If my life was more like 1983, I’d plot a course to the source of the purest little part of me. — John Mayer
Sitting in front of the television, I had a spiritual awakening. It was 1983, I was 5, and a new cartoon was on. As the title card appeared, a chorus sang, “HE-MAN,” and a stentorian voice bellowed, “AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE!”
What was this? To a little boy, the prospect of manhood was fascinating enough. But what would it mean to be a He-Man, much less a Master of the Universe? This toon had my attention.
A figure stepped out of the darkness. To my surprise, it turned out to be some dandy in a collared pink tunic and purple leotards. In a wimpy voice, he introduced himself as Adam, Prince of Eternia, and his pet as Cringer, a cowardly tiger.
Enter the Hero
But with a conspiring tilt of his head, Adam informed me that things were grander than they seemed and initiated me into an esoteric world of occult mysteries. He had already mentioned that he was the “defender of the secrets of Castle Grayskull.” Then he told me that:
“Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, ‘BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL!’”
Like a lightning rod, the sword was struck by magic electricity which surged through Adam, who, in a flash, became He-Man.
Where once was a wimp now stood a warrior. The lily-white skin of a pampered shut-in took on the suntanned hue of a wandering adventurer. The pink-and-purple number was swapped with animal-pelt shorts and a battle harness emblazoned with a Germanic iron cross.
In the booming voice I had heard earlier, He-Man sounded his barbarian yawp: “I HAVE THE POWER!”
Then, he channeled surplus energy through his sword into his trembling cat, transforming it into a roaring beast of prey: a proper animal familiar for a barbarian demigod. He then proclaimed:
“Cringer became the mighty Battle Cat, and I became He-Man, the MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE UNIVERSE!”
With that he punched the camera and the whole screen burst in a flash of light. That punch left a permanent spiritual fist-print on my brain.
After a stirring opener like that, the follow-through of the show itself was a bit of a let-down. Largely an extended commercial for a line of action figures, it was made with low-budget “limited animation” techniques, reusing the same stock sequences over and over again.
And He-Man himself, far from the virile barbarian promised by his Conan-like character design and thunderous advent, was rather tame and square. To keep the show family-friendly, animators only let him use his fists to punch inanimate objects like walls and his sword to parry projectiles. And he spent much of each episode dishing out corny dad jokes and chestnuts about listening to your parents and saying no to drugs.
But none of that mattered. The magnificent power fantasy of the opening segment had already captured my 5-year-old imagination. From then on, I was hooked on hero stories.
Our Love of Heroes
And I have a lot of company. Everyone has a favorite childhood fictional hero. Depending on one’s own generation, genre, or gender, it could be Superman or Goku, Luke Skywalker or Katniss, Harry Potter or Elsa.
Humanity’s fascination with heroes reaches back to the dawn of history, perhaps to the dawn of speech.
Centuries ago, British storytellers captivated readers with legends of King Arthur, his knights of the Round Table, and their quest for the Holy Grail.
Millennia ago, Greek poets transported listeners with songs of Jason, his Argonauts, and their quest for the Golden Fleece.
And millennia before that, Babylonian scribes imprinted on clay tablets the epic of Gilgamesh, his existential crisis, and his lonely quest to discover the mysteries of life and death.
The hero Gilgamesh.
And let us not neglect the heroines. In centuries-old European fairy tales, the trials and triumphs of Snow White, Cinderella, and Belle were no less heroic for being less violent. And these stories had older precedents. All of the classic beats of the princess tale can be found in the ancient Roman story of Psyche and Cupid.
The Psychology of Mythology
What makes hero stories so universally and timelessly powerful, especially for children? To answer this, we can turn to Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) and his renowned work on mythology.
Campbell elaborated and popularized the groundbreaking work of psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) on the significance of myths. According to Jung and Campbell, myths are far more than mere amusements.
In great myths, we see certain story elements, or motifs, that recur in every time and culture. These motifs symbolically express profound, universal, and timeless ideas: what Jung called “archetypes.” As Wikipedia summarizes:
“Jung described archetypal events: birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, the union of opposites; archetypal figures: great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, the hero; and archetypal motifs: the apocalypse, the deluge, the creation.”
Archetypes are fundamental concepts that made such a deep impression on our distant ancestors that, through genetic evolution, they became an indelible part of the “race memory” of our species. Thus, archetypes are not created out of personal experience, but are innate categories inherited by every member of the human race.
