Often, the most exciting part of a story is when the “company of heroes” is formed. Many of such names are so iconic that have become symbols in their own right, so that just mentioning one of those legendary groups carries meaning beyond the simple sound of the words: “The Fellowship of the Ring“, “The Argonauts“, “The Fantastic Four“, “The Avengers“, and so on.
There is something indeed legendary about a group of different characters who come together, by choice or fate, and accomplish a collective heroic task. This post is dedicated to them.
In some cases it is clear that one of the characters has a prominent role and is the main Protagonist of the story. “Jason and the Argonauts”, “Robin Hood and the Merrymen”, are good examples of such type. Other stories are more centred on a collective of characters as such (“Ghostbusters”, “The X-Men”), where different stories take place and coexist, composing a mosaic of personalities which contribute all together to a main, wider storyline.
This element does not correspond to a particular stage of the Journey. It’s rather distributed across several of them. It probably belongs to the “Road of Trials“, and that’s why I decided to discuss it now, although in the majority of cases the Hero starts meeting the other characters of the story since the very beginning, and this will go on until the end.
The common element that emerges, however, is that “no-one can do it alone”. Whatever the task or the quest, a fundamental part of the learning path represented by the Hero’s Journey consists in learning that we are never really alone, and one of the learning dimensions that the Hero must face in order to achieve success in their quest will be related to his/her social environment.
There can be several layers or meaning in this: is the Quest related to the social sphere of the Protagonist? Than maybe the main learning points will be related to his/her relationships with other people, and this aspect of the Journey will actually be greatly emphasised.
“A Christmas Carol“, the classic novel by Charles Dickens, describes such a story. Ebenezer Scrooge is a solitary, old and dry man, who doesn’t expect much from life anymore. But he unexpectedly takes a path of learning and growing that will bring him to face several challenges, all connected to his social sphere and to the people he is in connection with. He will have to re-invent his relationships to life, work, family and values, in order to complete is transformation arc.
Another good example of this is “Mary Poppins” (1964), which is not really a story about the famous, super cool if a bit edgy Nanny or the lovely kids; more deeply, it describes the learning and experiential process that both parents have to go through, to re-establish harmony in their family (as it’s made very explicit in “Saving Mr. Banks“, 2013).
There are many other cases in which this may be less obvious, but possibly even more powerful. In “Forrest Gump” (1994) the main character, played by Tom Hanks, is often considered “stupid” or “odd” by the people he meets. But through interacting with him, they will experience a transformational arc that will make it possible for them to develop a more healthy relationship with the social sphere, and even with themselves.
The two most spectacular cases are probably the Lieutenant Dan, played by Gary Sinise
who by meeting Forrest will be able to heal the broken connection to his family heritage, society in general and with his own identity, until he experiences a proper “Death and Rebirth” (which will be discussed in a future post).
See also the story of Jenny, played by Robin Wright (who more recently went on living in a much more ambitious house), but in 1994 looked like this:
Jenny also starts her own journey with a dysfunctional relationship to her father and family and lives all her life engaged in border line relationships and behaviours, until she – allowing herself to enter in a more authentic connection with Forrest – finally finds her own full redemption and the love she always missed.
Family, community, personal identity. By meeting different characters during the Journey, the Hero has the opportunity to explore this elements of his (her) own personal story. The counterparts act in truth as “mirrors”, and as such allow the Protagonist to see more clearly reflected some aspects of their own existence.
In many cases this can also be represented by a natural element, such as an Animal. In this case
This is why many of the most successful couples hero-companion in all times are composed by a person, and an animal (or mythical creature). We are not talking of a coincidence. Many stories are indeed about the universal topic of “discovering our own nature” and getting more in touch with it:
So, as said before in this chapter we try to analyse the different cathegories or archetypes of characters that the main Hero can meet in the Journey. The list will never be fully exhaustive but I will try anyway. We have already discussed the Messenger and the Mentor in previous posts of this blog.
This is probably the most traditional, the one we all would expect. Nobody can do it all alone, and the Hero must first find some allies to proceed in the Quest.
Of course there can be endless variation on this universal topic. From the true, unconditioned and loyal friendship of Sam and Frodo the Hobbits, to more subtle examples that contain substories, like the “Friend in Need“
who will need to receive some assistance before he / she can develop their full potential. In this sense their stories crosses with the “Crossing the Threshold” phase, in that a test must be passed, before the Ally can reveal as such. Remember in fact that in the same story multiple thresholds can be crossed, each connected to different stages of the Journey and probably with different levels of reward and disclosure.
