Jason and Medea: Noir hero & heroine

You may know it as the story of the Golden Fleece, or of the Argonauts, but it is really the story of Jason and Medea, arguably the most haunting couple of all time.

With that story (even though it appears to be as old as those of Hercules and Theseus), the Greeks, in my opinion, took a leap into complexity, subtlety and even modernity in their depictions of heroes and heroism.

In this thread on heroes so far, I called Hercules the brute and primal archetype of a hero and Theseus the more sophisticated classical archetype. And Jason? He would have to be the first “anti-hero” as you might find him in Film Noir.

Film Noir is that film genre in which a morally ambiguous and complex hero struggles against — and almost fails in — a corrupt world before he encounters a seductive and dangerous femme fatale who simultaneously challenges and saves him. (One convention in Film Noir is that the femme fatale wears a white or blue dress the first time you see her.)

As you read my (admittedly editorialized) re-telling of Jason and Medea’s story below, see if you recognize those noir-ish aspects, and reflect on some of the other issues that have come up in the comments to this thread so far, such as whether heroes have to be “good” or “altruistic” to be heroic.

I. The quest

As usual in the Greek myths (see Theseus), our hero is the son of a king. And as usual, there is some tension surrounding the throne. In this case, Jason’s evil uncle, Pelias, has usurped the throne from his brother and killed all of his nephews so that none can contest the throne in future. He is nervous because an oracle has warned him about a man with one sandal.

Jason is the only nephew who has survived. His mother has smuggled him into the wilderness, where the wise centaur Chiron educates him.

So we have a cast of archetypal characters: the evil oppressor, the young hero, and even the archetypal mentor, in the form of Chiron, who was also the tutor of Achilles and many other heroes.

Chiron and Achilles

Jason grows up to be a handsome young man. It is time for the young hero to set off on his quest, which is to reclaim his father’s throne. (Again, very similar to Hercules’ and Theseus’ quests.)

And we again meet the goddess Hera, whom we last saw when she tormented Hercules because she hated him so much. This time Hera hates Pelias, the evil uncle, and wants to help Jason. She tests him by appearing to him as an old woman, asking to be carried over a gushing stream. (An early appearance of chivalry as a heroic concept in history?) Jason carries her across, but loses one sandal in the river mud.

Jason arrives in Iolcus, the city where Pelias now reigns. Pelias sees that the stranger is wearing only one sandal and knows what’s up.

Pelias throws a banquet for Jason and — in one of these scenes that are so often implausible in the Greek myths — offers to give up his throne if Jason succeeds in stealing the famously valuable hide of a supernatural ram: the Golden Fleece.

Pelias considers the task impossible, and yet, we wonder why he does not simply kill Jason on the spot. In any case, Jason now knows what he must do.

II. The Argo

Jason is in Greece but the Golden Fleece is in barbarian Colchis (modern Georgia), on the other side of the Black Sea. So he must sail treacherous waters and needs an unusual boat. The Argo is built. The goddess Athena herself (in league with Hera, who wants to support this quest) donates for its prow a wooden plank that can foretell the future.

Jason now has to assemble a crew, and not only Hercules and Theseus but all the great Greek heroes become his shipmates. (If you’ve been reading my posts on Hercules and Theseus carefully, you might already have noticed that the implied chronology is impossible. But the Greeks were not worried about technicalities.) The point of this gathering, I believe, is to prove to us that Jason is indeed a hero — that he can assemble the other heroes, that he is their equal by association.

Off they sail, these Argonauts, and encounter the usual heroic adventures and dangers — rocks in the sea bashing passing ships to pieces, and so forth (compare Odysseus). I will skip over these, except for one subplot that may amuse those of you who share my opinion of Hercules.

Hercules is, of course, the strongest Argonaut — the best rower and all that. This means he cannot stay in this story because he would eclipse Jason and take over the whole plot. So we must get rid of him. How, in terms of storytelling, might we narrate him out?

