This month, the Great Fantasy Traveling Round Table looks at "The Hero and the Quest." There are some thoughtful posts from host Warren Rochelle, Chris Howard, Carole McDonnnell, and Sylvia Kelso. Here' what occurred to me:
Once upon a time, a hero represented a very particular character, an archetype if you will. He was invariably male, either a youth or in the prime of life, neither a child nor infirm with age; he was physically powerful and if not morally irreproachable, clearly a “good guy.” It was fine for him to have a flaw or two, so long as it did not interfere with his ability to accomplish great deeds and conquer mighty foes. Occasionally, the flaw would prove his downfall, as in the case of Achilles. The tradition that stretches from Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh continued through King Arthur and his knights, to Tarzan, the superheroes of comic books, Doc Savage, and James Bond. True, there were occasional female-heroes in this mold, but mostly they imitated the men, only with brass bikinis, improbably high heels, and better fashion sense. What made them heroic, men and women alike, were physical prowess, lofty ideals, and larger-than-life goals. In other words, they were Worthy of The Noble Quest.
The Quest was always something beyond the reach of the ordinary person. No average plowman or shop-keeper could aspire to find the Grail or slay the dragon. The Quest usually involved what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” meaning that the central character must leave behind the familiar, venture into unknown terrain fraught with danger, and then return home. Sometimes he is changed by his experience, sometimes he merely puts himself back on the shelf until the next plea for help.
The function of this kind of Hero is not only as a Campbellian agent – that is, to guide the reader through a transformative journey – but as an instrument of Order and of The Triumph of Good. (Notice how the topic lends itself to unnecessary capitalization?) The world has veered toward Chaos, if not actually toppled headlong into the abyss, and the task of the Hero is to set things right. (I suspect that one modern incarnation of the classical Hero is the detective, who restores right social order by solving puzzles that lead to the apprehension of wrong-doers.) One of the implications here is that only those of noble birth, etc., and who are favored by the gods have the capacity to do great deeds. Aforementioned nobles undoubtedly relished stories that demonstrated them how superior they were and didn’t mind the peasantry being reminded of it. This propagated a hierarchical power structure in the same way as did the notion of the divine right of kings. It reinforced the notion that those with political power were inherently better (stronger, luckier, sexier, purer of thought, beloved by the gods) than those who had none.