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From: "Asmodeus58" <>
Subject: [IRELAND] THE HERO MYTH
Date: Sat, 27 Jan 2001 13:38:46 -0800
A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF HEROES IN CONTEMPORARY WORKS OF FANTASY LITERATURE
PART ONE: THE HERO MYTH
By John L. Flynn
Heroes take arduous journeys, confront dragons (and/or other mythological
creatures), discover lost treasure, and change the nature of the world
through their singular acts of courage and selflessness. They are legendary
figures, endowed with great strength or ability, who dare to heed the call
of adventure. While others (of a lesser ability) might choose to ignore this
summons and become the victims of an impotent king or repressive culture,
heroes endure much opposition, hardship, and danger to transcend the realm
of the commonplace. They are often the living embodiment of a society's
ideals, and are admired as much for their noble qualities as the difficult
tasks they undertake.
While many heroes arise from humble origins to command the respect of
minions, some others are actually displaced princes who must struggle to
regain their rightful place. In both scenarios, the hero often comes into
the world as an innocent; then, for one reason or another, he finds himself
orphaned, deposed by forces that he must later confront and subdue.
Wandering alone for days, months, or years, the hero learns valuable lessons
about survival and self reliance. Sometimes, he is aided by a wise priest,
shaman or magician; other times, he is awarded a special gift or talent from
some supernatural source. Ultimately, the hero emerges as an invincible
warrior who, by asserting his will, changes the world. From innocent to
orphan, wanderer to warrior (and one day, king), the universal sequence of
events is often referred to as the heroic paradigm.1
Whether we follow the mythological expedition of Jason (for the Golden
Fleece), Arthur's legendary quest for the Holy Grail, the fabulous travels
of Bilbo Baggins, or the cinematic exploits of Luke Skywalker, this heroic
paradigm suggests a familiar formula of departure, initiation, and return.
In fact, the hero's journey can often be viewed as a magnified rite of
passage, in which one exceptional individual (male or female, human or
hobbit) ventures forth from the common world and returns older, stronger,
somewhat wiser. Predictably, during his grand adventure, the hero encounters
supernatural (or preternatural) forces, wins a decisive victory against
evil, rescues the princess, and uncovers the treasure or knowledge that will
empower other men. In a metaphorical sense, the hero's journey is also a
journey of enlightenment, in which the individual breaks through the
boundaries of self to discover his unique contribution to the world.2
Joseph Campbell, in his treatise on the power of myth in popular culture
(The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949) explained that man typically
celebrates tales of heroes and their deeds in order to understand his own
place in the universe.3 The Greeks used mythological metaphors (about
Hercules and other famous titans) to define heroic ideals; the Romans
depended on biographical archetypes, drawn from Plutarch and other great
historians, to give their culture meaning; the Middle Ages on hagiography
(or writings about the saints).4 In modern society, where most old myths
have lost their power, the cultural imperative to invent new stories and
create new heroes has given rise to the sub-genre of fantastic literature
known as HEROIC FANTASY or SWORD & SORCERY. [Paradoxically, the
post-industrial age, while deliberately abandoning elements from the other
periods, has also embraced a new literary figure, known as the antihero.]
The modern variations on this theme are innumerable and can be all traced
back, in one form or another, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Illiad and
Odyssey, Virgil's Aeniad, Ovid's Metamorphosis, the Arthurian romances of
Cretian de Toyes, or Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Both Sir
H(enry) Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling were among the first contemporary
writers to use many of these classic notions of heroism in their fiction.
Allan Quatermain, the first modern hero, was introduced to Victorian readers
by Haggard in King Solomon's Mines (1885). As a white hunter searching for
ancient treasure in deepest Africa, Allan Quatermain was also representative
of all the noble qualities and ideals of the British Empire. His courage and
selfless determination helped him overcome impossible odds in fourteen other
books, which were a unique blend of fantasy and realism. [In She and Allan
(1921), Quatermain confronts the evil sorceress Ayesha (from Haggard's
famous novel She, 1887), and is actually thrown back in time to inhabit the
body of paleolithic man in Allan and the Ice Gods (1927).]5 Mowgli, the
perfect noble savage, was introduced in Kipling's first Jungle Book (1894).
Reared by wolves in India, Mowgli cuts a trail of high adventure through
both "barbaric" and "civilized" worlds. Readers at the turn of the century
were fascinated by these romantic tales of heroic figures in lost worlds,
and turned also to the medieval fantasies of William Morris, the "faerie"
stories of Lord Dunsany, and the picaresque adventures of E(ric) R(ucker)
Eddison for entertainment.