Easy: Hera will drive him mad once again. Here is how: Along the way, the Argo pulls into port and Hercules’ lover (yes, indeed) Hylas goes to fetch water from a spring. Hera makes the nymphs in that spring seduce Hylas by drawing him down, never to be seen again (picture below). Hercules goes mad and runs around the forest smashing things and people (in other words, staying in character), and the Argo is forced — regrettably, you see — to depart without him.


III. Medea

So the Argo arrives in Colchis where Jason demands that its king, Aeetes, hand over the Golden Fleece. Aeetes would not dream of it, of course.

But Aeetes has a daughter named Medea. And just as Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, fell in love with Theseus and helped him to achieve his quest, so Medea now falls in love with Jason (Hera asked Aphrodite to help). Madly in love. So in love that it will get creepy.

Aeetes, like Pelias, gives Jason a dare. He will hand over the fleece provided that Jason harness two fire-breathing bulls to plow a field.

The bulls would kill Jason (whom we may infer to be somewhat hapless and not altogether heroic sui generis). But Medea, who is a sorceress, mixes a salve for Jason (pictured at the very top) so that he becomes invulnerable.

Jason thus succeeds in harnessing the bulls and does plow the field. But when he begins sowing, it turns out that Aeetes has given him dragon teeth instead of seed. Out of each tooth a warrior sprouts, and this impromptu army is about to kill Jason. Again, Medea comes to his rescue, suggesting that he lob a rock at one of them. The newly-sprouted soldiers do not know who threw the rock, and fight and kill one another.

Jason has survived again, but Medea, who is now wholly on his side rather than on her father’s, finds out that Aeetes will renege on on his pledge and refuse to hand over the Fleece. So, at night, she leads Jason to the sacred grove where the fleece is nailed to a tree, guarded by a dragon. Again, it is Medea, not Jason, who overcomes the dragon — she bewitches it and puts it to sleep.

The two of them and the other Argonauts at once set sail and flee. Aeetes, when he wakes up, sets off in hot pursuit.

IV. The first transgression

If you ask me, the story only begins to get interesting from this point onward. For Medea, and later Jason, will now begin to make bad choices. They will transgress, take things too far, become corrupt.

Medea has taken her younger brother Absyrtus with her on the Argo. She now sees Aeetes’ fleet catching up. She has an idea. If she kills Absyrtus and throws him overboard, her father must stop to pick up the body, give his son a decent burial and mourn. She does exactly that. She murders her own brother so that she and her lover can escape.

This is too much, even for the gods and goddesses who were on Jason’s side. The gods send storms to punish the Argo. Athena’s speaking prow tells Jason that they must find the sorceress Circe to be purified of their sin (the same Circe whom Odysseus will later meet).

Circe, as it happens, is Medea’s aunt. She sacrifices to the gods so that Medea and Jason can be forgiven for their sin. Absolved, the Argonauts continue their journey (past the same Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis that Odysseus will have to pass).

V. The second transgression

They finally arrive at Iolcus, where King Pelias is already waiting with a plan to kill Jason. Again, Medea takes charge to save her lover.

She goes alone to Iolcus and claims that she is a witch who can make old people young again. King Pelias hears about this and asks her for a demonstration. Medea requests the oldest ram in the king’s herd, puts it into a caldron, mixes some herbs together and out comes a young lamb. The king is thrilled and wants the same treatment.

Medea tells him that only his own daughters can administer the rejuvenation. So the king’s daughters — Jason’s cousins — boil water in the caldron. Medea gives them herbs, but makes sure they have no magic power. The king enters the caldron, in which his own daughters unwittingly boil him to death.

Once again, this is simply too much. The gods and goddesses are outraged at the gratuitous cruelty of the murder. It would have been one thing for Jason to kill Pelias in open battle. But for Medea to make the king’s own daughters kill their father?!

The people of Iolcus do not want to be ruled by such a king and queen as Jason and Medea. The couple leave Iolcus and go to Corinth.

