|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #78:
The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Four: The Heroic Character
With thanks to Lord Raglan and The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama
June 27, 2002 - Myths tend to be full of characters, but, in general, there's only one that's at the center of the story: the hero. Last week I talked about "The Hero's Journey" as a roadmap for plot. It was a plot structure that could be used for any character, whether they were truly a "hero" or not. This week, I want to concentrate on things that are more directly "heroes only", by examining the general characteristics of the hero himself.
As it happens, a lot of folks have written about the hero in mythology. Many of these writers try and lay out the entire scope of the hero's life, offering a sort of lifelong Hero's Journey. However, in considering these various patterns, I think you'll see that they do a lot more to define the character of the hero than his plot. And thus heroic character is my central topic this week.
The Hero in Multiplayer Games
Before I go much further it's worthwhile to step back for a moment and consider what the hero's place truly is in a multiplayer game. Because, if you have hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of players, not everyone can be a hero. Nonetheless I think that the various heroic patterns described in this week's article remain useful, for at least two reasons.
First, they can allow you to create non-player heroes. If one player is a hero, and another's not, there will be clear jealousy in your game. But, if an NPC is a hero, and a player's not, then you're not waving in a player's face what he can't have you're simply adding another interesting facet to the background of your world.
Second, you can sprinkle characters players and NPCs alike with the heroic characteristics I describe here. This won't necessarily turn those characters into heroes, but it will make your story that much more mythical, which is much of the point of this series of articles.
The Heroic Pattern
As I've already mentioned, a number of people have tried to describe the character of the hero by describing the generic events of his life. Lord Raglan is my favorite; his 1936 book, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama, outlines the twenty-two bullet points that I'm going to spend much of this article repeating and discussing. Other authors covering similar ground include Alfred Nutt in "The Aryan Expulsion and Return Formula in the Folk and Hero Tales of the Celts" and Jan de Vries in Heroic Song and Heroic Legend (1963).
Finally I should note that my best source for this article was a single website which quickly itemized all of these theories, along with Campbell.
With that said, here's what Raglan claimed was necessary for a hero:
1. Mother is a royal virgin.
Most other sources agree with the general ideas that Raglan sets forth here. More broadly, the father is some sort of powerful outsider, possibly a supernatural being, a god, or a hero. The mother might be a princess or might be a virgin, but she is much more clearly tied to the natural world.
We can see the themes that Raglan suggests throughout Greek myth in general, where Zeus was always turning into a swan or golden rain or what not in order to have his way with some beautiful woman. Arthur shows how these stereotypes don't have to stay exactly in the form Raglan suggested. Arthur's mother was indeed a queen, but not a virgin while his father was a king, not supernatural in himself, who was cloaked by magical powers.
As with all of the "rules" that we'll list here, a StoryTeller should try to take them as abstractions and general themes, not hard and fast rules. Does the fourth estate form the royalty of your game? If so, a hero's mother could be from that class and remain mythical. A similar question could be posed asking what represents the outside or the supernatural in your world.
4. The conception of the child is unusual.
Together these next two rules describe the same lesson to me: the signs of a hero's supernatural prowess are seen very early on. Another source notes that it could actually be the birth that is unusual while Nutt is more clear and simply says there will be tokens of the hero's future greatness. Many myths also foreshadow a hero's greatness through prophecies or incredible events that occur upon the child's birth.
6. At birth, an attempt is made to kill the child.
The Arthurian legends display this part of the pattern again and again. Arthur himself is spirited away to be raised in the deeps of Logres by Sir Ector, and we fast forward a dozen years as a result. For that matter, Arthur tries to kill his own son, Mordred, but the boy is saved and raised in the Orkneys, far from court. Just as easily, the hero could be spirited away via some evil force, to be raised far from home, as Angel's son, Connor, was, in the television show Angel.
