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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 10
The Heroes Reconsidered

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

A hero, whether royal or common, is essentially a throwback. An examplar of a time when father/right was in formation, still an uncertain condition when heroes were perhaps the norm.


The Premise

The Mythic -- King Arthur

The Medieval -- William the Conqueror

The Modern -- Lawrence of Arabia

Endpaper: The Father's Daughter -- Queen Elizabeth I

This webcolumn #10 includes The Premise and The Mythic -- King Arthur. They are the first in a three-part series on the Heroes. The theory I set forth in the study is revolutionary and unparalleled. It was written during 2005 - 2006.

The Premise

The traditional heroes, well known from compendiums like Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," or Robert Graves's "The Greek Myths," are very established in their story settings, alternatively told but always recognizable, from both myth and fiction since ancient times. Different as the heroes may be from each other, they are at the same time bound by certain striking similarities in their birth circumstances and later development. Such an uncanny kinship pattern must have a pre- and/or post-historic function, a kind of family role to produce a legacy -- an outgrowth of the heroes' trials and tribulations which we know define their journey in early manhood. Social evolution, like Darwin's species progressions, was ever at stake. The heroes were royal male children born of virgin mothers and missing fathers, who must ultimately be located, identified and replaced.Legitimate succession was the issue. But why, and how, were these fathers missing? And why did a worldwide literature develop to memorialize the contests of their sons to find them? The outcome of success or failure in the discovery scheme was acted out against the backdrop of a known system, i.e. legitimate succession.

Typical in the hero story is the pre-natal warning to have the infant killed or at least exposed, left to die or to be found and adopted by lowly folk, lest he grow up to find his father and slay him. The hero, then, was a threat to the established order. Nonetheless, the order needed him. My thesis in "The Heroes Reconsidered" rests on this question: What demand did the hero fulfill? We have no way of knowing just how established the patriarchy was during the times the hero myths were created. But we can guess not all that well, when heroes abounded to challenge it. They were swing figures, harking back to pre-patriarchal times when males grew up in maternal enclaves, and forward to a system in formation which required paternal proof of inheritance. The institutionalization of father/right came with a hidden tradition for ensuring succession from father to son should legitimate means fail.The heroes were not just literally hidden; they belonged to a secret, perhaps unconscious, plan for guaranteeing continuity in the paternal line. Their legacy still operates today, as I will show in the story of T.E. Lawrence, known popularly as Lawrence of Arabia. Further back, the medieval William the Conqueror also bears all the hero marks. King Arthur straddles myth and history, with his mythic origins arising in the early 1100s just when England was in the throes of a patrilineal crisis. Amongst the people at large, the story of the hero has unwittingly unfolded through the shameful rubric of "unwed motherhood" -- a condition that has led to a modern form of state-sponsored adoption, more rarely these days to exposure or infanticide. But in any quest to locate and claim a missing father, the common man partakes of the hero myth.

Quite apart from the compendiums, several revolutionary studies have focused on the common biographies of heroes. In the earliest, 1876, Austrian scholar Johann Georg von Hahn used 15 hero cases, and 16 incidents from their lives, to argue that they all follow a comprehensive "exposure and return" formula. Among his 15 examples are Perseus, Oedipus, Theseus, Cyrus, and Romulus and Remus.Van Hahn was evidently the first to identify a pattern or formula. And he would become the only author to identify the hero unequivocally as "illegitimate." "Principal hero illegitimate" is von Hahn's first entry. Next, he has the mother as the "virgin daughter of a native prince." Thirdly, the father as "a god or a stranger." Then the omen or prophecy warning of death to the father, followed by the exposure and rescue. Von Hahn makes sure in his list of 15 to exclude Oedipus from the status of illegitimacy, saying he was an "exception in being legitimate." (Oedipus can also be seen as a hero who, upon exposure and abandonment, was delegitimized following his legitimate birth). Clearly von Hahn deduced what might seem all too obvious, that a child born of a "virgin" mother, with a god or stranger for father, and cast out at birth to be rescued and adopted by animals or lowly folk, must be illegitimate. He connected the myth with social reality as he knew it -- though he went no further to draw any conclusions connecting these mythic births with underlying anthropological issues or cultural developments.