VI. The relationship turns sour

Medea murders her children

Perhaps because of Medea’s dark side, Jason has fallen out of love with her. And now he wants to marry a different woman, a Greek and the princess of Corinth, Glauce, so that he can become king of Corinth one day.

This is not unheard of — Theseus also dumped Ariadne after she helped him slay the Minotaur. Nor, however, is it heroic. Jason is fickle. He is alive only thanks to Medea, even if she has gone crazy. Our hero gets more complex, more recognizable, more human.

Medea now becomes the archetype for “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” She sends a beautiful gown to Glauce as a wedding present, but when Glauce puts it on she goes up in flames. Again, Medea has murdered an innocent.

But Medea is not yet done. She wants to punish Jason by erasing everything he loves. So she kills their two boys, her own children with Jason. In Euripides’ Medea, she rushes offstage with a knife and the children are heard emitting their final, terrifying scream.

Having become vengeance, Medea mounts a chariot and rides off into the clouds.

VII. Death of an anti-hero

And so Jason’s triumphs, above all his capture of the Golden Fleece, were impostors. He was led astray (the literal meaning of se-duced) by the wrong woman. Then he made things worse by breaking his vow to her, thus losing the respect of the gods and goddesses, even of Hera.

He grows old, lonely and bitter. His old ship, the Argo, is rotting on a beach in Corinth. Jason goes there to think about old times. One day, he falls asleep in its shade. The magic prow, put there by Athena, breaks off and kills Jason. So it goes.

The classic hero story: Theseus

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur (above) is, in my opinion, the classical storyline, the archetypal Ur-Story. I much prefer it to the story of Hercules as I described it recently. It has:

  • unity
  • direction and momentum, propelling us forward
  • complexity, with characters male and female being fleshed out in a way that lets us empathize
  • relevance, collectively and individually, to our own life stories.

It is, in short, far superior to the myth of Hercules as a story.

Part I: Identity

As I interpret the story, it has distinct parts, which we see re-used, like Lego blocks, in our stories today. (If any of the parts remind you of stories, let us know in the comments.)

First, there is the boy who needs to find a) his identity and b) his calling.

Theseus grows up with his mother at the court of Troezen, where his maternal grandfather is king. But he does not know who his father is (ie, he does not yet know his identity).

This he discovers when he lifts a huge boulder and finds under it a sword. The sword was hidden there for him by his father, who is, as Theseus’ mother now reveals, the King of Athens, Aegeus (as in: Aegean Sea). In fact, there will always be some uncertainty about even that, since Theseus mother was visited by both Aegeus and the god Poseidon on the night of Theseus’ conception.

Theseus now sets out to find his father (= his identity, in my reading), which is of course a difficult path. A bit as Hercules had to complete his twelve labors, Theseus has to overcome and kill a series of villains who have been making the road to Athens unsafe. Thereby he delivers a public good. I won’t dwell on each adventure, except one: I’ve already told you about Procrustes, who either stretched or amputated his guests so that they fit into his special bed. Well, Theseus forces him into his own bed, with deadly effect.

Having prevailed (and thus established himself as a promising hero), Theseus arrives in Athens, where nobody yet knows who he is. Only Medea (who will also feature in another hero story, Jason’s), who is the king’s wife, intuits that he is Aegeus’ natural and rightful heir, and thus a threat to her own son. Using her feminine weaponry–guile–she persuades Aegeus that Theseus is dangerous and must be poisoned.

Aegeus reclines at a banquet to see the stranger drink the poisoned wine. But just then Theseus draws his sword, the same sword that Aegeus had hidden long ago for his heir to find, to cut a slab of meat. It is a recognition scene: Aegeus knocks away the poisoned cup and they re-unite. Medea, knowing her game is up, flees.

