09 December 2011

The Superhero With A Thousand Faces

Few books have ever had as big an impact on me as The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell's massively influential study of the archetypal hero's journey in the world's myths, legends, and folklore; since reading that just and a book-length interview with Campbell after I turned twenty-one, I've ploughed through several of Campbell's other books, including his monumental study of comparative mythology in general, The Masks of God

Why so many of our stories are similar is an interesting question, and one open to all sorts of answers, whether psychological, sociological, or theological. I'm inclined to favour a theological explanation, following the likes of Chesterton and Tolkien in seeing the legends of the world as prefiguring the Incarnation in which they were fulfilled; it makes sense to think of the story of Jesus as a true myth, where God expresses himself in reality rather than through dreams and poetic images. 

Still, attempted explanations aside, I don't think there's any getting away from the fact of how structurally similar our myths tend to be. Campbell's work has had a huge impact on Hollywood, as is well known -- George Lucas is surely his best known acolyte, but one thinks of George Miller too, and more recently Christopher Vogler, author of a staggeringly influential memo, and whose book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, has proved a potent conduit for Campbell's thinking. David Eddings has said that using mythic archetypes in storytelling is the literary equivalent of peddling dope, and in that sense there's a fair case for calling Vogler a narrative drug-lord.

His book, it's worth saying, is well worth reading, no matter what one thinks of it: his influence on the craft of storytelling has been such such that it needs to be understood. One thing I'm left wondering, though, is whether he had any influence on Disney's 1997  film Hercules, because that follows a very clearly beaten path and it's most definitely not the path beaten by the Heracles of ancient myth -- in any variant.

I'm not saying it doesn't owe a lot to Greek mythology -- it does, in that its loaded with characters and references from ancient Greece, but these ingredients are used in a recipe which is far from Classical. In fact, the story of Hercules seems to be not so much ancient Greek as modern American, in that as far as I can tell it draws from the template most firmly laid-out in 1978's Superman: The Movie.

Let me show you what I'm talking about. I've reeled this comparison off enough times over the years that it shouldn't take long here...

A Heavenly Child raised in Obscurity...
Both films start with a little baby boy being cherished by his parents in a place far from our own, a place where mere lesser mortals like ourselves don't belong. All, however, is not blissful in these paradises; Krypton is doomed, while Hades makes it known that his exclusion from Olympus does not please him...

Like Moses in his basket, the infant Kal-El is sent away from Krypton by his parents in a small spaceship destined for Earth, while Hades' henchmen kidnap young Hercules and take him away from Olympus where they attempt to turn him mortal. Each infant is found by a childless couple who resolve to adopt him as their own...

And all the adults are astonished by the little boy's prodigious strength. By this point, in case you're wondering, the Hercules story has already strayed some way from the myth; in the legends, he is indeed the son of Zeus and the strangling of serpents is an important tale of his infancy, but it's not quite like this. Rather, Heracles is the child of Zeus and Alcmene -- a mortal, and not Zeus's sister-wife Hera; consumed by anger and jealousy it was Hera who sent serpents to kill the baby in his cradle. I'll not point out any further differences, unless it's seems really obvious. You can look them up for yourself.

Anyway, the boys grow up and never quite fit in. Young Kal-El goes by the name of Clark Kent, and doesn't play football with the other teenagers in Smallville, while Hercules isn't allowed to play discus with other Greek lads of his age. Neither boy had any idea of his real identity, until he comes unto the possession of a mysterious amulet found with him as a child.

Taking the amulets with them, the boys leave home and set out on foot on a long journey, crossing the most barren of wildernesses...

Until they eventually reach great white temples...

Where they can finally speak to their real fathers, who tell them everything about who they really are and how it is their destiny to become heroes.

Clark's eighteen when he arrives at the Fortress of Solitude and begins his training, whereas Hercules isn't so young -- he'll fly off on Pegasus, who features in the Belleraphon myth, to meet and be trained by Philoctetes, who in Classical myth is someone who only shows up as Heracles dies, but will be eighteen by the time the crucial events in the story play out.

