Last week I promised to explore further how reading great literature can be a hero’s quest, a journey across a magical threshold such as that described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here’s what I came up with.
First, a note on why I find Campbell and his mentor Carl Jung so powerful. Both men believe that each of us has the inner potential to fulfill some special destiny. (“Follow your bliss,” Campbell famously advised.) It doesn’t matter whether this destiny is great or small. Maybe we are called upon to be president, maybe an English teacher in a small country school, maybe something that doesn’t have a label. The important thing is that we put the best of ourselves into play.
Our initial job is to identify our destiny and to develop the special powers we possess that are needed to achieve it. I see literature as a particularly powerful aid, a resource that can connect us with deep energies. Therefore, my job as a literature teacher is to guide students in the use this resource. I can’t tell ahead of time exactly which works will reach which students so I present them with a variety. Once I see a work catch hold, I encourage the student to write about it and insist that he or she make the essay meaningful.
Invoking Campbell, then, we can see a work of literature as a call to the reader hero. In a classroom setting, the teacher functions as a threshold guardian, guiding the student into the work. If students reject the call–which is to say, refuse to engage with a work that could change their lives–then they risk remaining stuck in their narrowness, experiencing all the anger and frustration that this involves. To them, the threshold guardian will seem a forbidding figure rather than a friend.
Even willing students will find the hero’s journey difficult. There are various challenges that they will encounter—say, understanding Shakespearean English or deciphering the long, difficult sentences of Faulkner. They may want to abandon the journey altogether (what Campbell describes as being trapped within the belly of the whale). Fortunately, they have access to various spirit guides, the teacher being the most obvious. (I offer up this blog as another.) Once they obtain the special awareness that literature provides—what Campbell calls the “elixir”–they are halfway through the journey.
Now they must act upon that wisdom, becoming the person that the work reveals them to be. This may be difficult, especially if their new understanding goes against parental or social expectations. They may feel tempted to pretend that the journey never occurred and return to their previous state (the temptress symbolizes this impulse). Maybe they will see literature as having nothing to do with real life. Acting upon the newly acquired knowledge is the hardest part of the journey, calling upon them to be heroes.
The same journey can occur for those who are no longer in the classroom. It occurs when you pick up a challenging work that you instinctively know you should read but that you’ve been avoiding. You may go through the same approach-avoidance dance that students engage in. Have courage, knowing that the rewards outweigh the hardships.
By invoking Campbell’s “monomyth,” I have, of necessity, been vague. It’s up to each of us to give body to his symbols. For concrete examples, feel free to peruse the archives of Better Living through Beowulf, which turns six today. Exploring literature’s special call is my life’s work.