Otto Rank's "The Myth of the Birth of the Hero," first published in 1914, is the best known study uniting the heroes as a kind of family across territories and cultures. Rank outlined the histories of 15 of these royal or divinely conceived heroes, among them Jesus, Moses, Cyrus, Sargon, Perseus, Lohengrin and Oedipus. Then he cross-referenced them for eight traits in common. Rank was one of Freud's acolytes, so his lengthy interpretation of the myths is unsurprisingly anchored in Freud's "family romance" theory, which has the neurotic child imagining a royal couple replacing his disappointing parents. The two sets of parents are represented in the mythologies by a lowly couple who raise the child after finding him exposed, or turn him over to be raised by a foreign king; and the distinguished couple the child must find, in famously versatile and surreal ways, upon growing up, in particular the father, whose status he will be seen at large to inherit. Central to Freud's theory is of course the myth of Oedipus, making Rank's Oedipus in turn his most important "hero." Freud's autobiographical embrace of Oedipus is duplicated and claimed by Rank. But at our remove of a century, Rank's identification of a pattern far outweighs his Freud-derived fantasy, especially when we find his model echoed independently in the work of other authors.

In 1934 the maverick English scholar Lord Raglan (F.R. Somerset) published his schema in a long article titled "The Hero of Tradition," later published as a book, "The Hero" (1956). He never read Rank but was familiar with the "Freudian explanation," which he scorned, along with any other psychological rationale. Raglan was himself very influenced by Sir James Frazer's study in "The Golden Bough" of ancient kingship in which kings were ritually put to death. The crossroads killing of Laius by his son Oedipus, for example, shows the hero fighting a king he will succeed, his own father but unknown to him as such, a figure who must be ritually, e.g. seasonally, deposed. Frazer places Christ in a certain descendency from the pagan gods who rose and died with the seasons. Lord Raglan's hero formula, headed up by the familiar birth dyad, is more developed than Rank's. He provides brief biographies of 21 heroes and identifies 22 features of their lives and deaths, uniting them as a "family" of brothers it could be said, crossing many cultures, though the Greek heroes predominate (12 out of 21) in his plan, as they do in other lists. Raglan's fourth characteristic, part of the birth equation, is "unusual conception." Rank's correlate is difficulty in conception. Raglan says, "The circumstances in which our hero is begotten are very puzzling." The father appears frequently as a god whose guise may be a thunderstorm, a bull, a swan, or a shower of gold.

In the case of King Arthur the legendary 5th century a.d. Celtic hero, included by Englishman Raglan but not Rank (an Austrian) except in passing, the man who would become his father, Uther Pendragon, a king, disguises himself by magical means as the husband, a duke, of the woman he finds beautiful and wants to have. When Arthur is born he is spirited away and raised in a distant part of the country. His removal is equivalent in its way to the exposure, or abandonment, which figures in every hero tale. At the outset, omens or prophecies have cautioned against the hero's birth, usually threatening danger to the father. In consequence there are attempts on his life, succeeded by a chance to survive, most being set afloat in a box or secreted in a basket (the "exposure" theme), there to be discovered and saved by an animal, a shepherd or the like, and nurtured through infancy.Typically, the details of the hero's childhood are unknown, but for the fact that he is raised by foster parents far from "home." His young adulthood then becomes a struggle against great odds in the quest for his future kingdom, the place where he originated, the father who as often as not had tried to kill him at birth. Typically also, the hero meets with a mysterious death. And like Arthur, may be said to have not really died at all. Arthur would come again and reign over England -- the once and future king. In Christ, we have the world's best known "second coming."

At the heart of the classic hero's story, so powerful in its redundancy and diffusion throughout the world, is a patrilineal crisis that the hero is charged, albeit in his innocence, with solving.His "illegitimacy" is his blueprint for action. A hero is essentially a throwback, an exemplar of a time when father/right was in formation, still an uncertain condition -- when heroes were perhaps the norm. The parental chaos of Greek mythology, with a hero around every turn, suggests this.

Of the three English heroes I have chosen to illustrate my premise, only King Arthur, with the slimmest evidence for his actuality in history, has the mythic status of traditional heroes. William the Conqueror (10281087) the medieval vanquisher, of unquestionable reality, hardly qualifies. Nor obviously does T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (18881935), the unlikely 20th century military idol of the Middle East. Yet the illegitimate births of William and Lawrence, their lofty stations in life, both inherited and acquired, their military conquests, all unite them with Arthur, especially with Arthur the figure of narrative imagination. The invented Arthur makes up hugely for the few facts of his supposed reality. This can be said of many traditional heroes, for instance Roland of France, and Romulus of Rome. It is precisely the invention, the myth, which can be viewed as lining the hero of tradition up with such historic figures as William and Lawrence. Where the myth has evolved from very little or for that matter nothing demonstrably true, in the case of historic figures like William and Lawrence their lives can be resolved backwards so to speak into the pattern of hero mythology. Helped along by posthumous embroideries or reductive schemes, real larger-than-life greats can easily fit established profiles. The hero typology developed by Johann von Hahn, Otto Rank and Lord Raglan -- with its biographical markers and watershed moments -- is just such a profile.

