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The Hero Archetype

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    The Hero Archetype

    A hero is an archetypal character described in literature and depicted in other forms of art, for example, in films (“Myths-Dreams-Symbols,” 2004).  In fact, the hero has existed throughout the history of humanity, as evident in the history of religion.  The hero archetype is a perfect model to follow, regardless of whether he is a hero or a heroine, or whether the believer in the hero trusts the Buddha or the Christ as the perfect model to emulate (“Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious;” Bower, 2000).  What is more, there are different characteristics of heroes or heroines.  There is a warrior hero, such as Odysseus; someone who appears as God to others while facing difficult “physical challenges and external enemies (“Archetypes”).”  There is a lover hero, for example, Prince Charming or William Wallace of the film, Braveheart; someone who is motivated by love to complete the mission that shows he or she is a hero indeed (“Archetypes;” Braveheart, 1995).  There is, of course, a scapegoat hero as well, for example, Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King – one who suffers in order to save others (“Archetypes;” Sophocles, 1994).

         Other hero archetypes include the transcendent hero, that is, one who suffers a tragedy despite the fact that he or she is successful in completing his mission; the romantic or gothic hero with a sinister side, for example, Mr. Rochester in the novel, Jane Eyre; the proto-feminist hero or the female hero; the apocalyptic hero facing the possibility that human society would be destroyed; the anti-hero, most probably running away from a tormented past; the defiant anti-hero who opposes others’ definition of goodness or heroism; the unbalanced hero with mental or emotional problems, for example, Hamlet; the denied hero on the fringes of society; and the superhero, for example, Superman (“Archetypes”).  While some of these heroic figures enjoy tremendous adventures, others must go through severe tragedies that test their heroic mettle.  Regardless of the heroic archetype, all heroes are eventually victorious, which is why they are considered as models for humanity.  Even if suffering is their end, it is common people that recognize them as heroes (“Myths-Dreams-Symbols”).

         According to Guerin (1999), the hero archetype is that of “transformation and redemption (p. 166).”  There are three stages of development of this archetype.  Guerin describes these stages thus:

    a)      The quest: the hero (savior, deliverer) undertakes some long journey during which he or she must perform impossible tasks, battle with monsters, solve unanswerable riddles, and overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to save the kingdom.

    b)      Initiation: the hero undergoes a series of excruciating ordeals in passing from ignorance and immaturity to social and spiritual adulthood, that is, in achieving maturity and becoming a full-fledged member of his or her social group.  The initiation most commonly consists of three distinct phases: (1) separation, (2) transformation, and (3) return.  Like the quest, this is a variation of the death-and-rebirth archetype.

    c)      The sacrificial scapegoat: the hero, with whom the welfare of the tribe or nation is identified, must die to atone for the people’s sins and restore the land to fruitfulness (Guerin, p. 166).

    These stages of development of the heroic archetype are perfectly illustrated in the story of Oedipus the King.  Oedipus transforms himself from the sole human redeemer of his city to the ultimate cause of the city’s downfall.  Hence, both redemption and transformation may be considered as intertwining themes of Oedipus the King.  The king begins his quest before the story opens.  He learns at Delphi that he is meant to murder his father and marry his own mother.  So as to avoid the oracle’s reading at Delphi, Oedipus leaves his home and hearth to travel far.  He gets to Thebes at a time of great upheaval.  The city dwellers are being consumed by a sphinx that requires a solution for a riddle.  Being a hero, and therefore quite intelligent, Oedipus manages to answer the riddle and save the city (Sophocles).

         The reader of Oedipus the King reenters the city twenty years later to find that it is suffering from a plague.  The oracle of Apollo has decreed that the murderer of Laius must be found in order to put an end to the plague.  Oedipus, the hero, swears that he would find the killer of Laius, that is, the cause of the plague, in order to save the people.  The king enters the first part of the initiation stage – separation – when Tiresias claims that Oedipus is the cause of the plague.  Oedipus denies this, but then he experiences a separation from himself upon self-examination.  Even though he has been warned by his wife and mother, Jocasta, the king would like to seek the truth for himself.  This search for truth leads Oedipus to believe that he is, indeed, the cause of the plague, the killer of Laius.  Oedipus goes through transformation at this point.  He realizes that he had murdered his own father and married his own mother, even though he was unaware of this at the time (Sophocles).

         Jocasta commits suicide when she learns the truth.  Her suicide fills Oedipus with intolerable guilt and he enters the third part of the initiation phase, that is, return.  The king believes that he must follow his own command, which means that he must be banished from his own city so as to save the city’s people from the plague.  Thus begins the third and final phase of the heroic archetype, as described by Guerin – the phase of sacrifice.  Oedipus must remove himself from his own city where he has ruled as king.  He does this in order to save the people he cares about, including his daughter and his subjects who had depended on his heroic virtues.  The king must leave everything about his past behind him.  This sacrifice of his renders him a true king in the minds of the people forever (Sophocles).

