Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I am an enormous fan of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. However, let me offer up another way to examine the hero figure. Northrop Frye’s description of literary modes in his essays collected in Anatomy of Criticism puts forward the idea that heroes can be divided into four types: mythic hero (man as a form of divinity, superior to all other men); the romantic hero (man as superior to other men, but not divine), the low mimetic hero (the hero as one of us) and ironic hero (the hero as lesser; the irony deriving from the idea of someone lesser taking on the role of hero).

There is no reason that this version of hero can't be used in conjunction with Campbell's vision, but it does offer an interesting look at hero for authors as we consider how to plot our literature and how to handle the role of hero in theme and plot resolution.

Consider Harry Potter (I've been re-examining these books of late). An essay by Kathleen Malu, an associate professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey, argues that Potter's success in children's literature is a represents something of a merger of romantic hero and iron hero. Her point of view is that while Harry has powers and opportunities that none of us may have access to, he is nonetheless an ordinary boy who struggles with common activities such as confusion over how to deal with certain interpersonal relationships, difficulty in mastering certain academic pursuits, and coming to terms with loss and identity. Indeed, while Harry may have access to supernatural abilities, the only time he seems to use these abilities is when he is presented with supernatural threats.

What about other figures in contemporary fantastic literature? Where would they fall in Frye's hierarchy. Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake? Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden? What about William Jones' Rudolph Pearson?

Does this reading change anything? Why re-examine literature at all? Maybe because it's a way to enhance our appreciation, to give us a different perspective and to offer us a deeper reading.


Charles Gramlich said...

My wife is also a big fan of Campbell's concept. I think it may be a bit dangerous for writers to try and follow his concepts too closely, though.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Why Charles? I think you can probably say that for any model of criticism. Still, when I look at something in a novel I may write, and try and find where I can fix things, I can use Campbell and other models to explore ways in which the writer may be affected.

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Stewart, I think this combination in Harry Potter is part of what makes him so relate-able to so many people. (I couldn't figure out how to spell that word so I added a hyphen and we'll go with it.)

I'm also a fan of Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" I think it should be required reading (or viewing if you get the video series) for anyone writing fantasy.

Have you seen the Dresden Files? I think they did well with the show.

My favorite type of hero is the anti-hero. I don't really know why, but I like the kind of hero that isn't planning to be a hero, but someone or something he cares about is in trouble, and if he happens to save the world in the process, fine, but it wasn't really his main concern.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I hadn't heard heroes broken down like this before. What fascinates me is academia trying to find ways to sort and categorize them. Is this an effort to understand them better? What if a character doesn't fit neatly into these classifications? Does that make him less of an idealized hero?

Campbell is a good jumping off point, something to internalize as part of the bigger picture.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Zoe,I think I identify with the antihero way too much for my own welfare. la Mitchell...why does anyone seek to analyze, construct, deconstruct? What is the value of studying literature? What is the worth of trying to categorize so much. I have come to think that criticism is its own art form, and taking an artist's expression, the critic synthesizes something unique.

My purpose as a writer in exploring some of this material is being able to view my writing from different perspectives and perhaps adapt or change things.

Sidney said...

I like Campbell a lot. I would say yeah, the danger in any analysis is that you run the risk of over-analyzing your own process, which could be harmful since to some degree its intuitive and instinctive and analysis can inhibit that. But analysis is also the way to grow and improve, so it's a calculated risk.

I'm reading John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and he advocates analysis and education for the writer, so I'd say everyone should just be judicious and don't change something just to fit Campbell or anyone's pattern.