Some dude named Noah Smith had an interesting opinion about LOTR. (Hat tip to Jeffrey for retweeting it.)
One interesting thing about Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits mostly don’t learn to fight, come of age, get the girl, or win the throne. They’re not Campbellian heroes; they’re soldiers in a war. They do their duty and come home with PTSD.
Now, my immediate reaction is that this is entirely wrong. Merry, Pippin, and Sam do all of these things and get all of these rewards. True, you have to read the appendices to learn all the details, but they’re all there– Sam is Mayor, Merry is Master of Buckland, and Pippin– reverting to his dignified name of Peregrin– becomes Took. For them, it is absolutely a Campbellian journey.
Frodo, yes, has a hell of a case of PTSD. He is also far from the fairly idle and naive fellow of Chapter 1, is able to reorder the Shire to his liking, and actually becomes Mayor. He ends up living as an immortal in Eressëa. (Smith went on to say that he interpreted that as a metaphor for death, but no, that’s not what Eressëa means in Tolkien. Aragorn dies normally, Frodo does not.)
This got me interested in what a Campbellian hero is, so the next stop is Wikipedia. This article is pretty interesting, and I’m tempted to go off in a million directions on it. But let’s just focus on what happens to heroes after they defeat the Big Bad.
Campbell is actually pretty perceptive about the difficulty here:
Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock dwelling, close the door, and make it fast.
So a bunch of temporal rewards is not in fact the normal end of the Campbell story. In fact he’s predicting that a return to ordinary life is going to be difficult and unattractive. Frodo’s experience is actually a far better illustration of his point than Sam’s or Aragorn’s.
Let me very unsystematically survey some epics and see what happened at the end.
- Gilgamesh: The hero completely fails his quest. He just goes home. No rewards to speak of, though he retains his day job (king).
- The Odyssey: Odysseus ends up with what he wanted: being back at home, with his wife.
- The Ramayana: Rama loses the girl in a display of nasty suspicion.
- Three Kingdoms: Liu Bei foolishly dies in battle as he’s pursuing the wrong war, for personal vengeance, rather than paying attention to the overall situation of China.
- The Mahabharata: The victors give up their happy life to be pilgrims, and most of them die. But of course this isn’t final in Hinduism.
- Morte D’Arthur: Arthur dies and his circle of knights dissipates.
- Hamlet: Everybody dies, except the one guy who got very few lines and now becomes king.
- The Roland/Orlando saga: Roland fails to defeat the Saracens and dies.
- The Three Musketeers: Porthos and Athos die. Aramis becomes evil. D’Artagnan serves the king faithfully and dies in battle.
- Narnia: Everyone but Susan dies in a train crash. Before that the kids brought to Narnia to improve their souls long for it interminably and seem not very well adjusted at all.
- Star Maker: the Cosmos is rebuffed by the Creator and intelligent life, after lasting billions of years, is quietly extinguished in the heat death of the universe.
- Pullman’s Dust saga: Lyra and Will are separated forever and travel to other worlds is prohibited.
- Hitchhiker’s Guide: Arthur likes a quiet life in a rural area, as much he ever likes anything.
- Snow Crash: Hiro becomes a moderately successful security engineer.
- Laundry novels: I haven’t finished these, but Bob apparently succeeds his boss as some kind of powerful undead.
- Star Wars: Everybody’s happy. Later retconned to: And then it all happens again.
- She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: She-Ra gets the girl.
- Harley Quinn animated series: Harley gets the girl.
- Rocksteady Arkham games: Batman has a really bad night, pisses off all his allies, and apparently kills himself and murders his butler. (Never got to that scene: too many Riddler trophies to solve.)
- Sandman: Sandman racks up just enough maturity to realize that he can never change, so it’s better to die and get reincarnated.
- Little Nemo: Nemo leaves Slumberland and takes a long airship tour. In his very last strip, he goes to watch a farmer shearing sheep.
- In the Land of Babblers: Whether Beretos gets the girl is unknown. The political situation improves for awhile, but after a century it all goes to hell.
If we learn anything from this– and it’s unsystematic, so feel free to learn nothing– it’s that Smith is wrong: the hero does not always end up with power and romance. Even in pure power fantasies, creators seem to realize that endings are bittersweet, and the celebration often gives way to melancholy. And it’s pretty common for stories, even ancient stories, to end unhappily, or in a mood of existential angst.
Beyond that, as Neil Gaiman noted, if you prolong any story it becomes a story about death.
On the other hand, the next stage, according to Campbell, seems like nonsense:
Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another.
I dunno. Do any of the works above end up with a master who “gaily leaps” from the mundane to the extraordinary and back? The whole idea of an epic, one could say, is that some great evil has to be ended so people can go back to a normal life. If you have to keep going, then you didn’t exactly take care of the problem. True, episodic series (Star Trek, Conan, Batman, the detective novel) have to keep going and keep creating new threats. But the price paid is that there is never any closure.