Neither Hero nor Journey
The Hero’s Journey is perfectly legitimate myth with a valid place among many others in the pantheon. However, it is not appropriate today as a primary guide for civilization.
The main problem is not that it is male-gendered and needs to be neutered or balanced by a female equivalent. It is that the Hero is a boy archetype, not a man archetype. We need to source guidance from more mature archetypes, which comprise the masculine, feminine, and non-gendered.
I won’t at this time comment too much on the feminist critique of the Hero, fascinating though it is. I’ll just say that we can do better than to merely switch the Hero’s gender (Rey instead of Luke, Supergirl instead of Superman) while following the same arc of the call to adventure, leaving home, the mentor, the threshold, the test, the enemy, the ordeal, the triumph, the return and so forth. Certainly, both sexes may undergo a Hero’s Journey in the course of a lifetime, but we do not fully honor the feminine by making women into honorary men as protagonists in the archetypal boy-to-man journey.
My intention today though is not to discuss what a truly feminine counterpart to the Hero’s Journey might be, but rather to consider other mythic arcs based on mature archetypes. I have a very practical reason for this exploration. I am collaborating with a small group of people to create a dramatic performance—a musical—and it is important to me to drive the plot with a story template and archetypes beyond the Hero and his Journey. This intention brings up questions like, What are other sources of dramatic tension besides conflict? How are they resolved in a satisfying way outside of triumph? (Two of my sources of inspiration in this endeavor are Ursula K. Le Guin, and Hiyao Miyazaki.)
The main theme of the musical is ecological. It is in humanity’s relationship to earth that we most need guidance from post-Hero storylines. For 20 years I have described civilization’s long journey of Separation (of human from nature, self from other, matter from spirit, man from woman, work from play, and many more). The conquering hero in countless myths and legends is a proxy for civilization itself, discovering its powers, conquering nature, domesticating the wild, subduing the barbarians.
There are other ways to develop a soul (individual or collective) besides to leave home and go off on an adventure. I believe that the time is now to engage these other modes of development. For example, it will not be truly developmental for us to push on to Mars, to conquer new frontiers, to find new enemies over which to triumph. We have been flogging the Hero’s Journey like a tired horse in hopes that it will drag the wagon of civilizational sense-making a few more decades into the future. But few people are actually excited about a manned mission to Mars, or the latest in implantable computing. Another mode of development calls us
I write this from the perspective of a middle-aged man, long past his time of leaving home behind in order to go off and seek his fortune. Contrary to the youth-obsessed prejudices of modern society, the soul’s development does not end when one settles down, makes home, roots in place, and starts a family. Life is not a continual Hero’s Journey.
In the human relation to earth, isn’t it obvious right now that our collective soul development will come through fully acknowledging our home here—on earth, as part of life, in matter? Well, it is obvious to me, and sharing that vision motivates me in making this musical. “Rising above” matter to a digital, virtual, or spiritual realm feels more like an escape than a progression, as with someone who trashes every home he lives in and moves onto another every couple years. As long as new homes are available to him, he never learns. Never, until one day he turns to where he is right now and knows it as precious.
To know it as precious he must also know as precious all the other homes he trashed. Grief is thus a crucial phase of the evolutionary story-template for humanity at this time. How many “homes” on earth, how many places, how many entire cultural-ecological realities have we already trashed?
Oh and by the way, guilt is an off-ramp from grief. I will take care in my storytelling to defuse guilt. Guilt is a mighty tool in reversing power relations, but not in reinventing them. And it is useless in the project of healing.
The shape of the musical is starting to come together in my mind. I have already composed two mythic framing stories, but I still have not arrived at the human story that interweaves them. I am excited at the challenge of creating a compelling, immersing plot that is not a journey and not a conflict. There will be a male and a female character. For the male, I’m looking first to Warrior, Magician, Lover, and King for orienting archetypes. In their true expression, none of them seek their own glory. The true Kings walk among us, we who rarely recognize them as kings. That is because the kingdom they serve is beyond most people’s conscious recognition. Part of my purpose is to show the glory of these humble people. For the female, I am starting with Priestess and Queen, looking to those I know who embody those most radiantly. They too are little recognized, especially by themselves.
These archetypes are just a starting place. I will not deliberately fashion characters who represent them, nor will I consciously write into the story the various messages, archetypes, and symbols I have in mind. I will write from those things while allowing the story to be bigger than my understanding of it.
That is a good beginning, don’t you think? The story of humanity is bigger than our understanding. An outcome is available bigger than our design. An intelligence exists in the world beyond what we impose upon it.
Thank you to all my subscribers.
PS. I am going to be speaking at a few in-person events in September:
GardenFest in New Hampshire
AUREA, in Miami:
An ecstatic dance + storytelling in Salt Lake City (it's going to be amazing)
The Fuller Field School in Kansas (farming-oriented)