The concept of a hero’s journey is nothing new. Lots of people have had ideas about the qualities that define a hero. For those of us who have perhaps studied it a little more in an English class, you might recall the name of Joseph Campbell, who defined the steps of a hero’s journey and the path that one must take to even be considered a hero.
This journey is also referred to as a monomyth (you can search it on wikipedia, which has a good article about it) and basically describes the stages of a hero. Mainly that they are thrust into this role, go though trials and tribulations to define themselves, come to terms with their past, realize their potential, and eventually save the day!
Okay, I over simplified the idea, but I think you see what I mean. Since Campbell defined this process, you can apply it to a lot of characters from both books and films.
The original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, follows the journey fairly closely. Luke Skywalker fits many of the qualities of a hero. He’s born from some high and lofty parents, but lives a normalish childhood. He is eventually thrown into a situation where he faces challenges and has to come to terms with who he is. He ends up confronting his past and eventually saves the day.
In regards to books, there are many examples. I had to write about the whole journey in regards to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game when I was a freshman in high school (by the way, Ender’s Game is one of my ultimate favorite books). In that novel, a young boy realizes his hero role in a rather unexpected way.
A more popular hero today is Harry Potter. He also goes through many of the stages of heroism. In fact, I think J.K. Rowling follows Campbell’s formula more closely than almost any other example I can think of.
The original hero, Odysseus, also follows many of the original steps outlined by Campbell. I have a feeling Campbell based everything off The Odyssey since it is the original story of heroism.
My favorite step of all of these heroes’ journeys is the piece where they confront themselves, the past, and usually visit the land of the dead, or the underworld. For Odysseus, he traveled to the underworld to consult those who died before him. There he learned more about what might be waiting for him at home when he finally did return from his struggle. Harry Potter also visits the land of the dead to talk with a character who died before giving him more knowledge. He also brings back the ghosts of the dead throughout a couple of the novels and confronts them in his own way. In the first Harry Potter book, Harry has to confront the images of his parents in the mirror he finds. Later on, actual ghosts appear in the graveyard scene and before his encounter with Voldemort and the Death Eaters in the Forbidden Forest.
This all brings me back to The Lord of the Rings and the two heroes who emerge. The first I want to talk about is Aragorn. In a very literal sense, he walks through the Paths of the Dead very early on in The Return of the King to have the dead withhold an oath they made years prior. This step also solidifies Aragorn as king of Gondor because he gets the dead to withhold that oath, even though it was to h ancestor the oath was made. When he emerges from the Paths of the Dead, Aragorn finally makes the transition into a hero because he finally accepts that role.
The other hero is Frodo. Frodo encounters death and the underworld in many different variations throughout the series. Obviously when he goes to through the ring into Mount Doom he is facing the idea of death, especially when Gollum fights him for the ring. There he is faced with the ultimate struggle between life and death. He also faces death on Weathertop, when he is stabbed by the Nazgul’s blade and starts the transformation into a wraith.
More importantly, the ring itself is Frodo’s constant struggle with the dead. It is a constant temptation to give in to Sauron’s power and commit to evil and the destruction of Middle-Earth. In the end, it is Frodo’s decision to get of the ring that saves him and makes him into a hero. He can’t really be called a hero until that decision is made, or at least that is what Campbell’s theory says.
Both of those heroes in this trilogy are different. I see Aragorn as the token hero. He is meant to be a hero. Frodo is the unlikely one so of course, he is the one we all route for. His course and decision seem to be far more difficult than Aragorn’s decision on whether or not to take on the role as King.
This has to make you wonder whether we bestow the title of “hero” too lightly. I know that as a kid my heroes were the people I saw on TV or movie screens, not necessarily people who were really deserving of that title. Now I look more to humanitarians, soldiers, and people who are striving to make a difference as my heroes.
And of course, authors. :)
Are there any qualities you think a true “hero” should have?