The threats of death to the young child, even without the subsequent spiriting away, can be found in numerous other myths, such as when the goddess Hera sends two snakes to kill her husband's bastard son, Hercules. It's the central story of the comic book X-Men as well, where young mutants' lives are always in danger.
Abstracting these rules a bit more would lead us to a more general idea: the foreshadowing of a hero's prowess causes some to hate and fear him; and he often learns about the Other World from a young age because he is brought up far from his own.
10. On reaching manhood, the child travels to his future kingdom.
If this sounds to you like The Hero's Journey in a nutshell, that's because it is. At the center of Raglan's Heroic Pattern is Campbell's Heroic Journey: the hero goes to the Other World; faces trials; meets the Queen of the World; and apotheosizes. Or, if you prefer, at the center of the Raglan's description of character is Campbell's description of plot.
I won't bore you with a repeat of what I've said over the last two weeks when you can go read it yourself in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #76, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Two: Singular Plot in Theory and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #77, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Three: Singular Plot in Practice.
14. The hero rules for a time uneventfully.
When considering these particular rules for the pattern it should be noted again that they can be abstracted. The hero might not have actually become king, but rather could achieve some other level of power from godhood to simple leadership of a guild. And, while his rulership is uneventful, during it the hero will do things that will be remembered forever. He might have written laws, like Raglan suggests, or he might have made great changes to his land or reunited his peoples or founded cities.
If you're using heroic patterns to mythify players or if you're using them to provide background for NPCs in your game, you'll probably stop here, with step 15 of Raglan's Heroic Pattern.
Because from here things go downhill for our hero.
16. The hero loses favor with his gods or subjects.
De Vries and Nutt both add to this by making a point that Raglan misses: the hero dies young. And, besides being mysterious, the death may actually be hidden. The mythology books are full of heroes who were never seen again, but might return someday, among them Arthur, Charlemagne and even Frosty the Snow Man.
In your game you might not want to kill your hero, but you can still fulfill this part of the Heroic Pattern by giving your hero the opportunity to lose everything he has gained, and so step firmly onto the tragic hero's path.
20. A hero's children do not succeed him.
In the end, the hero goes back into the supernatural world from he was spawned, leaving nothing behind but his memory.
Ingredients But Not a Recipe
I'm very fond of Campbell's Heroic Journey, which I spent the last two weeks discussing. I can map quite a few myths exactly to it, and thus I think it's a very good model of myths and so also a good recipe for making new ones.
I don't feel the same about Raglan's Heroic Pattern, or any of the others which I alluded to this week but didn't investigate in depth. And, part of this is because of their limited scope. Raglan was really only looking at Greek myths (though I can see some analogies to Jesus, Arthur, and others). Nutt was looking at Celtic stories. None of them saw the bigger pictures.
Even if they had, I'm not convinced they could have put together a global Heroic Pattern. The problem is that the lives of heroes are much more varied than their heroic journeys, and thus any attempt to codify them inevitably falls into the trap of too much specificity toward the few heroes studied. Although the Greek heroes and some other might fit Raglan's pattern, others, particularly ones in modern culture from Buffy to Spider-Man, don't fit at all.
As a result of that I think that Raglan offers good ingredients but not a complete recipe. It's worthwhile to look at his 22 points and to take a pinch of royal mother, a dash of death upon a hill, and a full helping of childhood prophecies in order to create a more mythic character even a hero. But you don't want it all at the same time, else you'll get some very repetitive (and silly) food.
Since I wrote my last article, my wife pointed me to an interesting essay on the web called Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Greek Hero Revisited. The essay contains a meandering discussion of classic themes in Buffy that are of less relevance here, but ends with an analysis of the seven-season run of Buffy as Hero's Journey. If you're a fan of the show, interested in seeing how the Hero's Journey could, maybe, be applied, take a read.
And that's it for now. Next week I'm either going to be talking about other characters in myth or moving on to ritual, depending on what my research turns up.
I'll see you in 7.