A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. – Joseph Campbell
In my previous post, I discussed the concept of the Heroic Decision. I wished to identify that moment in heroic narrative when a mundane choice becomes transformed by the thoughts of a hero. The moment of decision that moves them forward into danger and defines their heroic status. This however is not enough. Heroics are not thought experiments, they are deeds and for that we need to consider the Heroic Enterprise.
Let’s take the classical myth of Theseus as an example. When Theseus’ mother Aethra was impregnated by Aegeus of Athens (& Poseidon), he told her that if she was to give birth to a son he was to lift a large boulder, take the items that he had placed beneath it and come to Athens. As myth would have it she did indeed give birth to a son, who after growing into an impressive young man was presented with the challenge of the stone. Now this is quite recognizable as the first of many ‘Heroic Decisions’ on the part of young Theseus, but this first test of strength will demonstrate the transformation of this young man into a hero, it will serve as a template for the Heroic Enterprise. A heroic narrative structure that moves beyond plot.
Once Theseus lifts the great stone and sees the sword and sandals of his father under the rock he understands. He has crossed over the liminal space defined by ‘decision’ and moved into the Heroic Enterprise. In this world between mythology and the spirit of drama strong characters can transform their worlds (Ker 37). The Heroic Enterprise grapples with the chaotic forces of a previous world and seeks to establish order. A pattern evidenced in the Heroic Decision, the difference being that here decision becomes action, thought becomes deed.
The Heroic Enterprise moves beyond plot, it is a narrative structure that places the hero in jeopardy while simultaneously signaling to its audience the heroes unique ability to confront this challenge. This challenge can manifest in many ways, yet for now it is sufficient to say that all is not right in the world. Threats from the monstrous ‘other’ or even those from within the more familiar human community are everywhere. The word ‘enterprise’ comes from the latin prendere, prehendere meaning ‘to take’ and today we define enterprise as an ‘undertaking, or something taken up’ – this works great for Theseus as he lifts the great stone, he ‘takes up’ the sword and sandals, and begins a heroic career of action.
Now there is much more that can be said about the Heroic Enterprise but I wanted to simply provide a brief introduction for this foundational element of heroic narrative. Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a 1000 Faces is too specific and has several elements that call out the Monomyth’s limitation as a unified theory of heroic narrative. It is my hope that by simplifying and modernizing aspects of the Monomyth I can begin to define a heroic narrative framework that includes the feminine, the power of choice, creation, intention, action, sacrifice, life and death. But that’s for next time.
Ker, William Paton. Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature, MacMillan and Company Press, 1908.