– By J.W. Fox –
Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey has influenced many hit movies and TV shows. Lately, it seems the journey in the hero’s journey isn’t that important. The hero is born with everything he needs.
Campbell put great emphasis on the journey (obviously), breaking it down into 17 distinct stages loaded with meaning and symbolism. The hero’s trials are not merely physical, but also psychological. They are endured and overcome to obtain the boon, the thing that gives the hero the means to change the world. Many heroes in these stories have special innate abilities, but completing the journey is essential to what Campbell calls their ascension and “mastery of two worlds.”
In the new century, heroes are born with everything they need. In a way, they fit the stereotype of a millennial, the youngest generation that seems to walk around with a strong sense of self-entitlement. They expect to be valued and rewarded for who they are, instead of what they’ve done. The stereotype may not be fair but it is pervasive, especially among the old folks.
By emphasizing inherited power, especially those connected with hereditary right or genetic traits, heroism is treated more as an entitlement rather than something that is earned or achieved through tribulation.
Some of Campbell’s influences in developing the hero’s journey come from religious and mythological traditions. It is there you will find heroes that inherit or are endowed with great power and purpose. They are the messiahs or the “chosen ones.” A god of some kind endows the chosen one with everything needed to reshape the world. There is often a prophecy, which gives the hero guidance. Even with their inherited power, these stories require the chosen ones to endure great trials before they fulfill the prophecy.
Obviously not all heroes are messiahs. You do not need to be the son of God or liberate his people to be a true hero. A messiah is one type among many types. What is interesting is that while the Western World has become more secularized, messianic stories have became more popular. The modern myths emphasize inherited power bestowed upon anointed heroes sent to Earth to fulfill great destinies. Two of the most popular subgenres today, superhero fiction and young adult fantasy, draw inspiration from messianic stories.
Superman, Wonder Woman, and Thor are examples of messianic figures. They are born with incredible powers and grand destinies. Other superheroes inherit great powers but do not have a specific destiny or prophecy with which to guide them. They complete great deeds and change the world in profound ways but on their own terms. Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Wolverine, and Charles Xavier are examples of partial messiahs that lack a “divine” destiny.
The overwhelming majority of superheroes either possess innate superpowers or are conferred them without having to earn them (e.g. Spider-Man is bit by a radioactive spider). Usually some science experiment gone awry or random event vests them with superpowers. Exposure to radiation is a common event. Most X-Men characters are born with superpowers via genetic mutation. Whether born with it or inherited later in life, the powers are bestowed without being earned.
There is great variety in the journeys of superheroes. Some are profound, striking on many of Campbell’s 17 stages. Others are abbreviated or downplayed. Instead, the superhero is quickly thrust into battle to fight an obvious evil. Why bother with the hard part. Just skip to the fun part.
Young Adult Novels
Young adult novels, particularly fantasy, love heroes with inherited powers. The young protagonist is a nobody until someone arrives to reveal their true origins and innate powers. It was there all along. Bella Swan of the Twilight series has special blood and can block a vampire’s mind-reading powers. The young girl with these two unique gifts just so happens to run into a sexy vampire in her small Pacific Northwest town. Clary Fray of Mortal Instruments inherits her demon-killing powers from her mother. Tris Prior of the Divergent Series has rare aptitudes which make her impossible to place in a faction. Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon, a divine inheritance.
Once their great power is revealed to them, their journey is pretty clear. Bella hooks up with a vampire. Clary Fray kills demons. Tris’s nonconformist, anti-establishment traits become the focal point of a revolution against a caste-based dystopia. Percy fights for the gods.
There is not much to earn or develop. When power or skills are inherited, there isn’t as much hard work needed to cultivate it. Things tend to come easy to those with talent.
Nobody likes to be tested for fear of failing. No one wants to discover the world is complicated and that the journey is not a clear A-to-B path. Campbell’s 17 stages were difficult and required a heavy dose of introspection on the part of the hero. Young adult novels prefer to skip as many stages as possible so it isn’t so hard to get to the ascension.
There are a couple notable exceptions found in the big comic book movies and a few in major YA franchises.
Bruce Wayne does not have conventional superpowers but as he says in the Justice League trailer, his superpower is he’s rich. Wayne inherits a vast fortune that gives him the resources to become the Batman. At the same time, he trains for years and has a brilliant mind. His martial arts skills, ingenuity, deductive reasoning, and highly-principled approach is what sets him apart from every other wealthy citizen of Gotham.
Steve Rogers is born with a laundry list of health problems. He becomes Captain America when the U.S. Government decides to experiment on him. In a sense, they anoint him but only to become one of many super-soldiers. Instead, he becomes the only super-soldier, exceeding all expectations and playing a pivotal role in the Avengers. More importantly, he is chosen based on merit, not by accident.
In YA fiction, you can find plenty of heroes who did not inherit their great power. Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game is one of many child prodigies, but the first novel is largely the story of how he earned his great victory over the Buggers. It is almost solely about the journey, with the ascension occurring at the very end.
Katniss Everdeen is a heroine completely lacking in inherited power. In the first and second novels, she is essentially a slave. There is no sense that she inherits her archery skills or resilience from her parents. Her journey is extremely difficult, painful, and hits on a number of themes.
Why Does it Matter?
The preoccupation with inherited power and messianic-inspired stories demonstrates that the technological and cultural transformation of the past few decades have largely left human nature unchanged. We are more secular than ever yet we still seek out stories of great beings changing the world. We still love stories of gods, demigods, demons, and great villains. They do not come from the Bible anymore so we seek them out in our own modern mythologies. I think we all want to believe that one person can change the world, whether it is the son of God, or a refugee from Krypton.
It is a little disconcerting to see such a fascination with immutable identity. It is not just our preference in movies and books. Americans have long expressed a desire for equality and liberal principles, yet engage in divisive identity politics. Whether it is race, gender, or age, the public discourse tends towards dividing individuals into groups based on who they are rather than what they’ve done.
A society that openly divides its people into specific groups is not one of equality.
From a narrative standpoint, the shift towards inherited power tends to underplay the journey leading to some mediocre stories. The challenges and conflicts are relatively simple. Each side is well-defined, and the players easily identifiable. Since these simplifications do not extend into the real world, they are of little more than mere fun. If anything, such stories, which one can more broadly categorize as young adult fiction, tend to indulge childhood fantasies rather than tell coming-of-age stories.
The world isn’t black and white. Life isn’t simple. Maybe we should take notice of the types of stories that dominate our popular culture and ask what that says about us.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.