Notes from 2017: Who doesn’t love a hero?

Woody Guthrie, 1943. Library of Congress.

Woody Guthrie, 1943. Library of Congress.

On January 16, The Times of London posed a question to Donald Trump:  “Do you have any models – are there heroes that you steer by – people you look up to from the past.”

In reply Mr. Trump said,: “Well, I don’t like heroes, I don’t like the concept of heroes, the concept of heroes is never great.” He then described his admiration for his father, from whom he learned “a lot about negotiation,” but then he gave himself final credit, saying that negotiation is “natural trait,” which “you either have or you don’t.”

Father and son may share additional traits. In 1950, Woody Guthrie leased an apartment from Fred Trump, and soon came to despise the president-elect’s father for his racism. In his song, “Old Man Trump,” he wrote:

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

In the 1970’s, the Justice Department sued Fred and Donald Trump for racial discrimination, under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which Rep. John Lewis helped pass. The Trumps settled, “without an admission of guilt.


Heroism begins with a concern for someone or something greater than oneself, so of course Mr. Trump is unacquainted with the concept. Polls show his approval rating has slipped since the election, but a core group of supporters apparently still hope that inauguration will somehow awaken a concern with their wellbeing and that of the nation.

I’m betting in six months – a year at the outside – the denial will wear off, and most of his remaining supporters will realize they’ve been conned as badly but effectively as those who enrolled at Trump University.

We will not find any heroes in the White House after Friday.

Two views of the hero myth

In a recent post, I discussed heroes and anti-heroes in spy movies and westerns.  This is the followup post I promised, but I’m going to leave the realm of popular heroes – those of fiction, entertainment, sports, and all who wear masks and tights.  I’m going to discuss the heroes of myth, especially the “monomyth” as Joseph Campbell summarized it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

“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.”

Here is a graphic that makes the elements of this type of story clearer:


I can’t think of heroes without remembering James Hillman, (1926-2011), the father of archetypal psychology and one of the most creative thinkers of our time.  The two differing views of the mythic hero announced in the title of this post are Hillman’s own.  He never shied away from ambiguity; “I don’t have answers, I have questions,” he said.

James Hillman

James Hillman

Hillman often railed at the negative effects he saw flowing from the hero archetype, which he saw as ego enshrined as narrow self-interest, both individually and collectively.  For Hillman, the “heroic ego” was often a source of evil and mischief.  Noting that heroes slay dragons, and earlier generations of Jungians wrote of dragons as “the mother,” Hillman claimed that heroes like Hercules in Greek mythology were emblematic of the modern world’s subjugation of women, “the feminine,” and “mother nature.”  On another occasion he said, “Killing the dragon in the hero myth is nothing less than killing the imagination.”

Yet a recently published collection of Hillman’s work (Mythic Figures, 2012) includes a chapter on Joseph Campbell, compiled from talks he gave in 2004 in which he spoke at length of the positive hero.  He put his earlier negative comments in context:

“A mistake in my attacks on the hero has been to locate this archetypal figure within our secular history after the gods had all been banished.  When the gods have fled or were declared dead, the hero serves only the secular ego.  The force that prompts action, kills dragons, and leads progress becomes the Western ‘strong ego’ – capitalist entrepreneur, colonial ruler, property developer, a tough guy with heroic ambitions on the road to success.”

When Hillman used terms like “soul” and “the gods,” his concern was religious, but not in the way of the literal truths of most organized religions.  For Hillman, such literalism was the enemy of soul.  He spoke only and always of the truth of the psyche because it precedes every other kind of truth:  “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all.” (Revisioning Psychology, 1977).

This understanding of the true hero in service to a Power greater ego prompted Hillman to revise his understanding of the “Father/Dragon/Ogre/King” the hero slays:

“A civilization requires the Ogre to be slain.  Who is the Ogre?  The reactionary aspect of the senex who promotes fear, poverty, and imprisonment; who tempts the young and devours them to increase his own importance.  The Ogre is the paranoid King who must have an enemy.  He is the deceitful, suspicious, illegitimate King whose Nobles of the Court [have] committed themselves to the enclosed asylum of security where they nourish their world-devouring megalomania.”

St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458

St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458

I think we know what he meant in 2004 by speaking of “paranoid kings” whose nobles live in “the enclosed asylum of security.”  It has only gotten worse. How desperate the Ogre is to quash any budding heroes was revealed in a piece on August 19 on, “School Has Become too Hostile to Boys,” by Christina Hoff Summers.  Three seven year old boys, in Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado, were recently suspended from school for the following acts:

  1. Using a pencil to “shoot” a “bad guy.”
  2. Nibbling a pop-tart into the shape of a gun.
  3. Throwing an imaginary hand grenade at “bad guys” in order to “save the world.”