Part II: Quest

The stage is now set for Theseus, having found his identity, to go on a quest, on the one big task that will define him (in contrast to Hercules, who had twelve tasks but none that was definitive). It so happens that Athens is suffering. Every nine years, the Athenians, having lost a war with Crete, have to send seven maidens and seven boys to Crete as human sacrifice for a monster, half man and half bull, the Minotaur. The Minotaur lives in a labyrinth built be the greatest architect of Greece, Daedalus, and nobody who enters finds his way out again.

Theseus volunteers to be one of the seven youths on the next ship, heeding his “call to action” in the language of the mono-myth theory. The ship sets off with a black sail, and Theseus tells his father that, if he succeeds in slaying the monster and survives, he will return with a white sail.

And how different he is from Hercules even now, as he approaches his biggest task. Hercules occasionally had helpers in his labors, but they were mere stage props in the background. Theseus, on the other hand, is capable of love. He meets Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and they fall for each other.

Without this woman and her love, Theseus would fail. He is vulnerable. He needs an other, a woman, to complete him. And so Ariadne gives him her clew, telling Theseus to unravel its thread as he descends into the labyrinth in order to be able to follow it back out if he should survive his encounter with the Minotaur.

Theseus descends, finds the Minotaur and a ferocious fight ensues. This is his best moment (depicted above), his great act of heroism. He kills the Minotaur, follows Ariadne’s thread back out, and is ready to return home with the news that Athens has been liberated.

Part III: Return

But returns are never easy. Theseus elopes with Ariadne and they sail for Athens. But Theseus, now that the danger is past, falls out of love with her. She has done so much for him, and they have been so close. But now he abandons her on an island (where, in some versions, she will become the wife of Dionysus).

Did the Greeks think he was right to do so? Did they think he was bad? This is beside the point. Theseus, unlike Hercules, is complex. He is human. He gets confused, distracted, unsure.  We can see ourselves in him. He makes mistakes.

He makes a big one, in fact. He promised his father to set a white sail if he succeeded in slaying the Minotaur but evidently forgets and appears on the horizon before Athens with the black sail. Aegeus sees it, assumes that his son has failed and died, and throws himself off a cliff to his death.

But this tragedy marks another rite of passage. Theseus is the heir to the throne, so, having liberated Athens, he now becomes its king.

The story as model

At some later point, we’ll have to take stock of how Theseus (and all subsequent heroes in this thread on Heroes) fits into our debate about heroism. But for now, let’s just think of his story as such: as a story.

It’s all there. A search (for identity), a recognition and reunion (with Aegeus), evil (the Minotaur), a quest and a journey, love and dependency (Ariadne), a peak moment (the slaying), a return, betrayal, tragedy, destiny.

Are these not the parts out of which we build all our stories?

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New thread: Heroes and heroism


I’m announcing a new “thread” on The Hannibal Blog: Heroes.

I’ve already written lots about heroes, of course:

And I’ve discussed how the hero or heroine is an archetype at the heart of almost any story, and thus crucial to storytelling. (This is why the new thread will overlap a lot with that on storytelling.)

Why a new thread on heroes?

Because I think there is a lot to say about them. As always with my threads, I have no idea where we will end up, but I’m quite curious to find out. I have a vague sense that I will discover quite a bit, from you more than from myself, as we get deeper into the thread.

A very tentative outline of future posts in this thread might run as follows:


First, the classical heroes of antiquity:

  • Hercules
  • Theseus
  • Perseus
  • Jason
  • Achilles
  • Odysseus
  • Aeneas

Then, some non-Western heroes, including my favorite:

  • Arjuna

(For the yogis among you, did you know that the Sanskrit word for hero is vira, as in the yoga poses virasana and virabhadrasana? It is related to Latin vir, man, and thus virile, virtue…)

Then some fictional heroes and heroines from our folk-tales, our movies, modern literature. Then some real-life heroes. And eventually, some anti-heroes, who are really modern heroes. (Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger jumps to mind.)

Feel free to nominate heroes in the comments that you’d like to have discussed.

I’m interested in what makes these various heroes and heroines heroic, what makes them timeless. Why did some heroes enter our collective unconscious, and others not?

