They are a medium to explore the value of loyalty as they are transformed from rivals to partners, “hold my hand in yours… let us ascend as one”39 in Tablet IV. This emphasises the necessity of mythological heroes in all texts as they enforce values such as friendship, trust, courage and strength both physically and psychologically as components for success. Furthermore, the foundation for Gilgamesh’s archetypal quest is the numerous trials and tests he encounters in their many forms. In Gilgamesh and Odysseus’s journeys, “the heroes’ ultimate triumph is always assured”40.
This is evident when Gilgamesh is tempted by Ishtar, the Goddess of Fertility. She sexually manipulates Gilgamesh, “come to me and be my groom. Let me taste all parts of you, treat you as husband”41. However, through his quasi-celibate characteristics and psychological strength he rejects her advances stating, “These pets and people you destroyed inform my view of how you act so I will not make love with you”42 as “the hero typically avoids any significant sexual involvement for such a relationship would compromise his dedication to his mission”43.
This epic clearly shows his inspiring transformation from the misogynistic and dehumanising values he once possessed as he hoarded “the vices of other men for his own purpose”44 to a respectable and inspirational king. Following this, the Bull of Heaven is sent down by the Gods to destroy Gilgamesh and Enkidu. However, they overcome this trial, murdering the beast. They take its horns and “enshrine them in a palace of honour”45. This shows the epic status of mythological heroes as they are able to successfully confront death, transcending its power on numerous occasions.
This is juxtaposed to Homer’s The Odyssey, where Odysseus compromises values of quasi-celibacy to uphold the values of intelligence. His men are transformed into swine at the hands of the femme fatale goddess, Circe. She then proceeds to seduce Odysseus when she exclaims, “We two shall mingle and make love upon our bed. So mutual trust may come of play and love”46. Odysseus uses his intellectual superiority to make love with her on the count that she reverses the evil spell placed on his men.
He sacrifices the mythic hero’s typical quasi- celibate state in order to save his men. In doing so, he displays the values of intelligence and trust entrenched in the mythological hero. These values are less evident in the modern texts. The values of loyalty, friendship, patriotism, determination and commitment evident in Odysseus’ quest are still evident in contemporary texts but they lack the depth or significance to inspire and shape responders. From the onset of her heroic quest, Mulan represents some heroic characteristics such as bravery, filial love and initiative.
She transforms these recessive feminine qualities by battling the White Huns, ultimately being victorious. This is evident when the Chinese Emperor states, “I have heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan. You stole your father’s armour, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonoured the Chinese Army, and destroyed my palace! And you have saved us all”. However, feminists may find that she is weakened and diminished as a shero because she returns home, back to domestic life and anonymity.
From empowering its female audience by forbidding “the presumption that women are innately selfless, weak, or passive”47, the ending provides readers with a form of social education and commentary by portraying women as second class citizens because her freedom is taken away. Being a highly viewed and consumed film, it is clear that it appeals in some ways to society’s need for heroes. On the other hand, the most recognisable value Sendak conveys to his readers is that of patriarchy. The “wild rumpus”48 is initiated by Max and he dictates when it stops, when he commands, “Now stop!
“49 This is however, ironic as Sendak uses a boy in his story to assert male dominance and optimism. Responders don’t expect the heroes to be too young as is the case in this picture book. Furthermore, rather than explore a variety of quasi-heroic values, Where The Wild Things Are acts as a reflection of the period it was published. It was written in America in 1963, a period buoyed by the social exploration and cultural rebellion of adolescents leaving home on a journey. This is evident through Max’s rebellious behaviour towards his mother, culminating when he screams, ‘I’ll eat you up”50.
This demonstrates how modern texts often explore the context of their composition as opposed to the characterisation of their hero, thus accounting for their weakening portrayal. There is always a catalyst for which these different heroes embark on their quests, and this too, can be a differential factor showing the decline of the mythological hero as they “come back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”51. For Odysseus, it was to uphold the sacredness of his family by returning to them after twenty years, barely recognisable.
Similarly, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with no tangible reward but with the knowledge and moral implication that the only means humanity can achieve immortality is through the lasting works of his civilisation and culture found in the walls of the city he rules. This is significant as readers are actively involved in his mythic journey. He confirms their mortality, making the Epic a celebratory poem of what makes us human. This significant elixir is not mirrored in texts such as Mulan. She receives the tangible reward of a necklace with the crest of the Emperor, the highest honour and is told, “The world will know what you have done for China”.
