The Hero With A Thousand Faces

February 16th, 2007

It occurred to me just now that, while Chris and I only began shooting in June, I have been making this documentary for fifteen years.

I have long referred to our film as “a road trip of sorts.” Increasingly, I’ve come to think of it as what one of Bill Moyers’ mentors, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, called “The Hero’s Journey.”

My first real flirtation with mythology, psychology, and meaning came in two courses the second semester of my sophomore year at Syracuse: English Professor Bob Gates’ “Reading Dreams” and History Professor David Miller’s “Mythology & Religion.”

Both drew heavily on the studies two men: Karl Jung, and Joseph Campbell.

Jung, the twentieth century Swiss psychiatrist, author, lecturer, and frequent correspondent of Sigmund Freud, contributed numerous concepts towards our modern understanding of the self.

    The overarching goal of Jung’s work was the reconciliation of the life of the individual with the world of the supra-personal archetype. He came to see the individual’s encounter with the unconscious as central to this process. The human experiences the unconscious through symbols encountered in all aspects of life: in dreams, art, religion, and the symbolic dramas we enact in our relationships and life pursuits.

Professor Gates first drew parallels between characteristics of the unconscious (persona, shadow, etc) and characters in fiction, and then encouraged us to draw those parallels within the world of our own dreams. As a writer (Creative Writing was on of two college majors), singer/songwriter, and sometimes dreamer, I was no stranger to the unconscious. I had long been encouraged to listen to my inner voices, and explore my imagination. Professor Gates, through Carl Jung, put it all in context, though. He helped me to establish a framework with which to understand my feelings, and my dreams,. He helped give me the confidence to rely upon that which was not necessarily apparent before me, but hidden in the shadows, and corners around me. I call on those teachings every day.

Campbell’s, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” then, spelled out the basic tenants of the archetypal hero’s journey, citing myths as diverse as “Ulysses” and “Star Wars.” In summary:

    The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events. If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials, and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift or “boon.” The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, the hero often faces challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world.

Campbell himself links mythology and psychology thusly:

    The repeating characters of the hero myth, such as the young hero, the wise old man, the shape-shifting woman, and the shadowy nemesis, are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as shown in dreams. That’s why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, are always psychologically true.

Those men, their works, and the works the proceeded them, have all laid the foundation for this documentary. It both carries the film — our narrative arc is literally and figuratively a journey — and the framework upon much of that which I hope to come to understand. Sure, my research, assumptions, and conclusions are based on both theoretical and empirical evidence. But they are also based on unconscious, dreams, and intuition.

And so, when I have sought out and been rebuffed by “the wise old man,” and I find myself hurtling through a shadowy underworld, I am able to look through myself, and find – as singer/songwriter Jeffrey Gains calls it – the hero in me. That is the quest.

Where does the road lead? When does the hero’s journey end? What “boon” will I return to my community?

Stay tuned.

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  • Benjamin Wagner first met “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” creator and star, Fred Rogers, at Rogers’ summer home on Nantucket, Massachusetts. His mother rented the cottage next door, so Mister Rogers really was his neighbor. On the afternoon of their first meeting, “America’s Favorite Neighbor” asked the young journalist about his job as an MTV News producer.  Wagner felt exposed and a tiny-bit embarrassed, a PBS mind in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world. Mister Rogers said warml ...
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