“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty YES to your adventure.” ~ Joseph Campbell
There is a reason Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are such popular cultural phenomena. There is a reason Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack is making a comeback thirteen years after its final episode aired in 2004. The Hunger Games swept the nation. Star Trek just won’t die. Battlestar Galactica has more than one incarnation. Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, and The Revenant are talked about as some of our best and brightest films. Spider-Man is on his fourth or fifth reincarnation. The Marvel Universe has exploded. Live action Disney remakes are now the norm. The Hobbit got three films of its own, unfortunately. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Dragon Ball Z still have strong followings. Fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly demand more episodes. Superman and Batman have multiple incarnations. The Matrix films are considered groundbreaking. Philip Pullman is resurrecting his His Dark Materials literature. Don’t even get me started on the popularity of Game of Thrones.
I asked several folks in their twenties to thirties what their favorite movies/TV shows and/or stories were from childhood. Some common answers: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Batman the Animated Series, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, Princess Mononoke, Labyrinth, Legend, The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Disney’s Pocahontas, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s Bambi, The Wizard of Oz. My personal childhood favorites were The Dark Crystal, 2001: a space odyssey, and Star Wars (I cut my teeth on Kubrick, which explains a lot. Thanks, Mom). All of these tales have something very important, and very old, in common. They are all variations on the ancient quest narrative and/or hero’s journey.
After Donald Trump was elected president, I turned to literature and film/TV that comforted me. I found myself revisiting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, Star Wars, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and Pendelton Ward’s Adventure Time. I felt comforted by these stories because they gave me a renewed sense of purpose in an age where everything seems left to chaos, selfishness, and evil. I recently saw Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and before the film began, Carmike Cinemas opened with a tribute to Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and his impact on the Star Wars universe.
Kurosawa made a number of important films, but the two that have had the greatest impact on Star Wars are Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. Seven Samurai is the tale of a heroic samurai band that defends a village of helpless, poor farmers from the attacks of wicked bandits and land barons. This film laid the groundwork, officially, for many American Westerns to follow. Both The Magnificent Seven films are cowboy remakes of Kurosawa’s masterpiece. Akira Kurosawa cemented certain classical sacred images of quest, hero tales, and high adventure into films: Good guys wear white (Luke Skywalker). Bad guys wear black. (Darth Vader). Good guys are peasant farmers (Luke Skywalker, Rey, Jyn Erso). Bad guys are “wealthy” and dressed in ornate armor/garments. (Darth Vader, Dark Lord Sauron, Saruman the White, Lord Voldemort, Kylo Ren, Oren Krennic, President Snow, Emperor Palpatine, The White Witch). The hero/heroes are guided by a wise senior aka wizard/sage (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gonn Jinn, Yoda, Gandalf the Grey, Albus Dumbledore, Rooster Cogburn, Alfred the Butler, Uncle Ben, Grandmother Willow, Aslan the Lion, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Augra, Morpheus). It is interesting to note that George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t really have a consistent senior wizard/sage character. Maybe that’s why the characters are always in some kind of hot, unsolvable mess.
In Kurosawa’s world, the hero and his/her companions must make some kind of perilous trek that involves getting to heart of the problem. The heart of the problem generally involves facing the very source of all darkness and evil and, somehow, defeating it. Even Super Mario Bros. and subsequent video games ask the hero to fight the evil “Boss” at the end of each “world.” In some of these tales, defeating Evil means noble sacrifice aka “dying for the cause.” The thing is, Kurosawa did not invent these classic tropes. They come from ancient myth, deep and rich cultural stories that have allowed the survival of entire communities and civilizations. The great pillars of myth in our contemporary story-scape, like Tolkien Lewis, Rowling, Kurosawa, Lucas, Henson, Miyazaki, Gaiman, etc., may have influenced most of what we see and read in literature and on our screens, but these pillars had pillars of their own. Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling were all influenced by folklore and mythology from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Brittania, as well as Celtic mythology and Judeo-Christian scripture. Ancient Japanese myths and samurai legends as well as Buddhist teaching and scripture influenced Kurosawa, Lucas, and Miyazaki.
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on Walt Disney’s animated film Hercules and Warner Bros. mediocre Superman TV series Smallville. Hercules is the musical tale of a loveable hero with a great chin who leaves his farm to discover the truth of who he actually is. This tale is a perfect fit for Disney. As we all know, the film is a classic Disney retelling of the ancient Greek myth about the son who was sired by god king Zeus with a human woman. Hercules is half god, half human and as such, has superhuman strength. In the Disney film, he is quite helpful around the family farm. It is not until he is called away to help the poor people of Greece, under threat by Hades, that he discovers that he is actually the son of a god. He has a destiny. He goes on a journey. He brings along a horse, a satyr, and a beautiful woman. He defeats evil in the end. This very same set up, to a certain extent, was used in the WB TV series Smallville featuring Tom Welling as handsome farm boy, Clark Kent. He has no idea he is actually the son of alien king of Crypton Jor-El and that he will eventually become Superman.