         Bower would disagree, however.  According to the author:

             The Lord of the Rings follows the basic plot of the hero’s journey.  Campbell has named

        three necessary stages to this journey:

             Separation and departure from the safe haven of home or childhood.

             Initiation, where the hero encounters fabulous forces, traverses the Underground, and wins

        a decisive victory.  During this stage the hero battles demons, undergoes a false death, and

        comes to understand who he really is and what gifts he possesses.

             Return and reintegration, where the hero returns home and shares the fruits of his victory

        and his new strengths and knowledge (Bower).

    Of a certainty, Oedipus’ heroic journey through life cannot be understood through Campbell’s theory of the stages of development of the heroic archetype.  The main difference between the stages of development described by Guerin and Campbell lies in the end of the hero’s life.  Whereas Campbell believes that the hero must achieve a happy ending, Guerin talks of the sacrificial hero like Oedipus.  Campbell’s theory may be easily applied to the story of Bone in Russell Banks’ (1995) novel, Rule of the Bone.

         Bone is running away from a tormented past, including problems that he has created for himself, to live a good life; and this makes him an anti-hero by all means.  The boy has many adventures throughout the novel.  But, each of Bone’s experiences from the time he leaves his abusive home is a step toward freedom that he truly desires.  Viewed from the lens of Campbell’s theory, Bone enters the separation phase when he leaves home.  He cannot be blamed for leaving his abusive home, regardless of the fact that he has a drug problem when he moves in with Russ and other individuals that are losers at best.  The boy is seeking freedom from abuse, and this makes him a fighter for the cause of freedom, which is considered all-good.  His decision to move in with losers is not a wise one.  However, the reader must give Bone the benefit of the doubt (Banks).

         Bone is seeking complete freedom from his painful past.  In the process, he must leave Russ as well, an individual he had felt dependent on, but who nevertheless could not guide him to true freedom.  Bone is going through the initiation phase when he leaves Russ.  After all, Russ was not ready to leave drugs.  But, Bone probably had more on his mind when he left Russ behind.  He moved in with I-Man, who happened to be a good influence on the young individual.  Bone was ready to stop feeling like a drug addict after leaving Russ and moving in with I-Man instead.  It is at this point in the story that Bone reveals another time that he is an anti-hero indeed: freeing himself from the perpetual need for marijuana was yet another breakthrough for the protagonist of Banks’ novel.  Feeling the need for marijuana most of the time was a burden that Bone was willing to unload by this time (Banks).

         Bone settles in Jamaica as an independent young man.  He is able to do what he wants to do without having to obey others.  But, the anti-hero is restless still.  He wants to be freer than he feels in Jamaica.  Always on the side of fighting for true freedom – Bone realizes in Jamaica that excessive freedom may not be healthy for him, seeing that it may corrupt individuals.  Bone believes that Doc had been corrupted, so therefore he seeks another option to attain true freedom of the soul.  The young man decides to return to America.  He tells Russ that he would like to return to school.  Russ, at this point of the story, is revealed as a young individual that continues to think like a drug addict.  By informing Russ about his intention to return to school, Bone does not only teach Russ about the goodness of true freedom, but also frees himself further.  After all, Bone had decided that returning to school would help him lead a peaceful, good life that he has been longing to lead (Banks).  Thus, the boy enters the return phase with a happy ending – as understood through Campbell’s theory.

         Even though Campbell’s theory about the stages of development of heroic archetypes differs from Guerin’s description of the stages – it is, after all, the hero’s life that the stages must follow.  It is noteworthy, though, that most of descriptions of the stages are the same in Guerin’s writing as well as Campbell’s understanding.  It is only the end of the hero’s mission that seems to make all the difference.  Still, the hero remains as the model, regardless of his or her end.


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    Banks, R. (1995). Rule of the Bone. New York: HarperCollins.

    Bower, J. G. (2000). The Eternal Story. Green Books. Retrieved Nov 18, 2008, from Retrieved

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    Braveheart. (1995). Dir. Mel Gibson. Cast: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Catherine

    McCormack, Patrick McGoohan, Angus Macfadven, Brenden Gleeson. Paramount Pictures.

    Guerin, W. L. (1999). A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford

    University Press.

    Myths-Dreams-Symbols. (2004, Jul 18). The Psychology of Dreams. Retrieved Nov 18, 2008,


    Sophocles. (1994). Oedipus the King. (1st ed.). New York: Washington Square Press.

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