However we are not aware of all archetypes at birth. Initially, the archetypes only dwell in the inherited, unconscious part of the mind: what Jung called the “collective unconscious.”
Myths, dreams, rituals, religious meditations, and other experiences rich with archetypal symbolism can reach down into the depths of the unconscious, touch the submerged archetypes, and bring them up to the surface of consciousness.
Moreover, the unconscious is not only a storehouse, but a factory. Using the archetypes and other concepts as raw material, the unconscious can manufacture wisdom and mindsets not immediately accessible by the conscious ego. Archetypal experiences can unearth this buried treasure, which then manifests as epiphany.
The source of a myth’s power is its richness in archetypal motifs that can awaken and actualize the dormant potential of the unconscious.
Myths are stories that stand the test of time because their archetypal messages speak to fundamental human needs. The genius of individual storytellers — their ability to communicate profound truths in archetypal form — is filtered and perfected through centuries of cultural selection, yielding a heritage of stories so inspiring as to seem divinely inspired.
Hero myths especially speak to souls that are ripe to progress from one stage of life to the next. An archetypal hero story can unlock the unconscious mental content necessary to take that leap.
The Rite of Passage
In this regard, a hero myth has the same function as a rite of passage. As Campbell wrote:
“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.”
Each phase of life has its own demands to which an individual must adapt. Obsolete attitudes and ways of life must be laid to rest. New mindsets and capabilities must arise. These spiritual resources must first be shaped in the dark depths of the unconscious and then excavated fully-formed into the conscious light of day.
Such a spiritual upheaval can be arduous, painful, and terrifying. The simultaneous burial and exhumation of core components of one’s personality can feel akin to death and rebirth.
From the movie “Inside Out.” “Goofball Island,” representing a core component of a character’s childhood personality, falls into the abyss of the “Memory Dump.”
A rite of passage can help one undergo such a daunting but elevating metamorphosis by providing a series of intense archetypal experiences that stimulate a psychological breakthrough.
As Campbell wrote:
“…to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life.”
According to Campbell, the rite of passage has three standard stages: separation, initiation, and return. This formula can be seen in rites of passage across the world and throughout time.
In the separation stage, the novice departs from the safety of his community and the comfort of his usual routine to embark on a strange and solitary adventure. For a child, this stage generally involves a dramatic ritual severance from parents and family.
In the initiation stage, the novitiate descends into a dark, mystifying realm and confronts a series of fearful trials, which may include menacing monsters or apparitions thereof. The ordeal is made so severe as to result in a symbolic death: as Campbell put it, a “decisive break from the past.” To overcome the ordeal, the initiate must discover and tap new reservoirs of strength and maturity, and upon doing so, reemerges triumphant, transformed, reborn. As Campbell wrote, “rites of passage used to teach the individual to die to the past and be reborn to the future…” For a youth coming of age, this means setting aside childish things and stepping up to a higher level of competence, responsibility, and independence.
In the return stage, the now-initiated one reintegrates into his community according to his new station in life, bringing back with him his newfound powers: a hard-won prize that redounds to the benefit of all. For the more advanced child or newly-minted adult, this means taking on greater roles and responsibilities in his family and society.
The above discussion should not be read as an endorsement of involuntary ordeals (ritual mutilation, hazing, etc). Below, I will explain why rites of passage must be voluntarily undertaken to be effective.
The Hero’s Journey
As Campbell discovered, myths and rites of passage share, not only the same function, but the same form:
“The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation — initiation — return…”
In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell takes his readers on an around-the-world tour of humanity’s hero myths, spanning from the West to the Far East, from the folktales of primitive tribes to the great literary works of high civilizations. He demonstrates how these stories fit the above rite of passage formula, not only in its three overarching stages, but in many smaller details as well. He wrote:
“…whether presented in the vast, almost oceanic images of the Orient, in the vigorous narratives of the Greeks, or in the majestic legends of the Bible, the adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit above described: a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”
From this, Campbell concluded that all hero myths are permutations of one archetypal story, which he dubbed the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth.” He wrote:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Prometheus ascended to the heavens, stole fire from the gods, and descended. Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, circumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, and returned with the fleece and the power to wrest his rightful throne from a usurper. Aeneas went down into the underworld, crossed the dreadful river of the dead, threw a sop to the three-headed watchdog Cerberus, and conversed, at last, with the shade of his dead father. All things were unfolded to him: the destiny of souls, the destiny of Rome, which he was about to found, ‘and in what wise he might avoid or endure every burden.’ He returned through the ivory gate to his work in the world.”