From Obscurity to the Big City
Anyway, once they're ready, they set out for the big city. Clark Kent, who we'll henceforth know as Superman, arrives in Metropolis, while Hercules goes to Thebes, 'the Big Olive' as it's known. The two heroes meet a sharp-nosed, sharp-tongued brunettes who comment on his innocent farmboy routine. Lois Lane will bestow the name Superman on Clark, while Megara refers to Hercules as Wonderboy.

Lois and Megara both fly with the heroes, much to the girls' consternation...

You've got me? Who's got you?
And both girls press the heroes for information about themselves, including potential weaknesses.

Do you like... pink?
Time goes by, and the heroes make great names for themselves, doing all manner of wonderful deeds and saving countless lives, but all is not well, because while they can soar through the skies, great dangers lies beneath their feet.

Deep under the ground live people who are determined to destroy our heroes, supervillains, for want of a better word, who have huge plans for real estate deals -- yes, both Lex Luthor and Hades both refer to their apocalyptic plans as real estate ventures -- that they realise Superman and Hercules could thwart.

Each of these villains is notionally aided by two none-too-bright henchmen...

And each does most of his scheming in a large round room, built around a large round map.

Triumph, Death, and Resurrection
Well, the villains eventually put their plans in motion and capture the heroes, removing their powers.

But though the heroes lie impotent, eventually they are enabled to get back on their feet so they can thwart the villain's plans and save the world.

Unfortunately, even then victory comes at a cost, as in both cases the price of the world being saved was the life of the girl. 

'There's some things,' says Phil to Hercules, 'you just can't change,' but Hercules refuses to accept that and instead sets out to change things by defying the law of death itself, bringing Meg back from the dead by going to the underworld and diving into the swirling waters of the Styx to save her. Likewise, Superman resolves to restore Lois to life by breaking the laws of time, despite the admonitions of his father; he will turn back time if that will restore the one he loves to life. 

Both men drive onwards, circling as fast as they can to save the ones they love. It takes all their effort -- just look at Hercules who's clearly dying or Clark who is bearing the strain of someone who loves absolutely and who would do anything to save someone who has no idea how much he loves her, someone who will never be able to understand how much he has done for her.

And how do the two stories end? Well, Lois and Megara are both restored to life....

While as for the villains, let's just say that they both meet their just desserts, with Lex Luthor being locked away and Hades being himself dragged into the Styx. Both villains, curiously, end up bald as coots.

I've been banging on about this for years, and whenever I say to people that the plot of Hercules is obviously based on the plot of Superman they invariably laugh and say that surely I've got it the wrong way round. If anything, isn't it more likely that the plot of Superman is based on the ancient legends of Hercules. And then I sigh, and point out that the plot of Hercules owes very little to the Greek myths. Sure, the ingredients are ancient, but the recipe is rather more modern.

Though of course, there are those who'd point out that it's anything but modern, as the Superman story in the broadest sense is the story of a profoundly Jewish hero, and that the film owes more than a little to the story of Christ. Jor-El's words to his son, saying 'The Son becomes the Father... and the Father the Son.' The name, Kal-El, supposedly meaning 'Star Child', but clearly a theophoric Hebrew name like Emmanuel. The childhood rescue from certain death -- itself an echo of the Moses story -- followed by a life in obscurity. The emergence after thirty years in obscurity to perform all manner of wondrous deeds and save life after life. The transformation of death so that it becomes a path to resurrection, triumph over evil, and the salvation of the world...

I've come to disagree with Joseph Campbell pretty profoundly in some respects, but he's taught me an immense amount, not least how to look at stories, and to think about where they came from. If you've not read anything by him, you should give it a shot. The Way of Myth, his book-length interview with Fraser Boa, was my introduction to him, but I think Bill Moyer's The Power of Myth might make an even better starter.

Stick your toe into the water. You might end up walking on it.

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