The hero exists because


“The hero exists because a crisis exists, a situation in which someone or something throws into question certain basic laws that have to do with the way the world functions.
If that crisis is averted – and this is common in all mass-cultural works – it is because from the very start it has been set up as a contradiction to which a way out can be found.” (p.91)

Ref: Ariel Dorfman (c1983) The Empire’s new Clothes; what the lone ranger, Babar and other innocent heroes do to our minds. Pantheon Books: New York

heroic friendship – Buffy and Harry


“Buffy and Harry, unique in their powers and ordinary in their insecurities, have one major strength in common: their friends.” (p.75)

Comparing Harry Potter and Buffy, Rhonda Wilcox points out the importance of friendship in both these tales. She makes a valid point!

Firstly, her comparison: “A young person who has suffered parental loss moves to a new location and enters a new school, at the same time plunging into a world of magic and danger. This young person is forced to accept a role as a uniquely powerful challenger of dark forces, but is aided by an older advisor and both a male and a female friend. Humiliated by the everyday world, the young hero nonetheless grows stronger year by year fighting the dark forces in the hidden world of magic.” (p.66) Yup.

She argues: “Harry and Buffy are both heroes for whom friendship is crucial: Buffy survives in part because of her “Scooby Gang” of friends, and Harry depends on schoolmates Ron and Hermione. Perhaps this is the most important commonality for a hero of our technologically connected but socially strained time.” (p.67)

Furthermore, “the dissension within the Order of the Phoenix, like the seventh-season dissension among the Slayers and Potential Slayers, shows that such cooperation is not simple; it requires labor and self-knowledge, only gradually gained as these long stories progress.
Both of these long stories work with and move beyond traditional forms. Propp’s structures include a category for helpers, but as he defines them, they are often animals or objects. The goal in the structures he describes is marriage. But in the Harry and Buffy stories, friendship is not merely a means to an end (as the helper categorization would suggest); it is an end in itself. Every Harry Potter book thus far has ended with the rejoining of the friends and their subsequent separation for the summer holidays, with Harry’s longing to return to school and friendship. And while Buffy and Angel (and later Buffy and Spike) provide plenty of romantic steam, the series does not end with her matched to either. An examination of the structure of the episodes would show that those with happy endings [-p.76] are most often those which conclude with a group of friends.” (pp.75-76)

“Buffy, despite the voiceover which intones that she is the only one, actually repudiates patriarchal succession and the role of the lonely hero in favor of communal effort. The same can be said of Harry Potter. Put simply, these new heroes value and count on friendship as part of their heroism.” (p.76)

Ref: (emphases in blue mine) Rhonda Wilcox (2005) Why Buffy Matters: the art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London IB Tauris.

Boredom in spy novels


Writing about the heroes of spy stories, Cawelti and Rosenberg once declared:

Whatever stirs the hero from his lethargy at the beginning of the adventure, commitment to a cause, patriotism, or simply ‘the right,’ impels him once the action is underway.” (p.104)

I find it quite a provocative statement – and I wonder how it applies to other spy fictions.

Slightly further on, they add: “Ambler’s Kenton plays a more modest role [than Hannay in Buchan;s The Thirty-Nine Steps], seldom being more than an interested bystander while the Zaleshoffs and their agents recapture their crucial documents: Kenton’s role remains minor, though he gradually becomes deeply committed in the spook war around him. It is a scenario which tells us that though we readers are not professionals, such adventures are possible in the most routine of lives, and it enables us to see what events motivate men, from ennui to engagement. It is the pattern Ian Fleming will use again and again to show us how his jaded superagent psyches himself up for yet another mission. It is the condition of Childer’s Caruthers, suffering through “the dismal but dignified routine of office, club, and chambers’ (The Riddle of the Sands, p.16), who will shortly risk his life to discover the riddle of the sands. By these means does an author signal the reader that the forthcoming adventure will be compelling. This movement, from boredom to involvement, is so prevalent and so natural a thrust for this genre, that we need not worry about direct attribution; it is simply one of the best ways to tell and adventure story. It prepares the reader for the exciting adventure to come, signaling that the author is about to exit the everyday-life world into the dark and dangerous universe of spy wars.” (p.104)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Ambler and Greene


According to Cawelti and Rosenberg, “Eric Ambler and Graham Greene transformed the spy novel irretrievably. In tone, in characterization, in theme as well as in the episodes and plots used to express all of these features, the genre changed from the naive to the sinister, from a story of adventure to one of treachery and betrayal. These important novelists, whose writing careers span World War II, were themselves altered by that cataclysm, but also helped bring about those changes that now characterize the genre. Ambler’s early novels, those written before England’s active entry into World War II, are modeled on the plots and for the most part  the characters of his predecessors.” (p.101)