The rationale for these suspensions were “zero tolerance for firearms” policies.  Punishing pop-tart weapons in a culture that went on a gun buying binge in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings seems too ludicrous to believe unless you see it from Hillman’s perspective – another step in the dragon’s war on imagination, in this case, the male imagination, the perspective from which most of our current hero myths derive.  Along with banning snack food guns, such schools have renamed “tug of war” games as “tug of peace,” and halted dodge ball as too violent.

Fortunately, as Christina Hoff notes, such efforts to “re-engineer imagination” are doomed to fail – all they will do is “send a clear and unmistakable message to millions of schoolboys: You are not welcome in school.”

In We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, 1993, Hillman made clear his belief that pathology lies in cultures as well as individuals, and we deprive the world of something when we take our rage and our grief exclusively to the therapist.  Hillman never shied away from critiques of the world at large.  Depression is “an appropriate response” to the world we live in, he said.

Yet stronger than the Ogre, said Hillman, is the myth of the Hero – not this or that particular hero, but the heroic pattern itself that Joseph Campbell restored for our times, which renews culture “by revivifying the archetypal imagination displayed by peoples the world over…The panoply of materials that Campbell catalogued shows that the hero wears a thousand faces and cannot be reduced to the modern ego.  Especially important in recognizing him is recognizing the heroic liberating function of myth – that it speaks truth to power, even the Ogre’s power.”

We know from history and the nightly news how much suffering the decay of empires involve as paranoid kings strive desperately to hold on to power.  We also have the examples of James Hillman and Joseph Campbell, who spent their lives pointing toward soul, psyche, and the language of myth and imagination.  That is where we must look to find the larger truth – the hero brings the gift of renewal as surely as spring returns after the darkest time of the year.

Notes on spies, cowboys, and heroes.

I’ve done some car travel recently, and that is my favorite time to listen to audio books.  This time I picked a spy novel by a popular author I hadn’t read before.  I’ll discuss the specifics when I finish the story, but it sparked some new thoughts on a subject that I’ve written about before:  heroes, antiheroes, and how they change with the times.

As a teenager, I loved reading James Bond novels and probably finished all 11 books that Ian Fleming wrote between 1952 and his death in 1964.  In the novels and early movies, 007 was confident and competent in every area of life, including protecting a world in which good and evil were clearly defined.  That wasn’t just the fantasy of an adolescent male; Fleming’s huge popularity suggests that Bond embodied much of the cultural dream of the early cold war era.

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in "Dr. No," the first Bond movie, 1962

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in “Dr. No,” the first Bond movie, 1962

Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which the author served as a naval intelligence officer.  There was little moral ambiguity in Fleming’s world or in his novels.  How different that is from the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, 2012, where moral clarity is scarce, and the adversary of British Intelligence is one of their own, gone rogue.


Daniel Craig makes a good Bond but has little time to exhibit all of Sean Connery’s gentlemanly skills.  This 21st century Bond is too busy killing people to worry about whether his drinks are stirred or shaken.

I’ve watched more westerns than spy movies, so that’s where I’ve seen the changing dynamic of heroes with greatest clarity.  Yet I begin to sense a parallel progression in both genres.   Using westerns as examples, I think we can identify three types of protagonists:

The Hero:  He (it’s always “he” in this kind of western) fights for a righteous cause, greater than himself.  In John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, John Wayne may feel for the Apaches, and thrash the corrupt trader who sold them whisky, but they still have to go back to the reservation.  It’s manifest destiny – the American way.

Fort Apache, 1948

Fort Apache, 1948

The Anti-hero:  Though the term dates from the 18th century, Clint Eastwood’ westerns pushed it into the popular lexicon.  There are no grand causes in these movies, just the gritty play of good and evil, but there is still room for the stranger – or in one of my favorites, Pale Rider, 1985, “the Preacher” –  to lend his aid, and especially his skill as a gunfighter, to those he finds deserving.

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in "Pale Rider."

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in “Pale Rider.”

The Non-hero:  This protagonist may be sympathetic, but should not bear the title of “hero,” with its implication of honor.  He’s the winner who gets to write the history, and that may be his only claim to moral high ground.  In Unforgiven, 1992, Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a widower who has tried to give up killing and drinking.