According to Campell, the timeless moral of the universal story — the lesson of every myth — is: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
The treasure is personal growth, which by definition means venturing out of one’s comfort zone and into “the cave”: the dark, dreadful, dragon-haunted realm of the unknown and untried; from the world of order into the world of chaos. That is separation.
To liberate that treasure is to bring the latent powers buried in one’s unconscious up into the light of conscious actualization; to achieve new mastery; to slay the dragon of chaos and establish a new province of order. That is initiation.
And to bring the prize back home is to exercise one’s new mastery in the world of society. That is return.
Absorbing a hero myth is like undergoing a rite of passage within the universe of one’s own imagination. The reader or listener vicariously partakes in the hero’s transformative adventure and is inspired to undertake one of his or her own.
Human beings, children especially, yearn for growth, and so they hunger for such soul food. That is why stories that offer it are so popular and timeless. That is why ancient myths and archaic folktales continue to this day to be adapted as films, shows, and books. And that is why modern archetypal hero stories — myths in the making — are so cherished and so often remade.
Myths are especially important given the recent decline of ritual and religion. Indeed that decline may explain the modern world’s avidity for hero stories. The spirit must get its sustenance from somewhere. Without a healthy diet of archetypal symbols, souls become malnourished, growth is stunted, and development is arrested. As Campbell wrote:
“In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the unexorcised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood.”
A Jungian Analysis of He-Man
Studying Jung and Campbell helped me understand why seeing Prince Adam turn into He-Man in a flash of lightning galvanized me so much at age five. Revisiting the cartoon, I was struck by how it overflowed with many of the hero myth archetypes identified by Campbell, leading me to wonder if its creators were inspired by his work, as George Lucas claims to have been in creating Star Wars.
I initially despised Adam because I saw in him what I disliked about myself: my childish weakness, incompetence, and irrelevance. In the show, we learn that Adam is not only a whiny-voiced dandy, but an immature, frivolous fop who shirks his royal responsibilities and flees at the first sign of danger.
Like Shakespeare’s revelry-loving Prince Hal, he is a bitter disappointment to his kingly father. Like Christopher Nolan’s partying playboy Bruce Wayne, he is a pathetic figure in the eyes of his potential love interest. And like 5-year-old me, nobody takes Prince Adam seriously.
But then, Adam enters his “cave” when he discovers the secrets of Castle Grayskull, a dark, cavernous, skull-like fortress suspended over an abyss by a pedestal of bone. Yet Grayskull is also a storehouse of cosmic power.
Such a structure fits the mythic archetype Campbell calls “the World Navel,” which is “the point of entry” into the world for “the waters of the abyss, which are the divine life-creative energy and substance of the demiurge, the world-generative aspect of immortal being.”
“Thus the World Navel is the symbol of the continuous creation: the mystery of the maintenance of the world through that continuous miracle of vivification which wells within all things.”
According to Campbell, it is the task of the hero to reach the World Navel, descend into the abyss below (the “cave”), and draw forth life energies from the deep (the “buried treasure”) to reenergize himself and, upon his return, the world entire. As Campbell writes (emphasis added):
“The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world. The miracle of this flow may be represented in physical terms as a circulation of food substance, dynamically as a streaming of energy, or spiritually as a manifestation of grace. Such varieties of image alternate easily, representing three degrees of condensation of the one life force. An abundant harvest is the sign of God’s grace; God’s grace is the food of the soul; the lightning bolt is the harbinger of fertilizing rain, and at the same time the manifestation of the released energy of God.”
Thus, Prince Adam invokes the “power of Grayskull,” induces a “lightning bolt,” and “a streaming of energy” pours into his sword, his body, his world.
This “released energy of God” transforms the childlike, weak, and irresponsible Adam into the mature, powerful, and heroic He-Man: someone to take seriously, someone who can do great things and save the day, THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE UNIVERSE.
Like Arthur lifting the Sword in the Stone to take on the powers and responsibilities of kingship, Adam holds aloft his magic sword to come into his own as a man. Prince Hal repudiates his frivolous friend Falstaff and takes his crown as King Henry V. Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl and becomes the heroic Batman.
The skeletal Castle Grayskull evokes death, but from its depths the hero discovers “fabulous secret powers,” summons new life, and is reborn as something greater than he was.