The adventure yarns of Edgar Rice Burroughs - in particular, Under the Moons
of Mars (later released as A Princess of Mars, 1917) and Tarzan of the Apes,
which both appeared in All-Story, 1912 - also focused on modern heroes whose
far-flung adventures on a mythical Mars or the dark continent of Africa were
decidedly fantastic. Former Civil War Captain John Carter of Virginia was
Burroughs' American response to Haggard's Quatermain. While prospecting for
gold in Arizona, he is whisked away to Mars - known as "Barsoom" to its
inhabitants - to battle with the barbaric yet highly technological natives
and rescue beautiful women. With his cavalry sabre and six-shooter, Carter
is equal to the challenge, and eventually conquers the entire planet.
Similarly, John Clayton, the English Lord Greystoke, was the author's answer
to Kipling's savage hero. Like Mowgli, Tarzan is raised by intelligent
creatures in the jungle, then later battles strange peoples, finds lost
cities, and confronts odd beasts. Both heroic figures are tall, lithe and
powerful fighting men who utilize their wits and endless adaptability to
conquer these strange worlds.6
For nearly twenty years, most writers borrowed heavily from Haggard, Kipling
and Burroughs for their archetypal heroes. But Robert E(rvin) Howard was not
satisfied with that image of the hero, and created his own, very unique
figures. His first hero Solomon Kane, an English Puritan of the late
sixteenth century, appeared in "Red Shadows" (Weird Tales, 1928). Kane was a
somber fellow who was driven to wander the world and right wrongs because of
a twisted relationship with God and the devil. Howard next introduced a
gigantic, barbarian hero named Kull, who was a native of stone-age Atlantis,
a soldier and usurper of the throne of Valusia, in "The Shadow Kingdom"
(Weird Tales, 1929). While he was to bravely encounter sorcerers, reptile
men, and talking animals, Kull was not without his weak points. The Valusian
usurper had a terrible temper and often acted violently without much
forethought or reason. Two of Robert Howard's other heroes - Cormac
FitzGeoffrey, an embittered Irish Crusader and adverturer from "Hawks of
Outremer" (Weird Tales, 1931), and Cahal O'Donnel, pretender to the throne
of Ireland from "The Sowers of the Thunder" (Oriental Stories, 1932) - also
battled their way through treachery and evil, but his most influential
figure debuted in "The Phoenix and the Sword" (published in the December
1932 issue of Weird Tales) Set in an imaginary past (known as the Hyborian
Age), this romantic fantasy introduced a violent, mighty and amoral
swordsman named Conan. Additional stories, like "The Scarlet Citadel," "The
Tower of the Elephant," "Black Colossus," and "Red Nails," not only helped
expand the legend of Conan but also launched the "Sword and Sorcery" genre.
With Howard's death in 1936, the Conan stories did not die away but rather
inspired other writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to keep the
tradition alive through pastiches or completions of eight unfinished
stories.7 In the mid-sixties, Conan reached a mass-market audience with the
first paperback publications (featuring illustrations by artist Frank
Frazetta). In the early seventies, the Cimmerian had become such a cult
figure that Marvel Comics decided to release the comic series Conan The
Barbarian, illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith, and later The Sword of Conan
graphic magazine. Two film adaptations, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger,
introduced even more fans to the mighty swordsman.
Other heroic figures were also introduced in the pages of the pulp magazines
from the fertile imaginations of A(braham) Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith,
Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Fletcher Pratt, C(atherine) L. Moore, and Henry
Kuttner, but so many of them were typical of the swashbuckling characters
that had come before. Merritt's protagonist in Ship of Ishtar (Argosy, 1924)
was similar to John Carter, and Leif Langdon in The Dwellers in the Mirage
(Argosy, 1932) was an amalgam of Howard's most popular creations. Smith's
colorful heroes journeyed through the medieval land "Averoigne" or the
imaginary polar continent (still free of ice) known as "Hyperborea."
Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis, from "Thunder in the Dawn," "Spawn of Dragon,"
"Beyond the Phoenix" (Weird Tales, 1938) and "Dragon Moon" (Weird Tales,
1941), traveled the same road as Howard's Kull while searching for
adventure. Leiber introduced two heroes--one huge and powerful, the other
small, nimble and quick-witted--in "Two Sought Adventure" (Unknown, 1939).8
T(erence) H(anbury) White wrote amusing and readable stories about King
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in The Sword in the Stone (1939),
The Witch in the Wood (1939), and The Ill-Made Knight (1940)--which all
comprised The Once and Future King (1958). With the publication of J.R.R.
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (three volumes 1954-55), the concepts of
heroes and "heroic fantasy" were reinterpreted for the mainstream. Tolkien's
characters were small, humble creatures that did not fit the stereotyped
image of the brutal, swaggering freebooter, yet they did take journeys, slay
dragons, and struggle against impossible odds in the name of good. When
taken together with Howard's work and the best of the pulp magazines, these
stories represent some of the finest in fantasy literature.