"Deserving's got nothing to do with it," says  Munny in "Unforgiven

“Deserving’s got nothing to do with it,” says Munny in “Unforgiven”

Unfortunately, he’s failing in his new trade as a pig farmer, so to raise money to support his kids, he takes one more job as a hired killer: to take revenge on two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute.  The body count is a higher than two when the movie ends with an epilogue saying Munny is rumored to be in San Francisco and prospering in the dry goods trade.


So why does this matter?  I’ll have more to say on this in my next post, but for now, a couple of ideas that come to mind are:

– In the movies I’ve highlighted, we see the concern of characters shrinking from the common good to narrow self-interest.  This is a trend we see echoed in headlines every day.

– What do we mean when we call someone a “hero?”  Do we actually bestow the name, or is it most often done for us by various outside agencies, usually of the government or the entertainment industry?

– When is the last time we heard the great story that Joseph Campbell identified as the “monomyth?”   “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.”

I’ll have other reflections to add to this in the next post.

Forgotten Hero Honored – 67 Years Later

At 5:30am on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, a massive German artillery barrage along an 80 mile front in the Ardenne Forest opened the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest conflict of WWII.  The battle, which raged until late January, cost 89,000 American casualties, including 19,000 killed.

Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the Belgian town of Bastogne, at a crossroads the Germans needed to capture in order to split the Allied armies in half.  Bastogne was the town where American general, Anthony McAuliffe, famously answered, “Nuts!” when ordered to surrender.  The town sustained a massive barrage, but never fell, and many stories of heroism later emerged.  This week a forgotten hero was honored – Augusta Chiwy, a Congolese nurse, now 93 years old, who saved hundreds of lives.

Augusta Chiwy. Photo by Clark Boyd

Chiwy’s story came to light, in great part, because of Martin King, a Scottish military historian. King has lived in Belgium for 30 years, interviewed countless veterans of the Bulge, and co-authored a book on the battle. He explained how Chiwy, just 4’8″ tall, repeatedly braved artillery and machine gun fire, in freezing weather, to drag wounded soldiers to safety.  “What I did was very normal,” Chiwy said. “I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”

On Christmas Eve, 1944, an Allied aid station where Chiwy was sipping champagne with the only doctor in town was hit by a German shell.  She was blown through a wall, but afterwards, got up and began helping the doctor, who also survived, tend to the wounded.  Several history books said Chiwy died in the blast, but King did not believe it.  He finally found her living in a retirement home in Brussels.  It took some time before she would speak of her experiences.  King noted that nowadays she would likely be diagnosed with PTSD.

The more he listened to her, the more convinced King became that Augusta Chiwy should be honored for her service.  He began to write the King of Belgium and the US Military.  At last it paid off.  Chiwy was knighted by the Belgian king in June.  General David Petraeus, who once commanded the 101st Airborne, which defended Bastogne, wrote her a letter of appreciation, and earlier this week, she was awarded the US Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service.

Col. JP McGee, who commands the “Bastogne Brigade” of the 101st Airborne Division, gave her the award and said:

“M’aam, you embody what is best and most kind in all of us…It is an honor to share the stage with you and to be able to say on behalf of US veterans everywhere — thank you. The number of lives that you touched is incalculable. There are men and women in America who would never have a father or grandfather if you hadn’t been there to provide them basic medical care.”

After the ceremony, Chiwy said, “I’ve had a good life. I’ve got my children, and my grandchildren.  And,” she added, pointing to her head with a smile, “I’ve still got my marbles.”

You can listen to the story, here:

Kung Fu Panda 2: A Movie Review

Figuring that the return of Captain Jack Sparrow was an excuse to venture out to the movies again, I suggested to Mary that we see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, but she had other ideas.  She showed me the 4-star review of Kung Fu Panda 2.  Ever since Up, 2009 I have been ready to see any animated movie with that kind of review, so off we went.

Here’s my summary:  if you trust any book or movie review I have posted here; if you think there is any chance my opinions align with your own, see this wonderful film.  Take the entire family.  This is an absolute gem.

Po the Panda seems like an unlikely Dragon Warrior – think of Jack Black, who does his voice – but likely or not, there he is with his allies, the Formidable Five, defending the Valley of Peace.  That peace is shattered by Shen, the evil peacock, who has a terrible weapon and the ambition to conquer all of China.

Po has other concerns as well.  His kung fu master tells him he must find inner peace to have any hope of success.  “Inner piece of what?” Po asks.  Memories from his past arise too, drawing Po into the question of who he is and where all the other Pandas have gone.