About threads

For those of you who are new to The Hannibal Blog, a thread is simply a mini-series of blog posts, not necessarily sequential or coherent, united by a common tag or category on the right. By clicking on the tag of a thread you get a list of all the posts in it, in reverse order.

And threads never really end. So all the previous threads–such as those on the great thinkers, storytelling, Socrates, Hellenism, Carthage, stuff, America, freedom, et cetera–will go on.

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The White Rose: German heroes

In a recent conversation, I brought up the White Rose–die Weiße Rose–and was reminded that most of you (being Anglophone) have probably never heard of them. But you must know them. Now you will.

They were a smallish group of students and one professor at the University of Munich during the Nazi era who defied and spoke out against the Nazi horrors. The middle petals of the Rose were Hans Scholl (above left) and his sister Sophie (middle) and their friend Christoph Probst (right). The group lasted less than a year until, in 1943, they were caught, “tried” and beheaded.

This summary does not do justice to them, however. They are, to me and to all post-war Germans, synonyms for goodness, courage, humanity. They are romantic, having lived Bohemian lives of pipes and poetry. They saw crimes against humanity and resisted, knowing that this would cost them their lives. At a time when conformity turned an entire nation into a murderous mob, they remained individualists, becoming heroes of all mankind.

The Leaflets

Alexander Schmorell

The Geschwister Scholl (siblings Scholl) and their friends watched with increasing horror what the Nazis said and did in the 1930s and early 40s. Then Hans Scholl and his friends Alexander Schmorell und Willi Graf were sent (nobody had a choice) to the eastern front in 1942 where they witnessed German atrocities in Poland and either saw or heard about the Warsaw Ghetto. Many Germans soldiers did, but these three were different: They decided not to stay silent but to fight the evil, which was their own regime.

Hans Scholl

They returned to Munich, where Sophie, Hans’ younger sister had moved to study biology and philosophy. She became friends with Hans’ friends. Never knowing whom they could trust, they formed their group, printing leaflets in secret back rooms and sending them by mail all over Germany.

They managed to print only about 100 copies of the first leaflet. (You can read an English translation of all six leaflets here, but I’ve chosen excerpts from the German and translated them in my words. Pictures courtesy of the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand):

Willi Graf

… Is it not true that every honest German today is ashamed of his government? And who among us can even guess the extent …?

… If the Germans, without any remaining individuality, have indeed become a heartless and cowardly mob, yes, then they deserve to perish…

Goethe talks about the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and Greeks, but today it seems that the Germans are a shallow, mindless herd of followers (Mitläufern) whose marrow has been sucked out and who, bereft of their core, allow themselves to be led into their extinction. It seems so, but it is not so; instead, each individual–after slow, insidious, and systematic rape–has been put into a moral prison, and only once he was captive did he become aware of his dilemma. Few understood the the menace, and their reward was death….

Each individual, as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must therefore rise up in this final hour and resist, as much as he can, against this scourge on humanity, against Fascism and every system like it. Resist passively, resist, resist wherever you are … Never forget that each people gets the government it deserves…

Christoph Probst

They then quoted Friedrich Schiller talking about Lycurgus and Solon (ie, ancient Greece) and Goethe, clearly reminding their readers of the previous heights of their civilization, the starker to contrast it with its present lows.

In the second leaflet, they begin to inform the Germans of what they had seen on the eastern front, so that none might later say (as many would) that they “didn’t know”:

… the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, three-hundred-thousand Jews have been murdered in a bestial way. Here we see the most dreadful crime against the dignity of man, a crime that compares to no other in the entire history of mankind…

… Nobody can pretend he was not guilty. Everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty! But it is not yet too late to wipe this ugliest monstrosity of a government off the face of the earth, in order not to become even more guilty….

.. the only and highest duty, indeed the holiest duty, of each German is to eradicate these [Nazi] beasts….