The massive cultural response to Tolkien's trilogy prompted other writers to
begin spinning their own epic tales of heroes and quests. Michael Moorcock,
one of the few British writers to work in the genre, introduced several
heroic figures of his own. His earliest work, while editing and contributing
to Tarzan Adventures (1956-58), introduced a violent and amoral character
named Sojan (collected as a novel in 1977), who could have been related to
Conan. But soon after, Moorcock created both The Eternal Champion (Avilion,
1956; Science Fantasy, 1962), a heroic figure who seeks to restore order to
the lives of his fellow men, and Elric of Milnibone, his most popular
character. First introduced in a 1961 issue of Science Fantasy, the albino
monarch who is dominated by an evil, sentient sword was clearly an
anti-hero. Unlike the work of Howard or Tolkien, the forces of good and evil
were rarely defined in Moorcock's stories about Elric. More than a dozen
books have featured this enigmatic figure, from The Weird of the White Wolf
(1963, comprised of four tales) to Fortress of the Pearl (1990). Though not
as interesting or complex as Elric, Lin Carter's Thongor (from The Wizard of
Lemuria (1965), John Norman's Tarl Cabot (from Tarnsman of Gor (1966) and
John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian (1968) were all cut from the same cloth as
Conan, and carried on the traditions created by Howard. In the last
twenty-five years, other tales of heroes have proliferated in one form or
another, from Terry Brooks' wonderfully evocative Shannara series to Piers
Anthony's richly textured Xanth books to Mark Rogers' wildly humorous
Samurai Cat yarns. The prevailing tone of most modern heroic fantasy is
somewhat satiric, and current heroes tend to be "anti-heroes." Stephen R.
Donaldson's highly stylized Thomas Covenant series imagines probably the
most unusual hero in recent years, by creating a long suffering figure who
may (or may not) be heroic.
Although Joseph Campbell's book and many other works of mainstream
literature have assumed that the hero is almost always male and that women
play a part in heroism as either the goddess or the temptress archetype,9
the development of "heroic fantasy" in Weird Tales (and other pulp
magazines) challenged many of those out-dated notions. In fact, C. L. Moore
introduced the first female hero less than two years after Conan with "Jirel
of Joiry," in a 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Six other highly colorful,
romantic tales followed, firmly establishing the archetype of the female
hero. Today, many other women writers, like Ursula Le Guin, Katherine Kurtz,
Jane Gaskell, Janet Morris, Tanith Lee, and C.J. Cherryh, have been
attracted to heroic fiction, and have created heroines that easily rival
their male counterparts. Jean Auel's Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear (1980)
and Sharon Green's Jalav (1985) represent two of the more popular
characters, while Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon is memorable
for its revisionist portraits of the women of Camelot.
CONTINUED WITH HEROIC FANTASY or SWORD & SORCERY.
THIS ARTICLE AND ITS TWO ACCOMPANYING ARTICLES WERE ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AND
PUBLISHED IN THE ENCYCLOPEDIA GALATICA. ENDNOTES
1Carol S. Pearson, The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By (New York:
Harper Collins Publishers, 1989) 9.
2Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1968) 37.
3 Campbell 11.
4 Marshall Fishwick, "The Heroic Style," Grooving the Symbol, ed. Richard W.
Lid (New York: The Free Press, 1970) 152. 5 J.E. Scott, A Bibliography of
the Works of H. Rider Haggard (1947).
6 Richard A. Lupoff, Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (New York:
Ace Books, 1968) 56.
7 George Scithers, "An Informal Biography of Conan the Cimmerian," AMRA 4
(1959) 24, reprinted, revised and expanded in The Conan Swordbook, ed. L.
Sprague de Camp and George Scithers (Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1969) 9.
8 Lin Carter, "Swordsmen and Sorcerers at Play," The Spell of Conan, ed. L.
Sprague de Camp (New York: Ace Books, 1980) 3.
9 Campbell 109.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1968.
Carter, Lin. "Swordsmen and Sorcerers at Play." The Spell of Conan. Ed. L.
Sprague de Camp. New York: Ace Books, 1980.
---. Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. New York: Ace Books, 1971.
Cockcraft, T.G.L. Index to the Weird Fiction Magazines. London: Roxby Press
de Camp, L. Sprague. Literary Swordsmen & Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic
Fantasy. New York: Arkham House, 1976.
Eney, Richard H. Eney. "Swords and Sorcery." The Conan Scrapbook. Eds. L.
Sprague de Camp & George Scithers. Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1969.
Fishwick, Marshall. "The Heroic Style." Grooving the Symbol. Ed. Richard W.
Lid. New York: The Free Press, 1970.
Lupoff, Richard A. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. New York: Ace
Pearson, Carol S. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. New York:
Harper Collins Publishers, 1989.
Scithers, George. "An Informal Biography of Conan the Cimmerian." AMRA 4
(1959). Reprinted, revised and expanded in The Conan Swordbook. Eds. L.
Sprague de Camp and George Scithers. Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1969.
Scott, J.E. A Bibliography of the Works of H. Rider Haggard. 1947.
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