Parallel Worlds: Superheroes, Cosmogony and the Homeric ‘ethos’.

When thinking further on the hero and the worlds they inhabit, I was struck by the fact that for much of our experience of narrative, not only are we naturally expected to integrate with characters and their characterization, but much of what we do as the audience and/or readers of narrative is dependant upon our capacity to understand and recognize setting. Where the story takes place.
Places create stories? What an absurd concept.
Not really – if characters are given this privilege, why not the worlds that they inhabit? For many this may be included in their descriptions of genre but this lies outside of the scope of this exploration of heroes and their parallel lives. We are expected to handle narrative worlds as easily as our own.
MCU / DCEU (Marvel Comics Universe / DC Comics Extended Universe)
As Classicists and Historians we are trained, almost by default, with the capacity to inhabit the ‘mind-scapes’ and environments of the ancient world (Diskin, 2008). The heroes, gods and monsters of the ancient mythological mind-scape become for us a familiar or accustomed place, an ‘ethos’. It is the ‘homeworld’ of the heroic or from the narratological perspective the protagonist’s setting.
Whether we are reading the Archaic and Classical poems of Hesiod, Homer, Pindar or Plutarch we have accepted a construct of mediated reality, a framework that allows us to negotiate meaning. Like any good cosmogony (the birth of a universe), this one being mythical, fantastic and ancient, we populate it with figures; characters. Characters that are archetypal, universal or ideal is some way and name them heroes.
This process is no different from what is occurring in todays ‘heroic narrative’. The medium of popular heroic narrative has changed, but there is much that is familiar. The realm of the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) and the DCEU (D.C. Extended Universe) are examples that have exploded across our television sets, our movies screens and streaming services. (Netflix / Amazon Prime / ShowMe / Sony Pictures / Hulu…) *Detect a trend here?*
It seems that wherever there exists a medium for communication and entertainment our ‘heroes’ are the pioneers. The pathfinders that are willing, ready and able to rush forth and make their world and our own familiar.
If we were continuing with Classical themes and what is called ‘Divine Myth’ we would almost certainly move into populating our world with the heroes, gods and monsters mentioned earlier. This ‘theogony’ (the birth of gods) places our ‘heroes’ (narrative functions) in a larger universe (cosmos). Like in the epic poems of Archaic Greece, today’s heroes (Superheroes) themselves materialize and coalesce inside a created world.
The modern pop-hero narratives–comic book hero, Superhero, call it what you will– manifest themselves in a created cosmos. Their worlds are like our own but enhanced in certain ways. Their worlds resonate with qualities that connect them with their principle players – the very heroes that live there.
Common examples of these uncanny yet ‘accustomed places’ (ethos) include the ‘gothic’ Gotham city, home to the vigilante hero Batman; the hidden Themiskyra of Wonder Woman; the Metropolis of Superman; the fictive and mythological undersea realm of Atlantis for Aquaman; and The African kingdom of Wakanda, home of the Black Panther. The Asgard & Midgard of Thor and even the oscillation that occurs between eras of time and place as evidenced in the popular hero Captain America are also examples.
It’s not enough to simply categorized heroes as Vladimir Propp has done as merely ‘dramatis personae’, as plot elements no more or less important than the magic ring, the dark forest, the guardian, the ruined castle and the dozens of other functions outlined in his groundbreaking “Morphology of a Folktale”.
This dispassionate and dismissive analysis of the hero overlooks his/her narratological function. Heroes are epistemological figures, they are ’thinking points’ – they are ’thinking portals’ that allow us access into their worlds.
As audiences (both poetic and literary) engage with them they/we are locked into a deepening cycle of exchange and self-definition. These epistemological figures and the worlds they inhabit allow us to negotiate new layers of meaning in our own world. They provide models for emulation, revulsion, elation, expectation – the list is endless.

Pathfinder

They have moved beyond the sacred gate and struck out,

for us and themselves into the world beyond the plough,

beyond the hound’s bodies and broken spears.

 

The Evenstar rises and sets in a mythic world of their own design,

for us they have moved beyond the days of our feeble hopes

and into the twilight, to leave behind fame, glory, wrath and ruin.

 

What say you?

 

What golden notions have stirred you heroes heart?

For sword and sandals have been placed in your safe keeping,

A father’s gift that pulls you forward,

To a destiny now hidden from all our eyes.

 

From where did you come and into what bright future will you travel?

Like flowers we turn our eyes to whatever bright sun is offered.

We raise our hands into the Olympian mists with prayer.

 

What cool distant evening will find you awash and beached

amongst the Isles of the Fair?

 

What then, will you return to us?

 

The heroes journey reaches out and weaves

a Thassian fabric as old as storied time,

to shape the very world beyond words and lips,

into ears beyond hearing.

 

As they strike out, we strike out with them,

for us they have ranged out beyond the guarded gate

and our grasp, to wander and wonder forever

into the dreams of mere men.

 

Sleepless pathfinders whose trackless course will never be forgotten,

by the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.

The hero beyond the silver fire,

the hero beyond ourselves.

The Heroic Complex: the ‘telling world’ of the Hero

war-roomI have been working through a specific vision of the hero. A 3-part structuralist model of heroic narrative that seeks to establish a unified framework. A global system that will help unify the far-flung depictions of the hero and facilitate their comparison for study.

Narratives, both modern and ancient are filled with heroes, in fact if you were to accept an entirely reductionist approach to the hero, you may define them as the protagonist of any story. I am not comfortable with this notion, it is entirely to simple even for myself.

As someone who studies heroic narrative I see that the hero is both a character and an idea. They are manifest in narratives, but their source is informed by deeply embedded cultural codes. This universal heroic narrative structure I have come to define as the “Heroic Complex”.

The Heroic Complex is akin to a form of narrative consciousness. It is not as Nicholson states a perfect place but an ethos that is “an uneasy thing” (2). A ‘telling world’ where heroics are at play. I would suggest that within the Heroic Complex the ideas of heroes and their stories are to be rationalized as Claude Levis Strauss suggests “[as] patterns showing affinity, instead of being considered in succession, [they are] to be treated as one complex pattern and read globally” (6).

As a result of this the hero is transformed into an epistemological figure, that allow its audience and yet even further, its culture to shape, display and validate our moral truths (Rollins 433). We are never finished with this process. The Heroic Complex is a churning gyre of new material and association. It is an ever-evolving metanarrative structure of connected parts that dialogue with one another. This ongoing discourse is subject to fluctuations and is never cemented in place.

Our heroes allow us to move beyond ourselves and engage with narrative on a vicarious level that is transfixed by the heroic ethos. This is the Heroic Complex. This metanarrative realm existing independently of genre – yet simultaneously permitting all genres to intermingle and inform each other. Nothing is excluded here; the Heroic Decision (discussed early) has identified the hero and the Heroic Enterprise has transitioned the hero across this liminal boundary, placing them within the Heroic Complex.

 

Works Cited

Levis-Strauss, Claude. The Structuralism of Myth. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 68. No. 270. Nov. 1955. pp. 428-44.

Nicholson, Adam. Why Homer Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

Rollin, Roger B. Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture. College English. Vol. 31. No. 5. Feb. 1970. pp. 431-449.

 

 

 

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