I didn’t see the first Kung Fu Panda (I plan to now), so I cannot comment on the comparisons between the two movies other bloggers make, but I can say this story was flawlessly paced, the visuals were spectacular, and the 3D did not bother me as it has in the past.  In addition to being marvelous entertainment, I was delighted to see a “family film” pose some very serious spiritual questions and values in a completely non-preachy way:

  • Upon a foundation of inner peace, you can accomplish what needs to be done.
  • “Who am I, really?” is perhaps the most important question we all have to ask.
  • Courage matters, as does loyalty to your friends and a worthy cause.
As I left the theater, I thought of one of my heroes.  Recently I said on this blog that I didn’t have any heroes, but that was not correct – Jim Henson (1936-1990) has always been a hero of mine, and I thought of his breakthrough animated movie, Dark Crystal.  Anyone who harbors a lingering notion that animation is somehow “less than” other sorts of films should check out this pioneering effort, made in 1982.  I like to think how much Henson, who died tragically at 53, would have loved the newest developments in animated filmmaking, and how much he would have enjoyed this offering.

A Childhood Story I Have Never Forgotten: The Death of Balder

Like many children, I read to be scared witless, to be less lonely, to believe in other possibilities.” – Amy Tan

When I was young, I spent hours devouring a ten volume set of stories and poems called, Journeys Through Bookland:  A New and Original Plan for Reading Applied to the World’s Best Literature for Children , 1939.  

The illustrations alone could transport you to other worlds, and the world I most liked to visit was that of the Norse gods.  Interesting choice for a kid, since this was a world that was destined to end badly.  At Rangarok, the last battle, the forces of chaos and darkness would win the day.  No doubt this mythic cycle influenced Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and just like our mortal lives or a fleeting sunset, the certainty of an ending lends these northern stories a haunting beauty.  Within that canon, there is one story that fascinated me more than others and pops into mind whenever I think of the root stories of my life.

The Death of Balder:

Balder, the god of light and summer, was the second son of Odin and Frigg and beloved of mortals and gods alike.  Because he was associated with truth, his mother worried when he was plagued with nightmares of his own death.  Frigg travelled the nine worlds, extracting vows from humans, immortals, plants, and metals not to hurt her son.  Because Balder was popular, every creature agreed – except the mistletoe, which Frigg considered too insignificant to ask. ( Oops!!!!! )

Now Loki was the trickster and the most fascinating and multi-faceted character of the lot.  He wasn’t one of the ruling family of gods, though sometimes humans prayed to him and he helped.  As a sower of chaos, he kept things in motion.  Coyote did the same for Native Americans, but Loki was much darker and proved deadly to Balder.

Loki and Rhinemaidens, by Arthur Rackham, 1910

Balder was asking for trouble the day he stood before the gods and challenged them to throw their spears and weapons at him.  “Gimme your best shot!”  In a color plate in Journey’s Through Bookland, there he was, the curly-haired golden boy, strutting his stuff like a star quarter back.  Ten years later, reading the Illiad in college, I would learn the word, hubris, but even without the vocabulary, I knew he was asking for trouble.  I knew I was supposed to like him, but I honestly thought him a moron.  You wanted to slap Balder – and Loki did worse that that.

Balder’s blind brother, Hodr wanted to join the fun, so Loki, in the shape of Thokk, a giantess, offered to help.  Did I mention Loki was a shapeshifter?  Loki/Thokk handed Hodr a dart made of mistletoe and guided his throw so it pierced Balder’s heart.  Thokk also refused to weep at Balder’s funeral, thus preventing him from returning from Hel.

The gods caught Loki and his punishment was terrible:  he was chained beneath the earth with a serpent above him dripping searing venom on his face and there he will stay until the bones of the earth are shattered at Ragnarok.  Sometimes the pain is so fierce, Loki writhes in agony and the earth shakes.  Without the god of light, the final battle draws near, and Fenris the Wolf, strains against the chains he will break at the start of Ragnarok.

Odin battles Fenris at Ragnarok

So why did the story fascinate me so?  When I was younger and imagined myself to be wiser, I might have tried to concoct some plausible explanation, but now I agree with Heraclitus (as quoted by James Hillman) who observed that one can never plumb the depths of the soul or be certain of its shifting landscapes and cast of characters.  But I am certain that one thing that keeps this story alive for me in imagination is mystery:  all the questions I cannot answer.

