This blog post begins the Unbound Writers’ occasional series of posts examining speculative literature in terms of the heroic journey structure. We will refer often to the heroic journey, set forth in Joseph Campbell's classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. An expert in the mythology of many cultures, Campbell noticed a striking pattern in stories about heroic adventures. The stories include, at their nucleus, the elements of separation, initiation and return, which he expanded to include characteristic elements.
A classic example of the hero’s journey is Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie. It is no accident that George Lucas knew Joseph Campbell's work and was heavily influenced by it.
Luke is living the safe but boring life of a farmer on Tatooine. He is already a skillful pilot. He gets the call to adventure straight from Princess Leia when R2D2 plays her message. Luke's supernatural mentor Obi Wan Kenobi comes out of hiding and teaches him about the Force and gives him his father’s light saber.
Luke crosses the threshold into the unknown world of the Death Star. Luke suffers trials, passes tests, gathers allies, confronts enemies and rescues the princess. Luke’s abyss is the loss of his mentor. Obi Wan sacrifices himself to protect Luke and his gang as they escape the Death Star and flee to the rebel base on Yavin 4.
Luke transforms and takes on the role of a Jedi Knight. Using the Force (his mentor’s death was not in vain), and knowledge of the Death Star’s weaknesses from the princess’s stolen plans (the gift from the goddess), he strikes the crucial blow, destroys the Death Star and saves the world! All is well again.
Many hero stories mix up the order of these elements or don't include some. Writers of speculative fiction push boundaries in all directions, including the trope of the hero's journey, especially when the protagonists are female. Recent feminist critiques like those of Kathleen Nobel and Valerie Frankel define interior-focused heroic journeys as feminine. They point out that Campbell’s “monomyth” doesn’t fit well with a female narrative pattern. These more modern journeys include psychological tests of the hero's wit, courage and resolve, which she often must surmount while tackling physical, external challenges. Although we'll allude to some of these aspects below, we'll have more to say about “interior” or “feminine” vs. the “masculine” standard of heroic journeys in a later post.
Clariel by Garth Nix, published October 2014 - Lisa Mahoney
Garth Nix, a master of heroic stories (see his Abhorsen trilogy), thrusts Clariel into a journey that she is not qualified to undertake. At the opening of the book, Clariel, on the verge of adulthood, has been dragged against her will over the mythical threshold into the challenging unknown world of the capital, Belisaere, where nothing is familiar. Disdaining political machinations, Clariel wants desperately to return to the forest where her hunting skills and desire for solitude would have made her a success.
In this coming-of-age story, Clariel’s parents seem blind to her reasons for vehemently rejecting the call to adventure, the path her parents envision for her, which includes an unsavory arranged marriage. Though Clariel is descended from the line of Abhorsens, necromancers who send the dead back where they belong, she is uninterested in learning Charter Magic, which would have aided her on her quest. Her lack of preparedness is not entirely her fault, however, for her parents are completely absorbed in their goldsmithing, and, as her cousin Bel says, they should have warned her.
Among the helpers (teachers and guides) that Clariel resents or rejects are her maid, who fights to dress her for success, and the bodyguards she doesn’t think she needs at first. At the schools her parents force her to attend, she meets another mentor, the Charter magister, Kargrin, who warns her to control her berserker streak or face the consequences. A violent confrontation ensures Clariel cannot avoid taking the hero’s path to exact revenge and save the king no matter how desperately she wants to return to the forest. At this point a trickster misguides her, Mogget, the Free Magic cat-shaped entity who appeared first in Nix’s earlier trilogy set 600 years later. Although bound to serve the Abhorsens, Mogget gives Clariel just enough information to lure her down the Free Magic path, which transforms her into something she never wanted to be, but can never escape.
The Abhorsens’ Book of the Dead asks, “Does the path choose the walker, or the walker the path?” The answer is both. Clariel is strong, determined and brave. She is well prepared for the physical trials she faces, like climbing prison walls and fighting with a sword. Most challenging are her interior trials: the unquenchable urge to flee a city, the berserker fury that runs in her blood and her thirst for Free Magic power which exerts a strengthening draw each time she must use it.
The outcome is atypical of heroic coming-of-age journeys. Besides being a gripping tale, the book is worth reading just to see how Nix stays true to his characterization of Clariel and drives her to the inevitable climax, not because she doesn’t have enough fortitude or heart, but because she is who she is.
The Dustlands Trilogy by Moria Young, published May 2014 - CS Peterson
Of all the embattled heroines in contemporary YA fantasy, and they are legion, the character of Saba in the Dust Lands Trilogy sticks most closely to the monomythic path of the hero's journey set out by Campbell. Young places her heroine in a post-apocalyptic American Wild West, littered with “Wrecker tech,” the junk left over from the generation that all but destroyed the ecosystems of the earth.
Home for Saba is by the shores of Silverlake where she idolizes her twin brother Lugh (pronounced “Lou”), is annoyed by her little sister Emmi and does as best she can by her father, a man bewildered and broken since the death of his wife. Saba's call to adventure is forceful and sudden when men in dark robes ride in on horses, kill her father, kidnap Lugh and disappear into the dust.
She seeks out and finds her first mentor, Mercy, a tough and canny elder who gives Obi Wan a run for his money in the courage and sacrifice departments. As a supernatural aid, Mercy gives Saba her dead mother’s heart stone, a small stone that warms whenever it is near Saba’s heart’s desire. It is not a straightforward guide.
The threshold Saba crosses is a vast desert of sand dunes that ebb and flow over the ruins of Wrecker civilization. She enters the dark and brutal world of Hopetown where, in order to protect her little sister Emmi, she becomes so efficient at killing folks that she earns the moniker “Angel of Death.”
In the manner of trilogies, Saba’s heroic journey cycles through Campbell’s iconic steps several times. Each call to adventure grows more urgent, each mistake more dire, each abyss darker, each transformation more complex. The loyalties and betrayals of companions become more costly and, as Saba transforms into an inspirational leader followed by multitudes, the stakes become almost unbearably high.
Internally Saba's self-doubt tracks with what and who she stands lose. Saba is a deeply flawed and human hero. She is torn between two lovers, whom she keeps secret from each other and everyone else. She is haunted, quite literally in one dark stretch, by the friends and foes who have died by her hand. She is uncomfortable when people look to her to lead them. She knows she has faults.
In the second book, Rebel Heart, Saba encounters another elder, Slim, who becomes one of her growing crew of companions. Slim is a grizzled, wisecracking, cross-dressing, snake oil salesman, who runs guns for underground rebels on the sly. He and Mercy come and go in Saba's travels. But when she needs to hear it, these two elders, who have their own complicated flaws, whisper in Saba’s ear that leadership is hard, that humans make mistakes and though the consequences are terrible, there is no other way to go except to go on.
Young’s variations on the tropes and icons of the American western are too numerous and clever for me to do them justice in this short appreciation. I’ll just say that as Saba emerges from the abyss for the final time, her revelation resonates with epics from ancient times to the present. The healing of a broken land must be built on a foundation of heart. The toughness of family love, even a difficult family, will always trump the cold practicality of logic alone. Human society breaks down when human beings are accounted as nothing more than cogs in a machine.
Saba's triumph as a hero is complete, but there is no place for her to live in the new world she brings into being through her heroic victory. Saba gains enough self-knowledge to know she that if she tries to live the settled life she will only ruin it. Instead of returning to a home made whole with the gift of the god/goddess, Saba journeys on, riding off into the proverbial sunset, not alone, but with… well, I won’t spoil it for you.