This archetype-packed little cartoon segment is an accelerated hero’s journey, a one-minute myth, a cartoon rite of passage. And in 1983, at 5-years-old, my developing unconscious was attuned just right to resonate with its thunderclap message.
I too wanted to “have the power”: the capacity for the kinds of exploits I saw performed by my much-older brother (who was then winning academic laurels at Stanford University) and towering father (who, like He-Man, was physically strong and had darker skin than me). I too wanted to develop what Robert Greene calls “mastery” and make what Steve Jobs called “a dent in the universe”: to become a Master of the Universe.
Seeing boyish Adam turn into He-Man helped complete my own metamorphosis from baby to boy and awakened a longing to further transform into a man.
The Young Hero Manifests
Youth’s longing for maturity and for coming into its own has long been a major theme in hero myths, which explains their special appeal to the young.
The classic hero of the ancient world is of both royal and divine descent. But his parentage is obscured due to a mishap in infancy. Upon coming of age, the first challenge of the princely demigod is usually to lay claim to his inheritance by proving his royalty and manifesting his inner divinity through feats of strength and valor.
Long before Arthur’s Sword in the Stone, the Greek hero Theseus proved himself the rightful heir to the Athenian throne by lifting a great stone to claim the sword and sandals of his kingly father.
And in a modern myth, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker was raised by humble parents in hinterland obscurity, as was Arthur and Theseus (and Jason, and Perseus, and Sargon the Great, and Cyrus the Great, and Jesus Christ, and Sleeping Beauty, and Superman, and Harry Potter). But Luke too came of age and into his birthright by taking up his father’s sword and station: the lightsaber of Darth Vader and, after many labors, the mantle of the greatest Jedi Knight.
This biographical approach to the hero’s “coming of age” journey works for films, novels, and epic poetry. But TV shows, radio serials, and comic books are often too episodic to be epic. In order to graft a miniature hero cycle on every episode or issue, series creators have often resorted to the “secret identity” trope. The protagonist “comes of age” over and over again in each adventure, every time he transforms from his mundane self into his hero self. Arthur held aloft his magic sword once. Prince Adam does it every episode.
This is one reason why superhero fiction is so compelling to children. Like the childish Adam, the superhero’s mundane alter ego is often weak and pathetic. He is the painfully awkward Peter Parker who has trouble talking to Mary Jane Watson. He is the bumbling, “mild-mannered” Clark Kent who is scorned by Lois Lane. But when the protagonist changes into his costume, swoops in, and saves the modern-day damsel-in-distress, he reveals his true potential and inner nature. The shy high school kid Peter Parker becomes the wisecracking, heroic Spider-Man.
And when Clark Kent changes from his dull working-stiff clothes into his dazzling Superman costume, he reveals his omni-competence and semi-divinity. He manifests that, although raised by humble farmers in rural Kansas, his actual descent is celestial; he literally descended from the heavens. Clark Kent is secretly a space demigod: Kal-El of the planet Krypton.
As a baby, he escaped the destruction of his home world when his parents launched him into space in a child-sized spaceship. As renowned comic book author Grant Morrison wrote in his superhero manifesto Supergods:
“…he was like the baby Moses or the Hindu Karna, set adrift in a “basket” on the river of destiny.”
But he landed on Earth where, as his father hoped, the planet’s environment would grant him great powers, enabling him to save the people of his adopted world from mortal perils.
In other words, like that universal hero Jesus Christ, Superman walked among mortals but was revealed to be a child of Heaven sent by his father to Earth to be a savior to humanity. And this revelation happened in every issue or episode, whenever the hero opened his starched shirt to reveal the heraldic, lightning-bolt-like “S” emblazoned over his heart.
The Superman arc has had the same kind of inspiring impact on millions of children and frustrated adults that the He-man arc had on me. As Morrison, who is also author of All-Star Superman (regarded by many as the definitive Superman story), expressed it:
“There was no problem Superman could not solve or overcome. He could not lose. He would never let us down because we made him that way. He dressed like Clark Kent and took the world’s abuse to remind us that underneath our shirts, waiting, there is an always familiar blaze of color, a stylized lightning bolt, a burning heart.”
When Superman debuted in 1938, he immediately struck a deep nerve in the collective unconscious and was a massive hit. In the decades that followed, creators tried to hitch a ride on his ascent by creating variations on the Superman theme. The most successful of these was Captain Marvel, a comic book character who, by the mid-1940s, was outselling Superman himself.
