violence

Heroes are, without exception, intimately tied to violence. Even if the heroes are nonviolent themselves, such as Jesus Christ or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., they attract violence to and around them. Not always on purpose, but always always always. It has to do with their function in relation to society’s structures: they are either tearing them down or making them stronger, always to the consternation of another powerful force, always with violent results.

Enter Captain AmericaCaptain America: Who Will Wield the Shield

Captain America is very much a defender and maintainer. His iconic weapon is, not accidentally, a shield. So I was interested to see how the new film would deal with this tension, avoiding the appearance of “oppression,” which is how power wielded by or for Authority is so often labeled these days (the Óðinn-warrior’s derogatory moniker being “anarchy”).

The movie, to its credit, did address this tension, but it did so in a way that was ultimately unsatisfactory to me. In what was probably my favorite sequence of the movie, Captain America’s first military assignment is to be a USO show, convincing people to buy bonds and encouraging the troops (or trying to) to stay the course. He becomes a one-man propaganda poster. The troops hate him when he tries to put on his show for them; they want the dancing girls to come back. It magnifies a growing disillusionment Captain America already feels. He’s being used by the government, but not in the way he wants to be. It’s interesting (vis-à-vis Thor/Odin) that, immediately after this, he establishes himself as Hero in the film’s first major (and violent) action sequence, rescuing a unit of POWs with the implied consent of his colonel-mentor but against official (governmental/Authoritative) orders.

Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull

Vhat are you looking at? I am evil, yah?

What ultimately irks me, though, is that the solution to the whole overriding tension that really interested me in the movie in the first place was to set in opposition to Captain America a horrendously evil villain. Not even a Nazi—a demon Nazi. This villain, Red Skull, simplifies the entire situation, and that makes it exponentially less interesting to me. True, the Joker is horrendously evil in The Dark Knight as well, but the issues he brings up and the ideas that he confronts the other characters with (and, more importantly, the conclusions that other characters come to with regard to those issues and those ideas) are still problematized, complicated, difficult. The Dark Knight‘s characters are forced to make pragmatic decisions, as opposed to idealistic ones. And that is a profoundly interesting kind of heroism to me, because it is essentially human, with uneasy solutions. The solution to Red Skull? Kill him; save the world.

The movie also misses the mark with the problem of propaganda. The soldiers hate Captain America (and Captain America hates himself) because he’s trumpeting the fight without doing any of the physical fighting. But that’s not why propaganda is poisonous. Propaganda is poisonous because it frames complicated issues in oversimplistic, extremist terms. Quick and violent solutions not only become reasonable, they become necessary. Anything else becomes part of the problem. Furthermore, propaganda’s heroes remain unfazed by the horror of both the opposing evil and their solution to it. They are committed to a kind of moral genocide against evil, and all of their enemies are unproblematically (and 100%) evil; thus, simplistically expendable. It, unfortunately, sucks the humanity out of the heroes and sweeps away the very real and very problematic consequences that come to a soldier who is confronted with violence and destruction on a large scale. Alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, night terrors, emotional numbness, alienation, nervous breakdowns. We don’t need to include these things in our heroism because they are good. We need to include them because they are human. And, ultimately, for our own psychological and philosophical well-being, so too must our heroes be.

Uncle Sam

I want YOU ... to comment.

Mary Karr and the Sticky Problem of Writing the Truth

There is a very simple and very persistent and very frustrating question that all writers at all times find themselves confronting: What’s the truth? If the world is all that is the case, then just what is the truth of that case. It is, at first glance, a very simple question that you only discover is impossible to answer after you actually try to answer it. What’s the truth?

The Three Frustrating Truths

There are, I’ll declare, three kinds of truth: the objective, the experiential, and the emotional. Stated another way, there are: the facts as they are, the facts as I see them, and the facts as I feel them. All writing is going to be a weird amalgamation of the three, and it’s a good thing because that’s what gives us the ability to read book after book that are variations on a few themes and still excite, delight, and educate us. Locked in our bodies as we are, we’ll always be able to write, if we write from ourselves, a unique perspective, and we’ll have feelings to share, as we can’t help but feel, and lurking deep below the surface (if we’re very good at our job) we might get ourselves a little closer to or (if we’re great) even touch those ever-elusive facts of the case.

