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Part 1 - Ch. 1: Departure

#95: Mar. - May 2011 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor
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Part 1 - Ch. 1: Departure
The Hero with a Thousand Faces - by Joseph Campbell
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I was just flipping through The English Teacher's Companion by Jim Burke and was surprised to see Burke's own version of "The Heroic Cycle" based on (and fully crediting) Campbell's Hero archetype in The Hero With A Thousand faces.

After introducing the heroic cycle and explaining that, for instance, "the call" refers to the invitation to do something, go somewhere, or become something, I ask students to use the diagram to describe a story. Catcher in the Rye conforms to this diagram very nicely, as do most of the stories we teach. The pattern allows them to create a holistic picture of the story and, since I often have them do this exercise at the book's end, provides an ideal opportunity for them to write about their own journey or certain stages of it. The greatest benefit of this approach is that they begin to think about stories in terms of their shape or pattern, something that helps them better understand the architecture, or "story grammar," of subsequent works they read.
I give Burke kudos because I can see a lot of potential in using this someday in my own classes. (Currently I teach Eng Comp which is probably too basic for such an in-depth approach.) Campbell's idea of the journey is both a metaphor and archetypal pattern that exists to some degree in just about any story you can think of. The hero's path is summed up in Ch. 3 of the prologue, The Hero and the God:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder (x): fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won (y): the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (z)."

I'm sure we can all come up with stories where the hero follows this arc. I was thinking today about the movie adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone. If you haven't seen the movie, don't read this, but do rent the movie which stars an extremely young Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young New England schoolteacher in love with his colleague Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams) when he is involved in a serious car accident that sends him into a coma. He awakes under the care of neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom) and counts himself fortunate when he notes no casts, bandages or visible signs of injuries on his body. However, the awakening turns rude when he is told that five years have passed since he last knew consciousness: his girlfriend has long since married and had a child. Johnny's transition back to life is made rougher when he discovers that he has the ability to learn a person's secrets (past, present, future) through making physical contact with the person. However, this ability leaves him an outcast in his hometown despite helping the citizens.

Later, Johnny discovers through a handshake that US Senatorial Candidate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) will later become President of the United States, and through the handshake sees Stillson ordering a nuclear strike against Russia, thus presumably bringing on a nuclear holocaust. Johnny feels it to be his duty to assassinate Stillson and attempts to do so at a rally in a church. Johnny attempts to shoot Stillson, but misses and is soon shot by Stillson's security detail. However, after Johnny's first shot, Stillson grabs Sarah's baby and holds him up in the air as a human shield. This act is heavily photographed and becomes instant political suicide. As Johnny is shot and falls from the balcony, he is confronted by an angered Stillson. Johnny grabs him and foresees Stillson committing suicide due to the destruction of his reputation. Johnny then says to Stillson "It's over. You're finished." A satisfied Johnny then dies with Sarah by his side.
So, Johnny goes into a coma and returns (from a presumably supernatural realm) with psychic powers. (x–a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder) He becomes a recluse and realizes that his psychic powers are actually usurping his life energy. Eventually he knows it's going to kill him and, yet, he continues to use his powers to help people. Still, he doesn't have a sense of purpose until his chance meeting with Stillson, the would-be president who will someday order a nuclear strike against Russia. Johnny realizes that he can use his powers to change the future (y–fabulous forces are there encountered), and now realizes what he must do.

At the end he destroys Stillson's career. (z–the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man). As he lays dying, his love, Sarah, who is now married to someone else, confesses to him that she loves him. There's that redemptive ending. Not only does Johnny stop a psychopath from launching a nuclear attack (power to bestow on his fellow man), he also learns that Sarah really loves him after all. He has to die to fulfill his purpose.

Campbell distinguishes between the classic hero who helps the whole world and the hero of a fairy tale who typically achieves a domestic, "microcosmic" triumph. Though Johnny isn't a king or great man, he's still a classic hero in the sense that the gifts he brings back helps the world. He's a tragic hero in the sense that he has to die to fulfill his purpose.
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