However, this heroic boon loses its significance as previously mentioned, she returns home to her family. Instead of continuing on her quest for gender equality in Ancient China by “transgressing the gender divide”52, she conforms to her societal role. This is an explicit example of how modern stories lack the mythological heroic qualities and substance found in texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s journey commences when he is told by his mother to go “to bed without eating anything”53 as a result of his mischievous behaviour. He is emotionally blind, believing his mother’s love has disappeared.
Moreover, he returns from his quest knowing that the imbalance which sent him on his journey is corrected. This is portrayed in the final scene of the book where his mother left “his supper… and it was still hot”54. Order is restored as mirrored in the various lunar stages. It is originally crescent shape but as his balance is restored, it progressively becomes full and perfect. Here, the child’s journey is concerned with his egocentric stage of development as it is an inner journey of discovery and identity more so than a quest. In comparison to the ancient epics, this text demonstrates a hero of another kind.
Max takes a journey that each individual must take through apparent dangers to a safe homecoming, not unlike Odysseus. The waning power of the mythological hero in modern texts is evident through the lack of certain qualities such as sacrifice and even self-sacrifice. The adversities and trials that must be conquered can often result in death or near – death experiences. The notion of self-sacrifice is a predominant theme in Western culture based on the Bible. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, his journey is clearly one of self-sacrifice as before he can return to Uruk, he must “descend and disappear, at last, into the night womb of the grave”55.
For Gilgamesh, his sacrifice was the archetypal quest he embarked on to discover the elixir of immortality. He travelled across “arduous, horrid treks… to extremes of hot and cold”56. Although ultimately failing, he demonstrates the moral and thematic concerns of persistence and resilience through his actions. This is elucidated by Margery Hourihan’s description, “no victory is sufficient, for the next challenge lies ahead”57. Many parallels of self-sacrifice can be drawn with other epic texts such as The Odyssey.
On his complex journey home, Odysseus asks Circe to foresee what he would face on his journey home. She replies that he will battle Scylla, a horrific sea monster whose “legs-and there are twelve-are like great tentacles, unjointed, and upon her serpent necks are borne six heads like nightmares of ferocity… no seaman ever, in any vessel can claim to have passed her without loss or grief”58. He is, however, unfazed, continuing on his quest, only asking, “Can I fight off Scylla when she raids my crew? “59 This shows his intelligence and personal sacrifice in arming himself for the inevitable encounter.
Through his courage, they manage to defeat Scylla, losing only six men before continuing their journey. This paradigm of self-sacrifice, the true epitome of the mythological hero is apparent in Where the Wild Things Are but in an attenuated form. As Max embarks on his heroic quest, overcoming minor adversities and thresholds, the book’s frames progressively get bigger until they expand onto the double-page spread depicting the “wild rumpus”60. Throughout this rumpus, Max is portrayed as the monsters, superior in so far as he is positioned physically above them. He is wearing a crown and holding a sceptre.
Max asserts his dominance as he becomes “king of all wild things”61. However, he is willing to give up being “king of where the wild things are”62 in order to return to the safety and sanctity of his home “to be where someone loved him best of all”63. This is a different homecoming to that of Mulan. The concept of sacrifice is reflected on an even weakened form in Mulan. Her loyalty to her family and to China sparked her decision to replace her father in the army. Her sacrifice is portrayed through symbolism of her hair comb, representative of her femininity and her past life.
She leaves her hair comb on her bed, before secretly departing for the Chinese Imperial Army, revealing her self-sacrifice as she is initiated into a foreign world. While ancient and epic mythic heroes such as Gilgamesh and Odysseus were willing to sacrifice their lives for a better society, most modern heroes tend to be more selfish and egocentric. In conclusion, it is clear that the power of the mythological hero has weakened and changed in contemporary texts. They have been transformed from heroic warriors such as Gilgamesh and Odysseus into figures with which today’s society can more readily identify.
Modern heroes such as Mulan and Max, lack the epic proportions, values and challenges their predecessors encountered. Even though the mythological heroes are not widely read today outside academic circles, their values and ideas are still appropriated and reflected in recent films such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars64 and Batman: The Dark Knight65. These texts provide a form of revival of the hero figure. Modern day technology such as animation is a new vehicle for popularising a new hero in a different context. The hero is not dead, but has merely taken on a different form to suit the changing world.
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English Extension Two Major Work: Critical Response 2008 Word Count: 1470 Bertolt Brecht once stated “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”67. It was these words that inspired me to write a critical response on the changing nature of the hero found in myths and modern texts. My essay, entitled “Weakened But Not Dead: The Waning Power of the Mythological Hero”, was written to compare the established mythic heroes of the past and their modern equivalents found in the stories we tell ourselves. Heroes have always existed across texts, times and cultures for the role they play in disse.