… In which contributor Adam Pracht and host Ben DeBono talk about the heroic quest circle, the role of temptation in life and fiction, and rant about Twilight and bad editing.
Adam: I think what I found most interesting is the idea of the romance quest circle. In particular this: When does the true moment of heroism come – in the moment when the hero is in the midst of the actions for which he will later be considered heroic for? Or is it in that quiet threshold moment when the hero makes a decision and commitment?
Ben: Interesting question, Adam. Before I answer I need to share two major facepalm moments from this week’s videos. Both occurred during the section where he was giving examples of works in romantic sub-genres. The first was when he offered Raiders of the Lost “Arc” as an example of the adventure genre. Unless he’s talking about some unknown sequel where Indy hangs up his archaeologist hat for a career in geometry, that’s a pretty bad typo.
The second, however, was even worse. His three examples of Gothic fiction were Frankenstein, Dracula and Twilight. That’s right, of all the amazing examples of Gothic literature out there, he chose Twilight! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!??!? In a genre that includes Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury (just to name a few) he went with Stephanie Meyer as his third example. UNBELIEVABLE!
Ok, rant over. Needed to get that one off my chest before I actually answered your question 🙂
I found his explanation of the romance quest circle quite interesting. As I mentioned before, I’m very familiar with Joseph Campbell’s take on the heroic narrative, but I’m not familiar with Northrop Frye (his stated inspiration for his take on the cycle). That made this part of the lecture both familiar and brand new to me. I’m going to have to pick up Frye’s book sometime.
In answer to your question, my sense is that it’s either a both/and or neither/nor depending on how the would-be hero responds while in the midst of the quest. Once the hero crosses the threshold of accepting the quest, he is propelled into a state of liminality in which heroic achievements are now possible. Should he go on and succeed in his quest, he is proved to be heroic both in his present achievements are retroactively in the choice to go on the quest
On the other hand, should he fail at his quest – either by turning back or refusing to make heroic choices – nothing he has done throughout the narrative cycle will be seen as heroic.
To sum up, my answer would be this: the moment of true heroism comes in the heroic actions, but the effects of those actions reverberate throughout the entire cycle of the heroic quest.
A: First, I was going to rant on the “Arc” issue as well, so maybe it’s better that you beat me to it. My copy editor training kicked in – which is essentially a Pavlovian response to bad grammar – and I winced in pain at that one… and salivated, for some reason. I figured someone out there had to have picked up on this pun for a parody at some point. Best I found was this groovy math teacher in California, who used it as the frame to teach geometry: http://www.tamdistrict.org/Page/5569
Also, yes, I found the inclusion of “Twilight” cringe-worthy. I made the decision that I will give any book at least three chapters and any series the first volume before I dismiss it. So I gave Meyer the first book to win me over.
To riff on Jessi Klein from “The Moth” podcast last week, if I want to see pale, angsty teenagers, I’ll just go to the mall. (Though, to be fair, I felt like ditching Harry Potter in Book 5 for the same reason, but the first four were so good I gave her a pass on that one. Also, and I know this will hurt your heart, Ben, but the “Wheel of Time” series ultimately fell to the same fate with me, although it took a couple books rather than a single one. I think that’s justified by the length commitment, however).
But, I can kinda sorta see why he included Twilight to keep those self-same angsty teenagers who might be taking the class interested and engaged. “Hey, kids! Gothic literature isn’t just stuff in the public domain! It’s pretty gnarly, yo dawg!?”
OKokok… on to the actual topic at hand. I get what you’re saying… and I actually think you missed another option by which a heroic decision at the threshold will ultimately appear un-heroic. You mentioned failing the quest by turning back or failing by “succeeding” through un-heroic choices. (By, say, shoving the Ring into Gollum’s hands and pushing him over the edge into the Cracks of Doom). I think there’s actually a third option – if nothing happens and no opposition exists. Is Frodo actually a hero if he strolls all the way to Mordor, knocks at the Black Gate, gets let in and shown Mt. Doom, he flicks the Ring into the fires and wanders away whistling with his thumbs in his waistcoat? Not really, in our usual sense of thinking about heroes, but also, in a way, yes…
I suppose I’m departing from that traditional sense of what a hero is, but I still think the heroism comes at that moment of decision. If you’re confronted with a “quest” in life that promises danger and difficulty, but you don’t actually experience that in carrying out the quest, I, for one, still commend your heroic decision. There’s no way to know how the path will turn out, and I think it’s making decision and commitment in the face of that unknown that makes one a hero. In other words – faith.
