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. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Heroic Archetypes and Heroic Functions

  1. Pingback: Black Swan, Freud, and the Monomyth | The Brain Dump

  2. Hi Chris!

    FYI: Macbeth at NIU. He struts and frets his hour (or two) upon the stage for four performances (tonight, Friday, Saturday nights; Sunday matinee). My husband’s production.

    Hope all is well.

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