Luke Skywalkeris a bored teenager who has never met his parents and works on a rural droid farm on the desert planet of Tatooine. He is the unlikely hero. He is the peasant farm boy, with the great chin, who is whisked away by aging wizard Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi to save the galaxy from the Imperial Empire and their Dark Lords, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. He is trained by Yoda and has companions like the handsome space smuggler Han Solo , fuzzy Chewbacca, and two comedic robots. The motley crew of misfits disappears into the black of space to find and rescue Princess Leia from the hold of the Empire.
Han Solo, of course, embodies the archetype of the ragged and reluctant warrior who also happens to be running from something. Strider the Ranger becomes that for the four hobbits in The Lord of the Rings until it is revealed that he is actually Aragorn, the lost king of Gondor. Mad Mardigan is the wily criminal who finds and guides Willow the dwarf as he tries to deliver the infant princess into safe hands in Ron Howard’s fantasy film Willow.
Mythological heroes are often, if not always, the unexpected. They embody poverty in one way or another and they are rescued by a strange individual who opens the door to their true destiny, wherein they find their identity and save the day. Harry Potter is an abused orphan who is rescued by a large, hairy man who takes him to a magical wizarding school where he is trained by a gentle wizard to bring down a dark lord. His companions are misfits. His journey is a long one. Frodo Baggins, much like his cousin Bilbo, is a hobbit who lives in the peace of a rural community and has a fear of leaving the comfortable. An old wizard comes and takes him away to save his world from a dark lord. His companions, the “Fellowship of the Ring,” are misfits. His journey is a long one. Rey in Force Awakens and Jyn Erso in Rogue One are both orphaned women who are empowered by an old sage type to join a band of rebel misfits to take down the dark lord and restore order to the galaxy. They are part of the same Star Wars universe that gave us Luke, Leia, Han, Finn, and Poe.
The reason ancient stories and heroes such as these continue to resurface in our world is that we need them. Quest/hero stories are stories about resistance. Good rises up against evil. Good defeats evil after a perilous journey. In the days of our World Wars, American comics really started to take flight. Superman, that all American white guy, rose up to defeat Nazis. The funny part about this is, Superman is an alien from another planet. As we grew older, we began to give up on the hero stories of our childhood. We grew tired of good guys in white and bad guys in black. Postmodern modes of literature and film gave us anti-heroes like Walter White in Breaking Bad, Don Draper in Mad Men, Francis Underwood in House of Cards, Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction, and Daniel Plainview in There will be Blood. Watchmen took our heroes and made them villains. Then, fantasy and sci-fi literature aimed at young adults began to resurface. Marvel comics, Star Wars, and Star Trek were revitalized. Peter Jackson made six films about Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Why the sudden fascination with quest/hero stories again?
I, personally, have grown tired of anti-heroes. It has been refreshing to see so many hero stories come back to the front lines. Does this mean I have given up on postmodern tales of anti-heroes and grey moral areas? No. Those kinds of stories have their own important mythology. They have their own time and place. I am afraid, however, that now is not the time for those stories. Frodo, Harry, and Katniss remind me, and all of us, that we are all part of the resistance when evil finds itself in the seat of power. Are you queer? Black or brown-skinned? A woman? A child? Poor? Marginalized? Widowed? Orphaned? Alone? Then you are the ones the great wizards and sages of our generation are calling to carry the one ring to the halls of Mount Doom, wield the blue lightsaber, and wave your wand in the face of unspeakable terror.
Make no mistake, my friends, we have a dark lord in the White House. He has surrounded himself with typical minions and demons to do his dark bidding and he is oppressing the good people of our land. Who will rise up? Who will be the next unlikely hero? Wizard? Warrior? The four Pevensie children walked through their ordinary wardrobe and ended up in the magical land of Narnia, where they were named as Kings and Queens. You, make no mistake, are royalty, and you are needed for the resistance against Trump.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins begins to cry and tells Gandalf the wizard that he wished the One Ring of power had never come to him. He wished he had never had to take this journey. Why, of all people, had he, a hobbit, been called to save all of Middle-Earth from Lord Sauron? Gandalf gently responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil.” In such a time, my friends, what are you being called to do? Maybe pull out an old Star Wars movie and you’ll see clearly what you have to do. You must resist.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.