As to the idea of the hero turning back or being un-heroic – I still contend that those are threshold moments – another moment of decision. And so it is in the moment of decision on that threshold that the hero demonstrates their heroism again. Also, while you didn’t really say this, making an un-heroic decision at the threshold does not mean that one must forever be banned from heroism.
Take Boromir, who makes a terribly un-heroic decision in attempting to take the Ring. But he’s arguably the most prominent hero in “Fellowship” because at the next threshold (do I defend the little ones?) he makes the heroic decision and comes to the aid of Merry and Pippin. (And… AND… arguably FAILS in aiding them, in this “mini-quest,” as it were. I think that also helps to demonstrate that it was his decision, not his actual actions and their ultimate success or failure that makes him a hero).
Or look at Frodo, who makes the heroic decision all along the way, only to fail at the critical threshold moment of actually throwing the Ring into Mt. Doom. However, his heroic decisions previously (sparing Gollum, most particularly) sort of “carry him through” this moment of un-heroic action. The heroic decision once again overrides the error of an un-heroic action. I think in the moment of “heroic action” the hero is simply being carried along by the consequences of their previous heroic decisions. They’re not really thinking about it – the decision rules one’s actions.
To apply it to real life, think how often our decisions and commitments (heroic or not) are what affect our daily actions (heroic or not). The choice of showing love through the sacrament of marriage carries one through the difficult times and our own anti-hero moments. I’m sure there are days when my priest regrets aspects of life he’s given up to serve. Our decisions of love and commitment to our children carry us through the times they drive us insane because “Go to BED already!”
I think I have a thesis brewing here…
B: You pose a fascinating question when you ask whether Frodo would still be heroic had he gone to Mordor and completed his task unimpeded and without the sufferings and failures he experienced. In a sense he is: he still goes on the quest knowing danger is possible, which is a heroic choice. But for the most part I’m going to say no.
As I’m reflecting more on this issue, it occurs to me that suffering and failure are essential parts of the hero’s journey. To become a hero is to be transformed. Is a quest without obstacle, struggle and some degree of failure truly transformational? I would say no. Without that deep transformation from within the quest, true heroism doesn’t occur.
Your point about Boromir is well taken and fits in this dynamic. His personal failure with Frodo is what ultimately brings him to the point of being able to give his life in defense of others.
At risk of sounding heretical, I would argue that same failure is present in Jesus’ heroic journey (put down the stones and stick with me here!) The passion narrative is really about the collapse of his ministry. He goes from triumphal entry to being reviled by the crowd. His disciples fail him in Gethsemane and then abandon him
altogether. Judas betrays him. And then he’s killed – the end of plenty of would be Messiahs ministries.
Yet that failure is what leads to the heroic success of the resurrection. Without diverging too far off topic, I’m convinced that the Gospel writers, at least implicitly, had a profound understanding of the heroic narrative. They might not have been able to express it in Joseph Campbell-esque forms, but if you look at the Gospels as narrative it’s all over the place.
So how does that square with what I said earlier about failure? I think that failure in the heroic journey is somewhat relative and complex. Failure from inside the journey is not only expected but required. Failure of the journey as a whole – that is abandonment of the quest in one form or another – is what would make someone unheroic.
A: So would it be fair to say this: A Hero is one who has a noble goal or quest in front of them – either taken upon themselves or thrust upon them by others – which they willingly accept. The hero experiences obstacles and failures during his quest, but ultimately overcomes them while still remaining essentially moral. The hero does not need to fully accomplish his quest, but still must have achieved good as a result of his quest. That’s what it seems to be boiling down to for me.
Oh, one last side comment on this – regardless of whether you think the heroism comes in those threshold moments, they are undeniably some of the most poignant of the romance quest. Just take for example that one moment in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Frodo says above the hubbub, “I will take the Ring to Mordor.” That look on Gandalf when he closes his eyes, as if in an aching pain – it spoke volumes to me. “Oh, no,” I hear Gandalf say in my head. “I knew it had to happen. But I had hoped it would not.”
