Framing the American Hero

Ron Large

From The Fourth R
Volume 1, Issue 3
June 1987

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes the development of the hero within a three-stage journey: Separation-Initiation-Return. In the first stage, Separation, the would-be hero is called out of the relative safety of the home to embark on an adventure into the unknown. For Campbell, the call prefigures the symbolic death of the individual and rebirth as the hero. Of course, the one summoned may refuse to answer the call, generally for selfish reasons. “The refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest.” The rejection of the message merely shows that the person is not ready or able to assume the role of the hero. Real heroes ultimately will not decline to enter into the unknown. The acceptance of the journal leads to the second phase: Initiation.

Generally the hero’s education begins after crossing over a threshold into the regions of the unknown, which hold the secrets of life and death. Leonard Biallas in his book Myths: Gods, Heroes and Saviors says, “The hero retreats to a dark forest, or a cave, or wilderness, where he breaks past the horizons of the created world.” The second stage is a time of maturation for the hero where, during a period of trials and testing, the hero learns or develops the skills necessary to fulfill the heroic mission. The testing is an opportunity for the hero to gain mastery over the self, to destroy the ego in what Campbell refers to as the “purification of the self.” The lingering temptation to self-interest that threatens the completion of the journey is overcome. Robert Jewett and John Lawrence in The American Monomyth refer several times to the selfless nature of the redeeming hero. Once the ego and other dangers are vanquished, the hero gains a boon or gift as a sign of victory. The granting of the boon inaugurates the last leg of the quest, the journey home or the Return. The hero may also refuse to recross the threshold, but this would invalidate the status of the hero and indicate a resurgence of the selfish ego.

By returning with the boon, the hero has the ability to resolve the crisis that precipitated the separation in the first place. Because the crisis threatens the well-being of society, the hero’s gift contains the secret of restoration; it is the gift of life. The reason for the hero’s actions is to restore the communal harmony that is now in danger from some malevolent power. The moment of redemption blossoms from the hero’s confrontation with evil. It is this last aspect, the redemptive act, that Jewett and Lawrence most closely identify with the American monomyth.

The American Hero as Crusader

Jewett and Lawrence, while not rejecting Campbell’s structure of the hero’s journey, suggest that heroic redemption, especially through violence, typifies the American version of the monomyth. Instead of a hero whose journey offers insight and growth through the process of maturation, Jewett and Lawrence suggest that “the American monomyth derives from tales of redemption” in which the hero is fundamentally complete. The crusader replaces the initiate.

Structurally the redeemer myth follows three stages as well, which we might designate Entrance-Resolution-Departure. The first course begins with a peaceful, harmonious, hard-working community often on the edge of the frontier. As Jewett and Lawrence put the matter, “the American monomyth begins and ends in Eden.” However, some evil power threatens to destroy the calm and obliterate the edenic existence of of the community. It is into this situation that the hero makes an entrance. Thus, by definition, the redeemer originates from outside the community, and some obscurity about the past and identity usually accompanies the hero’s immigration into a tremulous eden.

Once the hero arrives, the redemptive task becomes increasingly obvious. In order to restore the peaceful climate, the hero must, sooner or later, face the enemy; there can be no escape. The confrontation with evil may begin on a small scale; for example, the hero may initially fight the subordinates of the major evil power. Finality, however, is inevitable. The conflict travels on an upwardly moving spiral, ever increasing in importance, until the final cataclysmic battle between the hero and the representation of evil. With resolution, the third stage unfolds.

In what is by now a cliche, the hero leaves the community after sealing the victory, the sunset beckoning as the hero rides out of sight. Why does the hero leave? Several suggestions may be offered.

Since the active presence of violence usually causes the defeat of evil, the hero, by association, is also contaminated and therefore cannot remain in paradise. The redeemer is the reminder of the very violence which characterized the previous evil. The hero wins, but also loses.

Second, becoming a member of the community would destroy the stature of the hero. Settling down, marrying, raising a family quench the fire that once forged the qualities of the hero. Also, by remaining in one place, the hero would no longer be able to fulfill any other redemptive mission.

The third reason follows. Jewett and Lawrence point to a serialization of the hero stores such as The Lone Ranger and Star Trek. Simply from the point of continuing the struggle against evil, the hero must move on to the next episode. There are always more communities to save.

A fourth reason is that leaving serves to immortalize the hero. The departure is a foretaste of the hero’s transcendent nature and continued existence in the memory of the community. Both of these elements contribute to the assertion or belief that the hero is immortal.

The Redeemer Myth

Perhaps we can combine Campbell’s classic monomyth and the American monomyth of Jewett and Lawrence to form a broader narrative of the redeemer myth. In the American version, the myth begins with the hero on the outside; yet, following Campbell, the hero has to come from somewhere. Thus, the American monomyth contains an implicit leaving or separation, which allows the hero the opportunity to cultivate the redemptive skills through some form of struggle or initiation. The hero then returns, but not necessarily to the point of origin.

A movement of destiny guides the hero, as Jewett and Lawrence state, to the besieged paradise. Here the gift or boon is the presence of the hero, the only one capable of silencing the clamor of evil and restoring the society. Finally the hero departs, and while this step is an essential ingredient in the American monomyth, Campbell also includes it in his treatment of the classical form: “The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today.” Crucifixion may be real or symbolic, but it still signifies the departure of the hero. The divergence then between the two versions of the monomyth may be more apparent than real as each stresses different aspects of the hero’s journey.

Ron Large (Ph.D., Graduate Theological Union) is Associate Academic Vice President and Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. His area of specialization is Christian Ethics with an emphasis on Christian Social Ethics and peace studies. He received a Fulbright Scholar Award in the Fall of 2009, and taught in the International Peace Studies Program at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College Dublin.

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Works Cited

Biallas, Leonard. Myths: Gods, Heroes and Saviors. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1986.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Jewett, Robert and John Lawrence. The American Monomyth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1977.