To help a friend in need is often not a problem. For some of us, giving is honestly receiving. There is a high level of self-fulfillment in helping out someone, and it makes us feel… like the hero of the day. We know that.
But then, what about asking for help? For many of us, asking is much harder. So maybe this is the lesson to learn at this stage. There is nothing wrong in asking for help to our friends, when we feel we are facing a problem that is too big for us. And it will happen, sooner or later, to all of us. Even when we think we are completely alone, there might be someone for us, just where we are not looking.
It happens to all our favourite heroes, from time to time. Batman would have been lost in many occasions without Robin, Oracle, or even the human, very human Commissioner Gordon. And he is the Lonely Knight. So why should we feel any less?
Now, this is one of those cases in which Hollywood movies don’t always make a great service to the art of storytelling. This can be a very important part of any story. Aren’t love and relationships great growing processes for all of us? There can be nothing more challenging, indeed, than opening ourselves to another individual, and letting him or her under our guard, exposing ourselves totally. And be ready to do the some for the Relevant Other. To love unconditionately, without judgement, with our full self.
It can be – and in fact, often is – the main challenge of the whole plot. Romantic comedies movies are all revolving about two people looking for each other, getting closer, then losing each other, than finally meeting in the final climax.
We will discuss in more detail the importance of this element when discussing “Meeting the Divinity”, also. In fact, to meet another person and feel that he/she is our “soulmate” is an experience that can be nothing short of divine. And many legends are there to remind us that our soul misses a piece, and that life is indeed about looking for our missing half. The most ancient in western civilization is from Plato’s “The Symposium“.
Well, believe what you will, but there is a lot to learn from this. I will just leave it at that.
Now this is a good one. Even in the dirtiest, testosterone-full macho action movies from the 80s, the Hero had to have a good sidekick.
A joker along the main character is important for comic relief, which is also a basic narrative mechanism: the audience cannot hold their breath for longer than that, and everybody appreciates a laughter even in the most dramatic stories.
However, this presence actually pays tribute to a much, much nobler and ancient wisdom.
Originally, the “Trickster” is a very important archetype, present in almost every myth and culture. It was truly worshipped as a God: Hermes/Mercury for Greeks and Romans, Loki for the Norse, Anansi in the West African / Caribbean, the Coyote spirit in Navajo and other native American nations, Set for the Egyptians.
Because that is one quality in human nature that we, after all, admire and respect. The use of wits, ingenuity, skills and common sense to overcome the problems. It is one element that surely led the human species to be at the peak of their evolution. Yes, everybody likes and respects the powerful warriors and the wise leaders. But from time to time, we need to deploy other talents, too, if we want to win our most important battles.
And so, important traces of this archetype remain also in contemporary and popular storytelling. There is an important lesson to learn from this, too: that sometimes it’s really OK to let things go out of our control.
We believe and act as if all our world should always be in order, under tight control. We pretend, because in fact, it’s not. The healing, liberating power of the trickster is just there: with a padarox, to show everybody that the king is naked, and that the reality can really, just be just a joke sometimes.
And what a relief, to allow ourselves to laugh and breath, sometimes! To remind ourselves the innocent pleasure of fun and games. Of being free from responsibilities, childish and free like children at play. Yes, it can be a distructive power sometimes (see Arlequin, Loki, Set: often this figure was also associated with fire and with the power of chaos), but nevertheless is one important aspect of the human nature, and one we need to learn to deal with, in the course of our heroic quest.
Often connected to the Trickster, but not exactly the same, I want to dedicate a short paragraph also to this figure.
Things are not always what they seem. And so are people – and so are we.
We can be honest and insincere; courageous and fearful; generous and selfish; responsible and coward. We can act as adults and children. Wise and fools. Men and women. Good and evil. The opposites can exist together, and indeed exist together, in each of us.
This takes shape into the… shapeshifter, exactly. It’s a character that literally transforms into something else
for example a human who turns into a beast
and is able to use the best abilities of both forms – only, sometimes he is not and can lose control.
Or it’s simply a person who is never what it seems, always ready to swing from one side to another, change faction, change opinion, even in open betrayal
sometimes his / her motives are more clear and understandable, sometimes they are not for us to see and it leaves us confused, guessing (does it ever happen in real life? Really?).
This can also be, for example, a lover who cheats or leaves us or is constantly unfaithful
What is there to learn for the Hero, and for us, in all this? Well – that not all is what it seems, for example. Or that apparently opposite qualities can exist together at the same time, in the same person.