They then quoted Laozi and closed with an exhortation to copy the flyer as many times as possible and to distribute it (in effect, demanding martyrdom from each reader).

In the third leaflet, they exhort:

… The foremost concern of every German must not be the military victory over Bolshevism but the defeat of the National Socialists ….

before describing how people should resist:

… Sabotage of the military-industrial complex; sabotage in all Nazi gatherings, rallies, festivities, organizations…. Sabotage of all scientific pursuits to further the war, whether in universities, laboratories, research institutes … Sabotage of all Fascist cultural events…. Sabotage of all the arts that serve National Socialism. Sabotage of all writings and newspapers in league with National Socialism….

They ended by quoting Aristotle on the subject of tyranny and again exhorted readers to copy and distribute.

Sophie Scholl

From the fourth leaflet:

… Every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace he means war, when he says the name of the almighty he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking throat of hell…

They also assured readers that they took addresses randomly from phone books and did not write them down anywhere, then ended with:

… We will not be silent, we are your bad conscience; the White Rose will not leave you alone! Please copy and spread.

In the fifth leaflet:

… Are we to be a people forever hated and outcast by the world? No! Therefore resist these Nazi subhumans! Prove with your deeds that you think different!

They end with an amazingly prescient vision of post-war Germany and Europe, predicting a federalist Germany, a unified and peaceful Europe, and freedoms of association, speech and press.

In early 1943, after the German army was wiped out at Stalingrad, they produced their sixth and final leaflet, with their biggest print run yet–about 3,000 copies. They again mailed it all over Germany.

… Freedom and Honor! For ten years, Hitler and his thugs have twisted, raped, perverted these two beautiful German words…. They have shown what freedom and honor mean to them by destroying, throughout the past ten years, all material and spiritual freedom, all morality in the German people….

This time they went further. For three nights, they stealthily went out and painted the walls of the university quarter: “Down with Hitler!” “Freedom!”

Then Hans and Sophie (whom Hans had tried to keep out of the group in order to protect her but who had become passionately involved) decided to carry stacks of leaflets into the university to distribute them while lectures were in progress. This was reckless and the other members did not know about it.

Hans and Sophie stuffed a big suitcase full of leaflets, took it to the university and put stacks on window sills and in front of lecture halls. Just as the bell rang and students were about to spill out, they threw a big pile from the very top of a staircase into the light-filled atrium (where they are immortalized today, see left). A janitor saw them and alerted the Gestapo.

The guillotine

Four days later, Hans, Sophie and Christoph were “tried”. Hans and Sophie asked that Christoph be spared because he was married. The request was denied. On the same day the guillotine fell on their young necks.

Hans was 24 years old; Christoph 23; Sophie 21.

Their houses were searched and letters and addresses discovered. Soon after, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, as well as their professor, Kurt Huber, were also caught and beheaded. Alexander and Willi were 25; Professor Huber almost 50.

Just before Hans was brought to the guillotine, he yelled out of his cell, echoing through the walls of the prison:

Long live freedom!

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The monomyth inside Heidi


Quite a while ago in my ongoing thread on storytelling, I told you about a fascinating theory that all stories (or at least all good and lasting stories) are really at some deep level the same story, because that is how we humans seem to be wired. This meta-story is the so-called monomyth. The idea goes back to Carl Jung’s ideas about archetypes but was made popular by Joseph Campbell.

Well, I was just reading Heidi to my daughter, in the original (Swiss) German. Don’t think that you can ever get too old for good children’s stories. We both had moist eyes at the end, but mine were moister.

