I’ve talked a fair bit about the historical period around the time of King Arthur since it’s become a point of interest for me from a historical research period. It’s interesting to see how different historical writers place the mythological king within the known history of the rise of Britain.
And that’s all well and good, it really is. But today I think I shall finally explain to you fine people what I mean when I refer to the Hero Cycle in fiction, before I tell you how King Arthur completely changed it.
Well… not completely… I mean… just… well follow me on this.
Okay, if you follow Joseph Campbell at all you’d know that his big infamous contribution to humanity was the discussion and naming of the monomyth or the Hero’s Journey to which I refer to as the Hero’s Cycle. Mostly because it’s always depicted as a circle and I’m nutty for proper nomenclature.
Anyway, Campbell theorized that most if not all myths or narratives as a whole followed the same basic pattern or journey or cycle. I’ll give it to you in his own words:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” –Taken from A Hero With A Thousand Faces, J. Campbell.
There is a lot more to this structure then that one sentence gives you, but in the interest of brevity I’ll leave you with that since Campbell spent an entire book explaining all of the nuances and permutations of the monomyth and we just don’t have that kind of time. Seriously! Look how complex this gets!
It’s like watching your favourite childhood story cut open on an operating table.
But yes, a lot of famous myths involve going on legendary adventures to gain great rewards and go through suffering to bring back benefits to home. However, I (and many, many others) have gone on record as saying that the modern superhero story is, in essence, the existing permutation of the mythical hero. And yet, rather than go on quests for a more finite goal, most superheroes are saddled with the singular goal of protecting society rather than improving it. In fact, in most cases if these heroes have superior technology then they will keep it from the people to prevent its abuse. When did that change?
Well, most heroes these days take their lead from probably the alpha of all superheroes, Zorro and I’ll be talking about him at some point in the future in much more detail as he very much deserves. You see, Zorro is composite of two key concepts: The idea that a hero protects the populace from an evil force and that a hero maintains a dual identity.
For today we’re only covering the concept of the hero protecting the populace and not the dual identity thing. I’ll get to that soon enough.
So, for the longest time we had the hero going on adventures and bringing back glory or treasure to help the homeland. That is reflected in the nature of military conquest shown since, well forever. For the longest time going on military service meant being able to travel and pillage and bring back treasures and slaves. This continued all the way up until the Roman Empire.
Now many will argue that probably the first hero to protect the people was Robin Hood. You’d be right on that account but most people can’t conclude if the original Robin Hood robbed from the rich to give to the poor. That means within his own time he wouldn’t have had that influence. No, I believe, and this is only a theory, that the first true hero to protect the land was possibly the same one who ended the age of myth before history became a matter of facts and legend. And that was King Arthur himself and the Knights of the Round Table. Don’t get me wrong, they went on quests same as anyone. The Holy Grail quest is a rather famous one. But rather than their most distinct feature being these quests it is actually how they defended the realm of Camelot from invaders and evil sorcery.
Why were these heroes different? Well you have to understand that Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire was left to its own devices as to how to protect the colonists. The popular legend is that Arthur drew together the knights of the Round Table after drawing Caliburn (Excalibur) from the fabled stone. Rather than needing heroes to bring plenty to the land (Britain was pretty fruitful) they needed heroes to change and defend the common man, to be a symbol to rally the people and show them they had a present guardian that protected them. You know, rather than an occupying force that pressed a tyrannical regime.
But the change in the motivation of the hero was palpable and resonated forward through history and forever changing the hero. Now the idea of a conquering hero is considered barbaric and monstrous as power should be used to protect and not conquer. It came to a point in the King Arthur mythology where even showing a hint of fallibility or deviating from that ideal meant great shame such as with Arthur and Morgana and the story of the Green Knight.
I for one, think that’s a good thing. Humanity has long since progressed beyond the idea that social improvement lies in the conquest of a different area and now it’s a sign of weakness in the command one’s military force if it is used for something other than protection, even if it did take us a while to get there.
So too does this work exist.