Captain Marvel tapped many of the heroic “coming of age” archetypal motifs discussed above, but even more overtly, which probably explains his phenomenal popularity. While the alter-egos of Superman and He-Man were childlike, the adult Captain Marvel’s alter ego Billy Batson was literally a child. This made the child reader’s vicarious participation in the hero’s instant maturation even more intense.
Like Prince Adam, Billy transformed into his heroic self by summoning divine lightning with a spoken incantation. In Billy’s case, the magic word was SHAZAM, an acronym invoking the bestowers of his super-virtues. S stood for the wisdom of Solomon, H for the strength of Hercules, A for the stamina of Atlas, Z for the power of Zeus, A for the courage of Achilles, and M for the speed of Mercury. As Morrison put it:
“In the language of ceremonial magic, Shazam! summoned the holy guardian angel — the exalted future self — to come to one’s aid. When Billy’s natural curiosity got him into trouble, the word could summon Captain Marvel to deal with any and all consequences.”
And in the place of Superman’s lightning-like S, Captain Marvel exhibited his access to “divine life-creative energy” with an explicit lightning bolt emblazoned over his heart.
Enter the Villain
If the child unconsciously sees himself in the hero, whom does he see in the villains of the hero story? Surprisingly often, the villain represents dark aspects of the parent.
In later editions of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the evil witch queen is Snow White’s wicked stepmother. But this was a revision to avoid unsettling readers. In the version of the tale included in the first edition, the villain was Snow White’s birth mother.
Tortured by insecurity over her own fading loveliness and by jealousy of Snow White’s budding beauty, the mother resolved not to be replaced, but to cling to her status as “the fairest of them all.” And so she ordered a huntsman to slay her own daughter. The huntsman couldn’t go through with it, and so Snow White escaped into the forest, where she was taken in by child-like dwarves.
The unrelenting queen next disguised herself as an old crone and tricked Snow White into biting a poison apple, which caused her to fall into a deep sleep. Thinking her dead, but unable to bury such a beautiful creature, the dwarfs placed her in a glass coffin. As Campbell says of such scenes:
“This is an image of the magic circle drawn about the personality by the dragon power of the fixating parent. Brynhild, in the same way, was protected in her virginity, arrested in her daughter state for years, by the circle of the fire of all-father Wotan. She slept in timelessness until the coming of Siegfried.”
The kiss of prince charming awakened the princess, freeing her from the state of suspended animation and arrested development imposed by the dragon parent.
The image of the overbearing, jealous mother figure hiding away and constraining the unrealized potential of a virtuous young woman can be seen in the stories of Briar Rose and the evil fairy (Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent), Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, Rapunzel and Dame Gothel, and Psyche and Venus.
Gothel sings to captive Rapunzel in Disney’s “Tangled”: “Mother knows best!”
Sometimes the villainess offers the heroine a chance to escape her suspended daughter state if she accomplishes a series of labors. But this offer is not genuine, as the trials are designed to be insurmountable. Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and Psyche’s wicked mother-in-law Venus both imposed seemingly impossible domestic chores on their “daughters,” fully expecting them to fail. But, fortune tends to favor the virtuous, and both exemplary heroines win saving assistance from supernatural admirers (animals, plants, the Fairy Godmother, Jupiter, etc).
The male parallel of this tale is that of a tyrannical, paranoid father figure standing in the way of a heroic young man eager to come into his birthright and fulfill his heroic destiny.
The aging man’s fear of being replaced by the next generation is often personified as a king (often a usurper) receiving a prophecy of his own death at the hands of a young man (often the rightful heir). The king attempts to escape his fate by nipping the threat in the bud: killing the hero in infancy or preventing his conception by secluding his mother-to-be. This is the crime that results in the hero being raised in obscurity. But fate will not be denied. Upon coming of age, the hero inevitably returns to claim his birthright and somehow ends up killing the tyrant.
This is the story of Jason and King Pelias, Perseus and King Acrisius, and Oedipus and his own father King Laius. Sometimes an aging foreign tyrant also tries to obstruct the young hero’s self-actualization. This was the role of King Aeetes for Jason and of King Minos for Theseus.
