How the Mighty Have Fallen

A companion piece to Episode 4: Rock Bottom. Written by Laurel Hostak

"What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd? Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart? What separates the bully from the protector? Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference? More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?”

Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948

I am a huge Joseph Campbell fan, and his name will continue to pop up in this blog and on the Midnight Myth Podcast. It's hard to talk about myth and storytelling in a modern context without citing The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell's theory of the archetypal hero's journey. He argues therein that world mythology tends to conform to a universal structure, dubbing it the "monomyth," and draws several comparisons from the ancient to modern pop culture applications of that universal structure.

On this week's episode, we spoke about some of the trials our favorite heroes endure along that universal journey, and we met them on common ground. This ground was what we called "Rock Bottom." Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

We know that all heroes must face obstacles, and that conflict is an essential element of any storytelling. In Screenwriting courses I took in college, professors broke story structure down in this simple way:

Step one: Get your hero stuck in a tree

Step two: Throw rocks at your hero in the tree

Step three: Get your hero down from the tree

Or, an explanation of the hero's journey I've always liked, Jeffrey Schecter's Four Archetypes: Orphan >> Wanderer >> Warrior >> Martyr

In other words, our hero begins alone. Looking out for numero uno. Sometimes literally an orphan (Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale, etc...). Disconnected from others or from a cause in life. Then our hero receives a call to adventure and sets out willingly or is cast into a significant journey. Along the way, our hero finds the inner strength or passion to take up a righteous or important challenge. Fights for it. Then, makes a powerful sacrifice for this cause or objective and either wins or loses with honor.

What we're looking at this week is that decisive moment between the hero's last two phases, warrior and martyr. In the stories we examined in Episode 4, including Hercules and the movie Gladiator, and countless others across time and cultures, this moment is one of incredible suffering. Our hero has lost everything and now faces the question of whether to pick up the sword again for a final battle. Whether to make the noble sacrifice or to surrender in disgrace. Hercules and Maximus are epic heroes. They embody strength, determination and force of will. They are also creatures of intense suffering, upon whom grave misfortune has been wrought by outside forces. When they hit bottom, they hit hard. These are men who lose their entire families pretty close to the BEGINNING of their stories. How much worse can it get for them? Quite a bit worse, it turns out, as both quickly lose their autonomy, their sense of worth, and faith in their gods.

So why keep going? Why do Hercules, Maximus, and the countless heroes who follow in this tradition stand and fight when all is already lost? What do they have left to fight for? Maximus continues to fight for the souls of his brothers in arms, for their freedom as much as his, for the honor he has earned. Hercules perseveres in pursuit of that most elusive arc, redemption.

In the above quote, Madeleine Albright asks a similar question of us--why do some of us hide from challenges, and others face struggle with grace and renewed strength? What is the difference between someone who stays there at the bottom of the wall, surrenders, and someone who finds the strength to crawl out? I tend to wonder what makes a real-life Warrior-Martyr. We may not be epic heroes of myth and war, preternaturally gifted, or the children of Olympians, but there is a reason we still connect to these stories of persistence. We know that in the noblest hearts there burns a light that cannot be extinguished. What sets a hero apart is the strength of that flame, the audacity to fan it, and the purity of that intent. It is a bravery to which we all aspire.