William and Lawrence are united with Arthur and all other traditional heroes by their drive to conquer, to claim worlds even exceeding their own, to join disparate realms, and commit extraordinary feats in securing their place in a family dynasty and/or history. The hero ventures forth in the middle of every list such as Rank's or von Hahn's to slay giants, dragons, monsters, et al, on their way back to origins and the father, whom he will generally kill. He was born illegitimately, a concept with different meanings at stages in pre-history, e.g. the time of the Greek Olympians, or nascent history -- a vast period during which father/right slowly and painfully gained ground toward the institution of patriarchy, with its supporting establishment of marriage.

Tales with the motivating factor of a prophecy that an unborn child will take over a kingdom reflect a sophisticated dynastic milieu, in which hereditary kingship and problems of succession are of great importance. The welfare and fate of kings were for many centuries critical to their people, whose survival depended on them.


The Mythic

King Arthur

The Celtic hero King Arthur, while on a certain cusp between myth and history -- he was said to have existed around the 470s a.d. and to have been the military leader of 12 battles -- became most importantly a figure of myth. Heralded in Welsh poetry, song, and popular lore from the time of his supposed existence, it wasn't till 1136 that Arthur came into national focus. In that year, Geoffrey of Monmouth's amazing piece of fiction, "A History of the Kings of Britain," featuring Arthur as a great warrior who quelled the invading Saxons, was published. His book was written at a moment of great anxiety in the land, when a disputed royal succession threatened to tear the sovereignty apart. In 1135, Henry I, son of the great Norman Duke, William the Conqueror, had died without an heir. State cohesion was still a fragile and developing entity in early medieval times. In England for instance, when William was crowned after forcibly taking over, he centralized the state under his authority well beyond its prior conformation of quarreling and quasi-independent earldoms. With the patrilineal crisis about 70 years later, William's son Henry I dying with no heir apparent, the new foundation of the state as a political alliance between Normandy and England seemed imperiled. Henry I, like his father the Conqueror, held the dual rank of King of England and Duke of Normandy. The link between state continuity and a legitimate successor was critical. A father, either in form of the king or his council (called a witan in old England), must identify a proper son to perpetuate the state.

Where legitimacy is at stake, its obverse, illegitimacy, is inevitably a concern, a concern harking back to a remote time when -- as some anthropologists believe -- the link between copulation and pregnancy had not yet been made. Robert Graves, a believer in this theory, has said, "Once the relevance of coition to child-bearing had been officially admitted ... winds or rivers were no longer given credit for impregnating women." Whether this is true or not, doubt and apprehension are endemic to the state of legitimacy. If illegitimacy looms or seems imminent, as with the vacuum created by Henry I's failure to produce an heir, an extraordinary story may emerge to show how the hoped for outcome of legitimacy can be achieved. Such was the tale of the legendary Arthur. In bestowing on Arthur an illegitimate birth, sine qua non of a threatened existence, mandatory to overcome, Geoffrey of Monmouth had tapped into the classic hero tradition. The boy, rising to the heights of accomplishment and glory, mirrored England's dilemma and eventual triumph. His supernatural status -- the mark of a hero -- derived from the mysterious conjugation of his father, King Uther Pendragon with Ygerna, the Duke of Cornwall's wife. It made Arthur a mediative figure between gods and men -- greater than men, yet of men. Such a luminary was always born of an unknown father and a demonstrable mother with dual status as virgin. Suspended between worlds, it was not enough for the unknown father to remain unknown. For the hero to exist and be effective, his father had to be identified and claimed. There had to be an explanation. This was required on earth by an ever-evolving institution of patriarchy. In Christendom, which resonates significantly with its pagan origins, its hero Jesus of Nazareth, is for all time suspended. His father was God, and also Joseph. As a religious or theological fabrication, he is much closer to the Greek heroes than to the later Arthur of Britain.

Like Jesus, the Greek god Heracles comes down to us with a mortal father, Amphitryon, and the divinity Zeus. Amphitryon, similarly to Joseph, became a kind of foster-father to his own son. The manner of conception is told differently -- Zeus, like Arthur's father the Celtic king, disguised himself as the husband of a beautiful woman (Alcmene) in order to seduce her, while God in the Christian story appears more abstractly (to the Virgin Mary) as a messenger in the form of an archangel -- but they belong to the same family of hero myth. Jesus was probably the legitimate son of Mary and Joseph (his legitimacy has been contested or questioned by writers over the centuries), but long before Christian theology congealed in its glorious abstractions in 385 a.d. with the Nicene Creed, the birth of Jesus was cast by apostolic accounts in ambiguous terms reflecting pagan mythologies. Eventually, the messenger or archangel became the Holy Spirit or Ghost. The mortal father in pagan stories who tries to kill the infant who might supplant him becomes King Herod in the infancy of Jesus, with his father Joseph as one of his rescuers. Early Christians tapped into the classic hero tradition to create their story of Christ, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth did in writing about King Arthur in the 1100s. Arthur and Jesus were not royal children to begin with. Their mythographers had the task of elevating them to kingly status. With Jesus, we see a culmination of pagan mythology in a figure of questionable fatherhood stranded between heaven and earth, yet further poised between two worlds of structural belief: pantheism in which the gods preceding him reigned, and the advance of monotheism, a single godhead, representing a much greater confidence in paternity. All those earlier gods wandering around impregnating unsuspecting women at will were in some sense a father-defiant lot. Jesus was upgraded as the Only Son of One God, a way of saying Only One Father. And an entire civilization got going with this.