The Problem With Memoir

I can tell you my solution to the problem: I write fiction. When push comes to shove I can throw up my hands and say, “It’s a story; I made it all up,” which is its own kind of lie, but I have yet to run afoul of Oprah when I’ve used it. The question becomes how best to juggle those three pesky truths, and it’s a particularly sticky problem when you’re trying to write a memoir. Just ask James Frey or Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. They didn’t do anything explicitly wrong (or did they?). I would argue that they only tried to get us to feel their emotional truths a little too much. I think Mary Karr would agree. Although, unlike the aforementioned men, she makes no bones about what she’s writing. The first sentence of her memoir, Lit, is this:

Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.

It’s an interesting rhetorical stance. Its bluntness is a challenge, and it paradoxically builds up her credit with regard to her various truths, at least with this reader. By dropping the pretense of ever writing a book that is purely objective truth, she frees herself from having to. She can stick to what she knows—her experience and her feelings—and that’ll be enough. The bluntness turns out to be integral to her narrative voice, and something that she’s cultivated over the years (her previous memoir is called The Liars’ Club). It’s disarming enough to earn a bit of trust. Because anyone who’s willing to admit that they’re full of shit is someone you can trust … wait—

It’s certainly a fine line she has to dance, along with any other author, but it’s an interesting waltz that’s she got. As befits a Texan, she charges the problem and hits it head-on and is, in the process, able to bare a bit of herself. She is fearless, something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately, after reading a serendipitous post, entitled Writing with fear, continued, over at Hannibal and Me, by my friend (I’ll call him my friend), Andreas Kluth.

Karr’s introduction is written in the form of an open letter to her son with two sides, like an LP (or any good story). Side A is “Now,” recounting her big motivation for writing the book in the first place: to dispel whatever guilt her son might feel over her alcoholism, the same guilt she felt over her own mother’s alcoholism and that she has carried with her her entire life. Side B, “Then,” takes us straight into the pit of that alcoholism, as Karr sits on the back porch, isolating herself from her husband and newborn son, a tumbler of whiskey in her hand, trying to sit straight up in a chair because if she leans even a smidge in any way she could topple right over.

Are we any closer to the truth? Yes and no. It’s an incomplete truth and disappointing to some. To me, that makes it human, and some might say that’s the best truth of all. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any easier to write.

Coming Projects

I have decided to take this blog in a particular direction, instead of continuing with the meandering brain dumps of the past. I have a full-time job now and, for the first time in my life, I’m faced with the reality of having to choose my passions, given the limited free time I have. It has been simultaneously simple and excruciating to do this, but I’ve made my choice; damn the torpedoes and all that jazz.

I choose, of course, literature. I wish to turn this blog into the intertubal hub for my literary studies. I will realize this in a few principle ways.


I read a lot. And I read fast, to a fault. I fly through books and I’m a good enough reader to get enough out of them to have a conversation about major themes and characterization, but I feel I miss quite a bit by not taking a breath or two in-between chapters. So that’s just what I plan to do. One of my strengths, in my … rarely humble opinion, is an ability to catalog a great number of details, even if I’m not sure how to string them together properly. So one of my methods will be close readings of books that I will share with you, thereby forcing myself to slow down, if only to explain where a particular author has taken me. And sometimes that’s all it takes, talking about where I’ve been taken. But mostly it just takes time. I recently finished Infinite Jest (to use a recent example), and my appreciation of that book only deepens with time. It took 24 hours before I really felt the end of that novel, in all its significance. It hit me in the kitchen, and it stopped me in my tracks, and I had to sit down and say, “Holy shit.” I then blabbered at poor Christina through dinner, breathlessly, in what amounted to an extended and quite a bit more Latinate version of “Holy shit.”