Another thing, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, is there a heroic quest story that really breaks this pattern? The closest I could come up with might be Steven King’s “The Gunslinger” as he obviously behaves in severely non-heroic fashion at at least one point in the book.
B: I think at the minimum we have to say that some quests follow this formula more rigidly than others. Both the Wachowskis and George Lucas intentionally followed Campbell’s work in their respective films. Others, no doubt, intentionally try and move as far away from it as possible, while still others occupy a space in between.
So there’s certainly a range present. Yet, I’m not convinced it’s possible to abandon the heroic quest formula entirely. The heroic narrative is fundamentally about transformation, as I mentioned before, and transformation is a fundamental feature of characters in stories. Even if we take a story where the characters don’t change – Mad Men stands out as an example – it isn’t because transformation is absent but because it is refused.
In the case of the Gunslinger, Roland may act unheroic, but he changes plenty – especially through his relationship with Jake.
A: One last thing along this track – I’ve been wondering whether temptation is essential to heroism. This might fit with some of the rest of what we’ve been saying, in that if there is not the possibility of failure or the hero turning back, then they are not heroic. What do you think? Also, as Christians, is it possible that experiencing temptation is just a sign we’re headed in the right direction? After all Christ experienced it clearly on several occasions (temptation after his baptism, “Get thee behind me Satan” to Peter, Garden of Gethsemane, for example) and it seems to be a given consequence of the moral Christian life (lead us not into temptation…)
B: I agree with you completely here. Temptation is an essential part of the heroic journey. Consider Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Coming on the heels of his baptism, it functions as a threshold moment for his heroic journey as a whole. However, it also works as its own mini heroic narrative within the larger story of his life. It features its own threshold moment (entry into the desert), it’s own quest (resisting the devil and proving himself worthy of his larger mission) and its own conclusion at quest’s end in which creation is set right (Mark makes a point of telling us wild – i.e. dangerous – animals are present at the end of the quest, yet they don’t harm Jesus) and reward is given (ministry from the angels).
Of course, we see this countless times in fictional narratives as well. Every story we’ve talked about has a temptation scene of sorts – Luke and the dark side, Neo and Cypher, Frodo (and most other characters) and the Ring. Temptation comes with the territory of heroic narratives.
A: A few final questions and thoughts that occurred to me, but that we don’t necessarily need to discuss right at the moment (getting late in the week, after all), but I’ll put them here as “homework” for the readers and invite discussion and commentary below:
1) As much as the prof bashes LOTRO for not being a good medium for storytelling, do you ever find yourself wondering why he likes it so much?
B: I wonder that as well. Honestly that’s my holdup with playing it. I love LOTR but when I’m immersed in Middle Earth in a way that isn’t conducive to excellent storytelling, something feels very off to me.
A: 2) Do you think dramatic tension is possible within an MMO? (Given that rarely is death and loss and permanent feature of the storyline?)
B: I think that dramatic tension is something most video games – not only MMOs – struggle with. The goal of a video game is fundamentally different that other storytelling forms. On one level, Mario does follow the heroic quest narrative – something that, no doubt, gives it appeal on some level – but I don’t play it to find out what happens (spoiler alert: he rescues the Princess). I play it for the challenge. It engages my mind on a different level than other narratives. So while I agree dramatic tension is absent from games, I don’t necessarily see that as a problem.
That said, there are a number of games that have overcome that hurdle. The Last of Us features a story better than most movies I’ve seen in recent years. It moved me to tears and caught me up in its narrative. Likewise, the Bioshock series – particularly Infinite – has done a good job with storytelling. Still, I don’t see this as ever being the primary role for video games. For as much as love Bioshock and The Last of Us, I don’t want Mario to change a thing about its narrative. I like the way it engages me and giving Mario a story chock full of dramatic tension would ruin that.
A: 3) I thought the comments about “shortcuts becoming longcuts” have some applicability to the Christian life.
B: I agree, though I’m not sure I have much to add at the moment
A: 4) Commenting from the quiz: Having a pint might not be essential to the quest form, but it sure is essential for the quester…
B: Pints ought to be essential to quests. As you said, they’re essential to the quester and, I would add, to the reader of the narrative. There’s nothing better than a great book, a pint and a pipe.
A: OK, then. That’s all! Class dismissed!