What happens to heroes

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.

Eressëa (artist’s rendering)

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.

Trump, with hindsight

It might be interesting, five nightmare years later, to look at what Trump looked like 4.5 years ago and what he looks like today. In particular, I’m going to review my own posting from March 2016, written during the primary season.

Now, my basic thesis then was that Trump was a was a bad man– “a blowhard racist and proto-fascist”, but the other candidates were even crazier. Looking at some specific predictions:

If elected, he would do bad things.  But these are precisely the bad things that any Republican candidate would do, and which he would do because he agrees with the GOP Congressional leadership: pass a huge tax cut for the rich, name a neo-Scalia to the Supreme Court, repeal Obamacare, ignore climate change, deport illegal immigrants, build a wall on the border, reverse gay marriage, restrict abortion, be aggressive abroad, and return to torture.

Pretty correct, and where it’s not, Trump was not as bad as expected. He failed to repeal Obamacare, gay marriage is still legal, and he didn’t start any new wars. Torture hasn’t been in the news the way it was during Bush’s term, though maybe it’s just that it’s been crowded out of the news cycle..

Trump is just an intensification of GOP strategy for the last eight years: rile up the base’s anger, encourage government dysfunction, court white men by opposing every other group, aggressively disregard the facts.

I’d state this stronger today– his penchant for outright lying wasn’t quite as salient then– but this is essentially correct.

The other main point was that the other candidates were worse. To some extent, conservatives feared that Trump wouldn’t be conservative enough– but he turned out to be nasty enough for them. He reduced legal immigration by half– as Ted Cruz demanded. He refused to negotiate with the Palestinians, and trashcanned the Iran deal– as Cruz and Rubio demanded. He came around to their views on gun control and abortion.

On the other hand, he completely ignored Cruz/Rubio ideas like a flat tax, abolishing the IRS, defunding Planned Parenthood, and carpet-bombing the Middle East.

At the moment, of course, Trump is attempting to overturn an election where he got walloped. This too was predictable– he declared the 2016 election fraudulent before it happened. I’d point out that though the coup is likely to sizzle out, it basically has the support of the GOP in Congress, and that the actual Plan A for stealing the election– voter suppression– was the very serious work of local Republicans. Trump has no monopoly on GOP attempts to undermine democracy.

This isn’t to say that Trump didn’t supply his own style of crazy. No one could really have predicted his love-fest with Kim Jong-un, his proposal to buy Greenland, his sharing of confidential intel with the Russian ambassador. No one else was in a position to do so much overt corruption. Nothing required the GOP to ignore and mishandle the Covid epidemic, and though it’s hard to imagine Ted Cruz handling it well, maybe he’d merely have handled it as badly as Boris Johnson. Oh wait, that turns out to be worse than the US. (919 deaths/1M pop vs. 874.)

Anyway, the main point is: it was pretty clear how bad a president Trump would be; also how bad a president Cruz or Rubio would have been.

As I said last month, Trump was a far better candidate in 2016, not least because he was so hard to pin down. Was he going to be a conservative or a populist? Did he want to raise taxes or lower them? Would he march lockstep with Paul Ryan or go his own way? In poli sci terms, it was an interesting approach, because the actual voters are far more populist than the conservative candidates and pundits.

In many ways Trump caved to the conservatives. There was no talk of raising taxes on the rich, after all. On the other hand, he may have damped down some of the GOP’s enthusiasm for cutting Social Security, destroying health care, attacking the IRS, and championing free trade. Remember Paul Ryan’s plans, or threats, for 2017?