I want to have more of those moments; I want to feel the books I read. And I want to share them with you, if you’ll join me. That will mean different things for different books. I just finished a book called The Brother’s War, a novel set in the multiverse of Magic: the Gathering, trashy mind-candy at best. I’ll write a simple review of that one, but there’s no reason to dwell on it for any extended period of time. Others, such as Lit, a memoir by Mary Karr I just started, have precious gems waiting to be mined, and I plan to take the time to dig them out.


It is to my great shame that I started a thread on this blog about heroism over a year ago, and since then have only written one post about it and that being a quasi-review of the movie Black Swan. Heroes remain a keen fascination of mine and I reaffirm my commitment to their study.

I will do this by going to their source: the literature that gave rise to them. I will conduct close readings of these classic works in order to dive into the topic of heroism. What gave rise to these heroes? What do their actions and beliefs teach us about the world? What exactly makes them heroic anyway?

Works that are on my immediate To Do list include (in order of preference): Le Morte d’Arthur (by Sir Thomas Malory), the Iliad, and the Odyssey (both attributed, of course, to Homer). My approach will be similar to my close readings of any book, but I will take a particular focus on the characters of the respective sagas, trying to dig out their heroic attributes and also those attributes that fall short of heroic ideals. I plan to start with those three tomes, and then we’ll see where we go from there.


I am, believe it or not, a writer myself, though I’ve yet to have published anything of consequence. I want to change that. I have not decided the extent to which I will showcase my own writing on this blog, but I plan to at least share my many thoughts on the craft of writing, my methods and others, and what goes in to making a book a work of literature as opposed to pretentious drivel. I have varied and passionate opinions about these topics, and remain ever open for a spirited discussion about them.


And who knows what I might come up with in the future. A sneak preview of an extended project I plan for myself is a year with selected works by William Shakespeare. One play a month for 12 months. In addition to reading the works, I’ll watch different adaptations of them, and maybe get a little cultured along the way. Well … maybe.

But literature is my passion, and it’s study is my aim. I can only hope to learn a thing or two while I’m at it. I heartily invite you to join me, because I have no doubt that we can help each other along the way. And, at this point, I’ll accept any help that I can get.

One Year After

It has been a year (a year and a week-ish, actually) since I stepped back onto American soil from spending two years in China. A lot has changed in that year … and at the same time nothing really.

I finally found a job. Not only a job, but something that I think could be a career. It is a fabulous feeling. It was not a simple task. It took me four months to find part-time work, on the night shift at Target. I was at that job for four months and it wore me down. My body never got used to living at night. It strained my relationship with Christina, living together only in the twilight hours, together but our lives out of phase. I also couldn’t support myself.

It was Christina’s doing. She’d found a job at Groupon, and they were still hiring everyone they could find. Well, almost everyone. I had applied with them to be a writer, and I’d received a form email thanking me for my time. But they told their employees that they were still taking recommendations, so she recommended me for the Fact Checker position.

Did I earn it? I don’t even know how to begin answering that. They didn’t even call me back when I applied to be a writer, but they granted me an interview on the strength of Christina’s recommendation. Perhaps it’s because of the holiday, but I try to think about earning my keep, bootstrapping, etc. and I have to just shake my head.

It got real grim for a couple months. I approached a level of desperate I had not been ready for. But then Christina found a job and she recommended me to one and they gave me an interview and then they gave me a job. It came down to who I knew. And not because I didn’t try on my own.

One year after we returned and things have finally come together. Christina and I have jobs, we have an apartment, and we’re building our lives together. The state of our union is strong. The only boxes we have left to unpack are our books. Lots and lots of books. There’s plenty of time for that.

This year has been really rough, but I made it through. I think I changed a little, but also not really at all. It’s hard to say I guess. But. I have plans now for this blog. Plans that mean actually posting. I have a direction I want to take it, and I’m excited to start. I’ll explain more in another post. For now, it’s the Fourth of July, and I want to celebrate my independence.