  • Why was Balder such a jerk?  Well over the years I sort of got a handle on this with the understanding that mythological gods are do not have well-rounded personalities.  It is a function of the god of summer to die – though most often in annual cycles.
  • Why, in spite of my best efforts, did I secretly identify with Loki even as I feared and loathed him?  I have no clear idea, except now I suspect that is a common reaction.  Somehow it is necessary, and we know it in our bones.
  • Why such a cruel and unusual punishment for Loki?  Isn’t it out of proportion to the crime?  I remember I thought so as a kid.
  • Why did I enjoy a story and illustrations that frightened me out of my wits?  That too, I think, is necessary.  That’s why we like Stephen King and Mary Shelley and why I’m betting Bram Stoker will outlive Twilight.  I believe well meaning people who would clean up fairy tales for children have it all wrong – life itself will sometimes be more scary than any story, and the old tales are like inoculations.
Ultimately, “The Death of Balder” just leaves me wondering – wondering about all kinds of things.  About the kind of people who would tell such a story.  About how they found their courage in a cosmology in which their gods were doomed to go down in defeat in the end.  Wondering if they really believed that or if, like the classical Greeks, they told these as beautiful wisdom tales without thinking they were literally true?

My wondering about a story like this could go on forever, which is probably why it still lives and breathes for me all these decades later.

NEXT:  Two ballads that keep me wondering.

Our Heroes Have No Shame

For some time I’ve been mulling over the qualities that make fictional characters unforgettable.  Among other things, they seem to like themselves and champion themselves unconditionally.  They are comfortable in their own skins.   Even when they mess up badly, they are in their own corner.  We want to be like them, be our own best friends.

Something else came to mind recently in a writing critique group, when a member’s character felt “a sense of shame.”  The phrase did not ring true.  The characters we love  do not experience shame. That goes along with being their own best friends.

The most common definition of “guilt” I have heard is remorse for something I’ve done, while “shame” is remorse for what I am.  If I feel guilty about a particular act, I can make amends, vow to change, and eventually move on.  Not so when the voices of shame tell me that is how I am.  No one growing up in our shame based culture can escape it altogether (at least not without a lot of inner work), but our heroes do.

When Frodo Baggins says, “I will take the ring, but I do not know the way,” he does not then tell himself, “I should know the way.  Why don’t I know the way?  These people do.  What is the matter with me?”

Police detective, Alex Cross,  in James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, is supposed to exchange a ten million dollar ransom for a kidnapped girl.  He’s been set up in a complex double-cross and loses both the money and the girl.  The national media trumpet his failure.  Reporters hound him.  His superiors pull him from the case, but he maintains his internal compass:

If I had screwed up the ransom exchange in anyay, I would have taken the criticism.  I can take heat okay.  But I hadn’t screwed up.  I’d put my life on the line in Florida.

Cross, whose character is so well portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie, battles politics, FBI secrecy, beaurocratic red tape, and betrayal by the woman he loves to stay on the case for two years to rescue the girl after everyone else has given up.  What keeps him going?  What allows him to believe in himself in the face of repeated missteps and the worst knd of notoriety?  Whatever it is we, the readers, want some!!

One thing our special characters all seem to have is someone who believes in them unconditionally. Frodo has Sam.  Alex has his partner, Sampson, and his grandmother, Nana Mama, who lets him know when she thinks he is wrong, but is always his supporter.

Kellen, the heroine of Sharon Shinn’s young adult masterpiece, The Dream-Maker’s Magic was raised by a mother who is convinced that she is truly a boy who was somehow bewitched into the shape of a girl:

…my mother watched me with a famished attention, greedy for clues.  I had changed once; might I change again?  Into what else might I transform, what other character might I assume…She never did learn to trust me…or accept me for who I was.  It was my first lesson in failure, and it stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Even through her painful fumbling for who and what she really is, Kellen somehow keeps her balance, learns to trust her own council, and on the way, finds her ally in Gryffin, a crippled boy:

…he always greeted me with a smile and my name.  I did not bewilder or surprise him.  He did not think I as trying to be something I was not, as my mother did; he did not think I was trying to break a chrysalis and become something I was meant to be, as Betsy and Sara surely believed.  He just thought I was Kellen.
I found this the most comforting thing that had ever happened to me. At times, when I lay awake at night, confused myself about what role I should take and what direction I should try to follow, all that kept me from slipping into tears was knowing that I was not completely lost if Gryffin knew how to find me.

Something in us longs to be brave, longs to be heroic.  We want to be true to ourselves, right wrongs, bring down the forces of evil, or simply learn how to live a happy life.

As the Buddha lay dying, his disciple, Ananda, asked who would be the teacher when he was gone.  Buddha replied:

be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself.  Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the Truth as a refuge.

Whatever our philosopy, this is the way I think we want to live.  The charaters in the stories we love give us hope that it is possible.