King Arthur, in his mythic importance to Britain, collects a godlike manna unto himself. But he is a local "god," and he belongs more strictly to matters of state rather than religion. All things Arthurian have been labeled "The Matter of Britain," a phrase standing for a certain synonymity between Arthur and Britain. Just as Roland is the figurehead of "The Matter of France," and Romulus, "The Matter of Rome." The mythic Arthur as we know him was born in the wake of a difficult patrimonial passage in 12th century England.

Imagine a constitutional crisis in the United States should the term limit for presidents be challenged under conditions of terrorist or nuclear threats. A president holding office in such conditions might seek to extend his term beyond the constitutional limit, throwing the statutory succession into fractious dispute and raising the specter of dictatorship -- the very sort of state the founding fathers left behind in 1776 in defeating England's George III. The nation could get worried and civil war-disposed. A storied or real hero or both who might lead the nation out of its impasse would become devoutly wished for, perhaps actively sought.

Before Henry I of England died in 1135, he forced a group of his barons to recognize his daughter Matilda as his successor. But Matilda, widow of Henry V the Emperor of Germany, now remarried to Geoffrey of Anjou, was in the end deemed unacceptable, and the crown passed instead to Stephen of Blois, another grandchild of the Conqueror's. Stephen was the son of the Count of Blois and the Conqueror's daughter Adela. With his coronation, the dominion ruled by Henry I was kept intact, but Matilda and her husband, with French interests beyond Normandy, were not happy, and a long period of strife and civil war ensued over Matilda's claims. All Europe was concerned. It was of vital interest to Western Christendom whether the Norman dominion in the North would cohere or disintegrate. At last, with Stephen's death in 1154, order was restored when Matilda's and Geoffrey's son Henry was crowned. Henry II, great-grandson of the Conqueror, held an awesome collection of titles: King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and Duke of Aquitaine through his famous wife Eleanor.

The Arthurian myth, a tale with paternal uncertainty and irregularity at its heart, simulated in a rather fantastic way the hereditary emergency in England's ruling dynasty attending the death of Henry I in 1135. The fictional consummation of King Arthur's strange birth (much elaborated in the 15th century by Sir Thomas Malory in "Le Morte d'Arthur") reflects the political resolution in Anglo/Norman affairs with the accession of Henry II. Malory's updated Arthur by the way was published in 1485, the very year that Henry VII was crowned, resolving the crisis of succession played out in the Wars of the Roses, ushering in the Tudor line with Henry's victory on the battlefield at Bosworth. Henry VII was the grandson of a Welsh commoner, with weak to nonexistent claims to the throne on his father's side. Here I am not suggesting a direct connect in the minds of people between their political plight and a story that limned it. Rather that myth and reality, especially as they arise together and have potent foundations and desires, will tend to be subconsciously conflated. Arthur's embrace by his father as proper heir, and his subsequent martial feats in overcoming the Saxons, brought a period of order and prosperity to the Britons. The reinstatement in 12th century England of the direct line of succession from William the Conqueror in Henry II brought an end to hostilities led by Matilda and her Angevin husband, ushering in a similar peace and stability. The "illegitimate" threat -- from the female side, not just the Conqueror's granddaughter Matilda, but including Stephen's maternal ancestry through his mother Adela -- was over. With the distaff bloodline usually dormant, how, one could wonder, might Stephen's reign have fared had Matilda not pressed her claim?

State dissolution can be internal, but history is rife with invasions that wreck existing civilizations. In my study of Arthur, there are parallels between the real and fictional menaces to England from abroad. Geoffrey of Monmouth drew of course on the actual Teutonic Saxons of Arthur's era for his external endangerment to the kingdom. The historic equivalent in the time he was writing dwelled in the duchies of France, roiled up by Matilda. The issues, both real and fictional, revolve around inheritance, and the urgencies of father/right. From the 12th century onwards, the visionary kingdom of Arthur, defined by a triumph over the serious obstacle of an improbable birth, hovered behind the real kingdom of his supposed successors who wore the English crown. Arthur's Britain rooted itself in the national imagination.

To be continued....

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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