To make more obvious his nature of shape shifter, Captain Sparrows actually shows that he can change his own physical shape if he wants!
And also, we can learn not to be too hard on ourselves. Because we, too, are full of paradoxes and contradictions. We are just human, after all!
In us very different energies coexist and we might want to acknowledge them, learn to respect them, if we want to embrace them as parts of ourselves. This can be very liberating, too. Instead of fighting and resisting all these forces, learn to give a name to each of them, and welcome them.
Ok, in some cases this can be too much, it’s true
But maybe we don’t need to go that far, and we can put our pieces together actually before our personality breaks into pieces, no?
Last but not least, of course. There can be no story if the Protagonist doesn’t meet a worthy opponent. The main rival, the Antagonist. Through confronting with this, the Hero really achieves greatness, so the greatest the enemy, the greatest the value of the Quest.
So what happens in some stories? The Hero works hard, collects a bunch of buddies, gets the magic sword, and defeats the Bad Guy. Right?
This is also where cheap, superficial storytelling doesn’t really make a good service to its cause.
The Villain is there for a reason.
Their motivations and background stories must be, if possible, known and understood. Respected, even. Because there is a great deal of learning that we can collect from this. In fact, it’s precisely here that lies the importance of the Enemy in the story.
Experience comes not by killing the dragon, but by understanding how the dragon became what it is. Because the Villain is, really, the Hero in its own story. Or maybe – it was once, and fell victim of greed, ambition, hunger for power, selfishness – and became the Fallen Angel: see Lucifer, Darth Vader, Voldemort.
And here is the key. The Hero’s Journey is not, must not be, a quest for personal power, gain or wealth. If that’s all what happens, the Hero will soon fall out of grace, and become the Dragon (see again the Minotaur in this other post), that somebody else will have one day to face and defeat.
The Journey can instead be a journey of understanding, of self and the universe. An experience of empathy, compassion and generosity. Where the Protagonist realises that all the experience and rewards that he / she collects, will serve a higher purpose. Maybe which one, is not clear yet at this stage. And that’s fine. But the Villain must be here to show what is the price of defeat.
Sure, this has been a brief overview. We are trying to cover all of the human experience in a bunch of rather stereotyped characters. But bear with me still for a couple of minutes there.
The beauty of storytelling from all ages is that it’s possible to play with the elements we have seen, and combine them in infinite ways. This creates some of the most interesting, sophisticated and… realistic characters. Because we are like that, aren’t we? We are not all good or bad, teachers or students, leaders or followers, parents or children, lovers or loved ones.
And so we tend to fall for characters that are tri-dimensional, that are able to pop out of the written page or the big screen, and talk directly to us: because they are like us.
So let’s just have a look at a few famous crossovers between the types. Ah, yes, spoiler alert. Following here are some revelations on stories like Star Wars, major Batman characters, The Godfather, Lord of the Rings. If you are not familiar with these stories already, how come are you on the internet?
But enough. Let’s start our little quiz!
What happens when a Hero becomes a Villain, but at the same time stays always a Mentor, at the end to become a Friend again – and even a Wise Father who saves the Galaxy?
And what about a scoundrel, a trickster and criminal, who acts as messenger and helps the Hero to cross the first threshold, not without a price? And then seems to be too selfish to really care, but in the end comes back to save the day?
Let’s change story. Who is always a trickster and a shapeshifter, but sometimes a teacher for us and possibly, even a friend?
And what about an enemy who becomes a friend, to become an enemy again, a potential (sometimes very real – always veeeery sexy) love interest, but always ready to go their own way?
And what if our elder brother, nonetheless, turns his back to us and is ready to betray us switching to the side of our worst enemy? Does he love us less?
And finally – a Friend and Ally who is consumed by greed and cannot resist his own weakness, tries to change side and betrays us, but in the end redeems himself with a final heroic deed?
And still in “The Lord of the Rings”: how many roles does this little guy have?
Guide, Trickster, Friend, Villain, Mentor… and more?
Ok, you got it. It could be an interesting game to play, in your favourite story, to try and identify to what “roles” or archetypes the different characters belong, and if they keep their roles through the story. And if, as it happens in the best narrative, each character, even the apparently minor ones, have their own narrative arcs outlined, so that it’s possible for us to follow their evolution, understand their motivation and feelings, perceive their different layers, and in other world identify a part of ourselves in each of them, so to have a richer and gratifying experience when living through the story.