Like his female counterpart, the tyrant father figure places seemingly insurmountable trials between the hero and his birthright. Jealous of his ill-gotten throne, Acrisius challenges Jason to sail through the sea of marvels and retrieve his family’s Golden Fleece from King Aeetes. Jealous of his ill-gotten fleece, Aeetes in turn challanges Jason to yoke firebreathing oxen, sow dragon’s teeth, defeat an army sprung from the earth, and overcome the sleepless dragon guarding the treasure. Both tyrants hope and expect Jason will fail. Both are grievously disappointed.
The classic young hero’s journey is a willful struggle against a fixating parental figure who strives to frustrate the fulfillment of youth’s destiny. It is the Little Mermaid (Disney’s Ariel and Miyazaki’s Ponyo) insisting on growing legs against the will of her father. It is Disney’s Simba returning to claim his rightful station as the Lion King after having been driven by his usurping uncle Scar into a realm of perpetual childish irresponsibility in the company of Timon and Pumba, preachers of the gospel of Hakuna Matata, or “No Worries.”
Ponyo’s father: “Don’t change. Don’t change. Don’t change.”
As Campbell frames it, the hero represents youth, vitality, creative energy, change. The villain represents the forces of inertia and rigidity that would obstruct the renewal of the world. Thus, he gives the villain archetype the name of “Holdfast”:
“…the sword edge of the hero-warrior flashes with the energy of the creative Source: before it fall the shells of the Outworn.
For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position.
(…)The hero-deed is a continuous shattering of the crystallizations of the moment. The cycle rolls: mythology focuses on the growing-point. Transformation, fluidity, not stubborn ponderosity, is the characteristic of the living God. The great figure of the moment exists only to be broken, cut into chunks, and scattered abroad. Briefly: the ogre-tyrant is the champion of the
prodigious fact, the hero the champion of creative life.”
How are we Holdfast? How do we play the villain and hold our children back? Of course, obviously abusive parents act like tyrants and monsters when they wield physical violence, draconian severity, and emotional torment against their kids. But what is today regarded as “normal” parenting does more to thwart the development of our children than we realize.
By cloistering children within school walls and constantly circling them like hovering helicopters whenever they’re not in school, modern adults too draw constraining “magic circles” around their personalities. Forever beset by “helicopter parents” and teachers, children today have less unsupervised time than perhaps any generation in human history.
According to the paranoia of conventional wisdom, the child must be maximally protected against every risk factor, no matter how minor or statistically improbable. Parents and teachers take it upon themselves to prevent and intervene against every germ, every injury, every nanoscale chance of abduction, every unkind word, every disappointment. Above all, the child is protected from himself: from every bad choice he might make. And so free choice, and learning from the natural consequences of one’s choices, is supplanted by constant adult direction and correction.
Like the “magic circles” of myth, these protective rings impose a “timeless sleep” on children, keeping them suspended in a state of perpetual immaturity. Helicopter parenting and secluded-tower schooling are why so many children today lack resiliency, independence, and self-confidence, and why so many young adults suffer a “failure to launch” and have so much trouble “adulting.”
Adults are playing the role of Holdfast and “the dragon power of the fixating parent” by denying children the chance to have growth-inducing adventures. Like the usurping, past-clinging tyrants of myth, they are obstructing children from their proper destiny: the heroic self-actualization that is their birthright.
The Heroic Child
Children need adventure, not only in their myths, but in their lives. They need all three stages of the rite of passage and the hero’s journey.
They need separation: to, in growing measure, venture off on their own and face the world unsupervised.
They need initiation: to undertake growth-inducing trials of their own choosing, to be allowed to fail, and to be free to ultimately prevail under their own steam.
And they need return: to be free to utilize their hard-won new powers to do real work in real society, and not be condemned for the entirety of youth to jump arbitrary hoops in the forced, fake society of school.
By confronting reasonable danger, kids become physically adept and learn how to manage risk and cope with fear. By being free to spend as much time as they want delving into whatever activity fascinates them, they learn how to be curious, self-starting, and creative. By grappling with the challenges of their chosen activities on their own, they learn problem-solving, dedication, and grit. By free-playing and socializing with friends and peers without constant adult intervention and mediation, they learn self-assertiveness, friendship, manners, and morals.
Through such self-directed adventures, kids develop self-respect and self-efficacy. They learn to think of themselves as the heroes of their own story, and not as victims to be forever afflicted and saved by others.