Writing of Ambler’s politics – and particularly the novels, Passage of Arms (1960); Doctor Frigo (1974); The Levanter (1972); State of Siege (1956); Dirty Story (1967); The Light of Day [aka Topkapi] (1963) – Cawelti and Rosenberg observe: “The partisan politics of the real world are absent from all of these novels; Ambler has always placed his character in the borderlands of danger, the natural habitat of the spy and international intrigue. In these marginal areas the law is weak and order is shaky. Everything is in flux, and nearly everything is possible. This vision of liminal regions owes its debt, ultimately, to Cooper’s The Spy. Before World War II the Balkans was the area of greatest intrigue, the Mediterranean in general a close second. After the war, the non-man’s-land fraught with danger and the lawlessness that inspired intrigue and duplicity had shifted: for Ambler, as for so many other spy novelists, it was the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” (p.110)

Ambler’s postwar phase makes few concessions to the directions taken by other spy story writers. He lacks le Carré’s deep questioning of clandestine agencies per se, Len Deighton’s [-p.124] glibness and fast-moving action, Trevanian’s sadistic cruelty, and Fleming’s and Hall’s fascination with technology. Ambler and Greene brought the spy novel a long way toward respectability. Ambler has disciplined himself in telling an engaging story of intrigue and suspense. …Greene has from the first seen the deeper implications raised by the existence of spies and their trade in an open society. He has explored the role of clandestinity in our world and has, perhaps deepest of all, scrutinized the values of loyalty and patriotism, obligation and commitment. More than any spy novelist (in his case especially, a writer who has written spy novels), Greene has returned the spy novel to the mainstream of contemporary fiction. It began as a story of adventure, moved to become a genre in its own right, and by the excellence of some of its most accomplished practitioners is moving back into the main currents of what is simply good fiction.” (pp.123-124)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Buchan


Cawelti and Rosenberg write:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the secret agent adventure had begun to assume a definite shape in the work of writers like Kipling, Stevenson, and Conrad. A number of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories came close to being accounts of counterespionage activity, and on the eve of World War I, in ‘His Last Bow,’ Holmes came out of retirement in order to foil the plots of a German agent. But it was the generation which came of age in the early twentieth century that made the spy story a major literary archetype by producing masses of formulaic spy adventures (e.g., Rohmer’s Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, LeQueux’s Secret Service, Wallace’s Four Just men) as well as a number of more complex fictions involving espionage as a theme (e.g., Childer’s Riddle of the Sands, Kipling’s Kim, and Conrad’s Secret Agent). The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan span the distance between the popular spy adventure and the novel of espionage. Like the popular stories, Buchan’s tales are deeply romantic; his hero is a gentleman amateur, definitely one of that breed later labeled “clubland [-p.80] heroes.” His enemies are supervillains who represent the threat of non-British races and cultures to the English hegemony. Their complex criminal organizations, like the international criminal syndicate of Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, threaten the very heart of the homeland. With the help of a few other gentleman friends, however Buchan’s dauntless hero is invariably able to uncover and defeat the supervillain’s plots, saving the empire for the time being. Though his hero antagonists sometimes lapse into the manichean simplicities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchy and Sir Dennis Nayland Smyth, Buchan’s moral earnestness, his sense of humor, and his concern for literary values make his Hannay stories the very model of the early twentieth-century spy story.” (pp.79-80)

Buchan, more than any other writer, assembled the formula for the modern secret agent story.” (p.80)

If Richard Hannay were only a typical clubland hero defending British social tradition with the help of higher powers, Buchan’s work would doubtless have faded into the oblivion that has swallowed up most of his contemporaries and followers like Dornford Yates and Sapper. However, Buchan also responded in his fantasies to a more contemporary sense of ambivalence about the social and religious tradition. While he worked to resolve this ambivalence through characters like Sandy Arbuthnot, who remains a cool British aristocrat despite his total involvement in Eastern ways of life, the fascination with the new forces unleashed in the world remains an important undercurrent of Buchan’s fantasy. Though his works of adventure are optimistic on the surface and he imagines a revitalized Christian social tradition able to overcome the threats of the twentieth century, his stories also reflect on a deeper level a sense of the critical failure of modern civilization and a yearning for a more glorious, simpler, and more mystical way of life. On this level, he still speaks to some of the major currents in the fantasy life of men in the twentieth century. The modern spy story, even in the cynical and despairing [-p.100] intrigues of John le Carré and Len Deighton, has come to express this kind of feeling still more strongly. Thus Buchan was instrumental in giving both a model of form and an inner spirit to the story of espionage, giving it through his vision of the world a capacity to express in terms of contemporary international politics and intrigue the yearning for a lost world of fullness and heroism.” (pp.99-100)

Buchan’s heroes were very much in control of their destinies, so it seemed, for despite the danger that continually threatened him, Hannay always extricated himself with relative [-p.114] ease: with a cunning disguise, the lucky discovery of an explosive carelessly stored in the barn in which he was imprisoned, that glib and oily art which enabled him to pass himself off as a political orator with almost no preparation. And his supreme confidence in himself is shared by those around him, even staff officers of the admiralty, who incredibly permit Hannay to take command of the operation to crush the Black Stone. Ambler’s and Greene’s early heroes are rather ordinary, far less than heroic amateurs, undistinguished people caught up in intrigues in which they need professional help either from the police or from friendly agents. And they are more believable for that.” (pp.113-114)

