Recently, me and the rest of my cohort were tasked with summing our projects up in a short presentation–an exercise in all sorts of important skills, such as public speaking, and the ability to get your ideas across in a bitesized and succinct conversation rather than trapping everyone who asks about it in a long-winded in-depth discussion of research until their brains melt out their ears. Unfortunately, I had something approximate to The Black Death that week and couldn’t physically present, so I recorded the mini-lecture-that-would-have-been to send in for assessment. I thought I may as well post it here as well, as a further exercise in self-promotion and slowly moving past the instinctive insecurity I get at hearing my own voice. So without further ado: heroes! Gender! Archetypes! Woohoo!
If you really can’t be bothered, here’s the Three Second Thesis: Joseph Campbell says that The Hero is always a boy, and I think that’s a bit silly, so I’m writing about a Hero that’s a girl. It’s much more complex than that, though, really, so hopefully you can be bothered, and take a listen to the talk below (I do lose my voice at the very end, but bear with me–it’s a big improvement!):
When I say “hero”, what do you picture?
The mythic, questing hero is an archetype that storytellers have adored for essentially as long as stories have been told—from the twelve trials of Heracles to the Arthurian grail quest to Luke Skywalker’s journey to save the galaxy, we as a culture are fascinated with this character type and the adventures they embark on.
The fact that every culture, throughout the world and across all of history, have developed their own versions of this recognisable pattern, is the subject Joseph Campbell discusses in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Drawing on Freudian developmental psychology and Jungian concepts like the Collective Unconscious, Campbell proposes that the beloved and much-replicated Hero’s Journey is the universal narrative. This statement runs into issues, however, when you examine the way he discusses his theory. You would assume that the figure of the Hero and their Hero’s Journey would have no need to be gendered concepts, given that it’s the “universal narrative”. But it doesn’t take too long to notice there’s a presumption, both implicit and explicit in Campbell’s writing, that the Hero is always a man.
Sarah Nicholson points out that while Campbell does discuss women-led myths like the stories of Ishtar and Psyche, they are the exception that proves the rule, and they stick out like a sore thumb when the language and structure of the discussion always reverts to the presumed male perspective. This is especially true when looking at chapters like ‘Meeting with the Goddess’ and ‘Woman as Temptress’. In Campbellian archetypes, women are very much “other” to the Hero, filling largely symbolic roles that influence and aid the Hero’s development, rather than taking the role of Hero themselves. When therapist and scholar Maureen Murdock asked if there was a feminine equivalent to his decidedly male-centric description of the Hero’s Journey, Campbell somewhat confirmed the implications in his writing when he declared women do not need to take the Journey.
The dichotomy of man as Hero and women as “guide to the sublime” is one I want to examine and challenge through creative research. Why is male considered the default, “universal” perspective? Why can’t a young woman undergo a road of trials on which she learns and grows and brings great treasure back to her society? What happens if you do write a young woman into the Hero archetype and send her on an epic quest? Is this character and story archetype really so chained to gender essentialism that it falls apart if you give the role of Hero to a girl?
These are all the questions I’m asking in my project, and the method with which I’m asking them is a retelling of a mythic adventure. Drawing inspiration and structure from the Ulster Cycle tale The Wooing of Emer, but with a female character cast in the role of the male hero Cúchullainn, I’m telling a story that plays with and queers Campbell’s archetypes, while also playing directly into the aspects that make the Journey such a fun and engaging story in the first place. It’s a modern tweak of an old structure.
Fairy tale and folklore scholar Jack Zipes wrote that retelling, revising and reimagining old stories serves the purpose “to create something new that incorporates the critical and creative thinking of the producer and corresponds to changed demands or tastes of the audience.” As Campbell himself suggested, mythology is in many ways fluid and reflects the society that creates it. This makes revision of mythology the ideal place to question and challenge deeply ingrained and problematic assumptions, such as ones about gender roles… and, at the same time, tell engaging stories that update the “universal narrative” while keeping the grand mythmaking tradition alive.