Children can be trusted to seek out challenges, because they have an instinctual love of growth-inducing adventure. If they didn’t, our species would not have survived very long. Indeed, kids have an uncanny sense for developmentally-optimal levels of adventure. Anything too easy and familiar becomes boring; the child feels trapped in a realm of stale, excessive order. Anything too overwhelming creates anxiety; the child feels lost in a realm of excessive chaos for which he’s not ready. The child comes alive and enters a state of flow when the creative tension between skill and challenge, order and chaos, yin and yang, is just right for growth. The hero-child instinctively seeks out treasure guarded by dragons of just the right size.
Kids only lose this natural love of adventure after adult-imposed “magic circles” cause it to atrophy and wither from forced disuse. But it can be rehabilitated if adults would just stop playing Holdfast.
The Heroic Parent
Kids don’t need their parents to fill the role of villain in their heroic journey. There are “dragons” enough to slay: plenty of already-existing challenges to face. But there are several worthy roles available to the prospective heroic parent.
The Lifesaver. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but what does kill or maim you certainly won’t. So, of course a heroic parent must save the child from truly high probability risks to life and limb (which doesn’t include scrapes, bumps, and bruises), and must provide the child with sustenance until the child attains independence. One shouldn’t let a toddler drive the family car, just as Apollo shouldn’t have let his son Phaethon take a joyride in his sun chariot.
The Herald. According to Campbell, every hero’s journey begins with a “call to adventure,” which is often delivered by a figure he named the “herald.” A parent can be the hero-child’s herald by inviting her to try new activities that may pique her interest.
But the call to adventure must not be a command or manipulative pressure. Gandalf didn’t kidnap or browbeat Frodo after all. As clinical psychologist (and Jungian mythological scholar) Jordan Peterson often points out, involuntary ordeals engage the fight-flight-or-freeze part of the brain and tend to be traumatizing and spirit-weakening, not spirit-strengthening. In contrast, voluntarily undertaken ordeals engage the brain’s “approach circuit,” which is what makes them thrilling and empowering. (This is also why exposure therapy only works when PTSD patients face their fears willingly and under no duress.) Free will is what makes the hero-child feel like a hunter of dragons, as opposed to the prey of one.
But parents playing the herald role can be overdone. Constantly being the one to introduce your child to new things can foster dependence and stunt her ability to discover things for herself. Besides, children are naturally curious, so the child’s own inner muse is usually “herald” enough.
The Mystagogue. According to Campbell, after accepting the call to adventure, “the first encounter of the hero-journey” is with a figure he named the “mystagogue.”
“His role is precisely that of the Wise Old Man of the myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventure. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night.”
This magic helper…
…may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears, to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require. The higher mythologies develop the role in the great figure of the guide, the teacher, the ferryman, the conductor of souls to the afterworld.”
Or if female, the mystagogue might be a fairy godmother or a princess: like Ariadne, who showed Theseus the trick to escaping the Minotaur’s maze.
Parents playing the role of mystagogue can provide advice to the hero-child, sharing methods for dealing with challenges. But the advice should concern means, not ends. Guides, after all, show pathways; they don’t set the journey’s destination.
This role can also be overdone. To make sure the advice is relevant, welcome, not obtrusive, and not dependency-fostering, it should only be offered when the hero-child asks for it: sometimes not even then.
Aside from advice, the mystagogue-parent can also supply the hero-child with magic charms and enchanted weapons in the form of a wide array of material resources for her to freely choose from and use: a household full of toys, tools, kits, books, and devices, as well as paid access to resources and experiences outside of the home.
The Hero of Your Own Journey. Children need heroes to emulate and be inspired by, not only in their myths, but in their lives.
They need to apprentice with other heroic children: especially slightly older ones who can help with challenges similar to ones they themselves recently overcame.
And your kids need to see you yourself joyously pursuing excellence and building mastery as you perform the mighty deeds of your own heroic journey: especially in your career and creative hobbies.
The Heroic Child to the Rescue
To do this, you may need to free the hero within, trapped in a dungeon during your own childhood, and to slay the inner demons still holding you back.
A good start would be to observe the rapt concentration of a child at play/work/study, before schooling has had a chance to sunder and compartmentalize the three. That is the face of a human being in a state of flow: free of chronic anxiety, dreary boredom, and debilitating self-consciousness. It is the face of a hero on a mission.
Children can remind us what it was like to have our passion for adventure and personal growth still in our possession. And they can inspire us to go get it back.
The heroic child can renew the world and save us all.