Those characters who seem most real to us, who seem to have lives quite independent of their fictional plots, have been invested with complexities and ambiguities that lift them out of the formulaic plots where we found them. Thus does the writer of formula fiction charge his characters with life.” (p.114)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Joseph Campbell and myth – more quotes


In Bill Moyers’s interview with Joseph Campbell (on the first disc of the series), they talk about how the challenges which the hero must face have evolved from physical monsters towards spiritual difficulties (drawing on Star Wars for quite a bit of their discussion).I took a lot from the discussion as a whole, but here are a couple of quotes I particularly enjoyed:

the ‘evolution’ of the hero figure

Moyers: “Do these stories of the hero vary from culture to culture?”

Campbell: “Well, it’s the degree of the illumination that… – or action – that makes them different. There is the typical, early culture hero, who goes around slaying monsters. Now that is in a period of history when man is shaping his world out of a wild, savage, unshaped world – well, it has another shape, but it’s not the shape for man; he goes around killing monsters.”

Moyers: “So the hero evolves over time, like most other concepts and ideas and…”

Campbell: “Well, he evolves as the culture evolves. Now, Moses is a hero figure, in his ascent of the mountain, his meeting of Yahweh on the summit of the mountain, and coming back with the rules for the formation of a whole new society. That’s a hero act: departure, fulfillment, return, and on the way, there are adventures that can be paralleled also in other traditions.”

… they go on to discuss the figures of Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, and how these are related in terms of the hero cycle, and the trials they undergo…

Campbell: “…and what all the myths have to deal with is ‘transformation of consciousness’: that you’re thinking in ‘this’ way, and you have now to think in ‘that’ way.”

Moyers: “Well, how is the consciousness transformed?”

Campbell: “By trials.”

Moyers: “…the tests that the hero undergoes…”

Campbell: “…tests or certain illuminating revelations. Trials and revelations are what it’s all about.

Moyers: “Well, who in society today is making any heroic myth at all for us? Do movies do this? Do movies create heroes?

Campbell: “I don’t know… [Campbell discusses his own experience of movies and his own admiration of Douglas Fairbanks as a hero figure (and Leonardo Da Vinci) who] were models or roles that came to me.”

Moyers: “Does a movie like Star Wars fill some of that need for the spiritual adventure of the hero?

Campbell: “Oh it’s perfect: it does the cycle perfectly. It’s not a simple morality play. It has to do with the powers of life and their inflection through the action of man. One of the wonderful things, I think, about this adventure into space, is that the narrator, the artist, the one thinking up the story, is in a field that is not covered by our own knowledges, you know. There was, … much of the adventure in the old stories is where they go into regions that no one’s been in before. Well, we’ve now conquered the planet, so there are no empty spaces for the imagination to go forth and fight its own… war, you know, with .. powers. And that was the first thing that I felt, that there was a whole new realm for the imagination to open out and live its forms.”

Moyers: “Do you, when you look at something like Star Wars, recognise some of the themes of the hero throughout mythology?”

Campbell: “Well, I think that George Lucas was using standard mythological figures….”

the landscape of the hero and the hero’s character

Campbell: “The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it’s really a manifestation of his character. And it’s amusing that the landscape and the conditions of the environment match the readiness of the hero; the adventure that he’s ready for is the one that he gets.”

In ensuing discussion, they get further into both comparative and psychoanalytic analysis of Star Wars. Campbell explains the ‘threshold’ of the hero cycle, as well as the place of the ‘consciousness’ and ‘subconsciousness’ in this cycle.

Changing the system: Luke Skywalker

[Having discussed Darth Vader and his difference from and threat to Luke Skywalker,] Campbell explains: “[Darth Vader:] the man who’s gone over to the intellectual side. [He isn’t] living in terms of humanity; he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives: we all face it. We all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now is the system gonna eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?

Moyers: “Would the hero of a thousand faces help us to answer that question – about how to change the system so that we are not serving it?”

Campbell: “I don’t think it would help you to change the system, but it would help you to live in the system as a human being.

Moyers: “By doing what?”

Campbell: “Well, like Luke Skywalker not going over, but resisting its… impersonal claims.”

Moyers: “But I can hear someone out there in the audience saying ‘well, that’s all well and good for the imagination of a George Lucas or for the scholarship of a Joseph Campbell, but that doesn’t… isn’t what happens in my life’.”

Campbell: “You bet it does…. The world’s full of people who have… stopped listening to themselves. In my own life, I’ve had many opportunities to commit myself to a system and to go with it and to obey its requirements. My life has been that of a maverick: I would not submit.”

Ref: The power of myth [DVD videorecording] / Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers ; a production of Apostrophe S Productions, Inc., in association with Alvin H. Perlmutter, Inc. [and] Public Affairs Television, Inc. ; presented by WNET, New York, WTTW, Chicago ; executive producers, Joan Konner, Alvin H. Permutter ; series producer, Catherine Tatge. Silver Spring, MD : Athena, [2010].