What struck me is that Johanna Spyri’s great and simple and timeless tale is really, you guessed it, another version of the monomyth. So indulge me, please, as I “translate” the plot and characters of Heidi into the nomenclature of the monomyth. (Archetypes are in italics.) Here goes:

  • Heidi is, obviously, the hero–ie, heroine. She is a different hero than, say, Achilles or Odysseus, of course. She is an orphan, and thus the archetype of the vulnerable part in each of us. Her less-than-warm aunt wants to get rid of her and drags her up an Alp to the hut where Heidi’s cranky grandfather, or Öhi, lives.
  • We stay with our hero just long enough to become part of the scene and characters so that we never want Heidi (or ourselves) to have to leave. Heidi befriends Peter and they have fun herding the goats. Heidi thaws Öhi’s heart and he falls in love with her. Heidi brightens the darkness of a blind woman nearby whom she calls grandmother. Even the goats are besotted. Oh please, we readers want to scream, let nothing ever change!
  • But the monomyth kicks in: There is a call to adventure, which Heidi, like many heroes, tries to refuse. But go she must. A rich family in Frankfurt has a sweet daughter in a wheelchair who needs a companion. Heidi’s nasty aunt, smelling money, has already sealed the deal.
  • As our hearts break along with everybody’s else’s (even the little orphan goat’s), Heidi sets off and crosses several thresholds. These are physical, such as the descent from her Alp, the arrival in Frankfurt and the crossing of her new home’s threshold. Thresholds are reminders of liminality. We are on edge.
  • Heidi has now, willy nilly, accepted her call to adventure. She meets other archetypes. There is Fräulein Rottenmeier, the annoying (and annoyed) spinster who looks after Heidi’s charge, and who seems to be the anima, ie the dangerous woman who must be overcome. Heidi meets her new friend Clara, her ally. She meets Clara’s father, the understanding, powerful and sympathetic Wise Old Man.
  • Heidi overcomes adversity and trials. To everybody’s surprise, she learns to read, thus obtaining a boon to society (in addition to the boon of her presence). She is lonely and so homesick that she sleepwalks at night.
  • With the help of the Wise Old Man (Clara’s father, once he understands that Heidi sleepwalks out of sadness), Heidi returns from her quest. She passes the thresholds (and her liminal state) again, in the other direction.
  • She arrives home, and brings the boon of her quest back, thus completing the monomythical definition of a hero. She makes life worth living again for Öhi, for grandmother (to whom is now able to read books aloud!), for Peter and the goats. Oh, and for us.

Simple, universal, powerful: great story-telling!

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The Ur-Story

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

A follow-up to my my post on why truth is in stories: Many of you know about this fascinating theory that there really is only one story, which we tell one another again and again in infinitely many variations.

This is the so-called Monomyth, which I prefer to call the Ur-Story.

The man who popularized the idea is Joseph Campbell, whose book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is naturally on the bibliography of my own book.

To simplify his idea, it is that the same fundamental plot and character types and experiential vocabulary underlie all major myths and movies and novels and, well, stories. From Odysseus to Jesus and the Buddha, from Navajo stories to Chinese ones, from ancient tales to modern ones.

An archetypal hero of some sort receives a call to adventure, often refuses the call before accepting it, sets out on a quest, crosses various thresholds, overcomes adversity and trials, encounters a woman as temptress, atones with his father, obtains a boon to society and attempts to return and bring it back. And so forth.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Campbell was influenced by James Joyce, but the bigger credit, in my opinion, goes to Carl Jung. It was he who came up with the concept of archetypes (which I use in my book). The Hero, the Child, the Great Mother, the Mentor, the Wise Old Man, and so forth.

All this may strike you as odd. Aren’t there infinitely many stories, one for each person? Well, no. There are infinitely many variations and twists. But one fundamentally stable storyline.

This idea has wormed its way into conventional wisdom now. I was chatting about my book with my friend Evan Baily, a teller of children’s stories in film. Evan said that story is always about character, and how pressure is brought to bear down on him until he breaks down or reveals himself. Evan pointed me to Robert McKee’s seminars on story-telling, famous in Hollywood and beyond. Ultimately, this is all about the Ur-Story.

What’s most wonderful about all this is that we never get tired of hearing the Ur-Story. Telling and hearing it is about being human. And we all get to tell our variation of it. Which is why I’m writing a book.

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