My essay will analyse the heroes in the following four texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh[68], The Odyssey[69], Mulan[70] and Where the Wild Things Are[71]. These texts were chosen as they differ significantly in context, culture and form. This investigation re

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Weakened But Not Dead

Weakened But Not Dead

The Waning Power of the

Mythological Hero

Student Number: 18565188

Centre Number: 103

English Extension Two Major Work:

Critical Response 2008

Word Count: 4476

We live a storied existence and the mythological hero entrenched in myths are vital to humanity for the reproduction of values and the evolution of civilisation. They inspire each subsequent generation and embody our ideals. Mythological heroes serve as idealised constructions expressing “a deep psychological aspect of human existence”, reflecting and shaping cultures by embracing ethnocentrism and the dominant culture. However, the established heroes of the past such as Gilgamesh and Odysseus are no longer prevalent in the stories we tell ourselves today.

Instead, what we do have are attenuated heroes who manifest heroic tendencies that reflect our own fragmented and hero-less society. Unlike the mythological heroes who undertook long and arduous journeys of self sacrifice and valour, the heroes in modern stories lack the internal fortitude, determination and patience required to undertake such quests. Their weakened status can be associated to the literary form they embody. On the one hand, myths encompass universal truths that are the foundation for human experiences and are of epic proportions. Stories, on the other hand, are generally fictitious and do not usually survive the test of time.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Odyssey are two of the purist hero stories available to well-educated readers. But what do these texts tell us about heroes if we do not read them? Nothing! Hence my reason for choosing two contemporary texts, the film Mulan and the picture book Where the Wild Things Are, that are widely available to both adults and children today. Mulan and Max (the “hero” in Where the Wild Things Are) are not Archetypal Heroes as such but they do reveal heroic tendencies that embody our ideals and values. Although heroes are still alive, even in a weakened form, they are indeed on life support! Gilgamesh was chosen as the base mythological text and will be used to make comparisons to popular stories we read today which lack the calibre of their predecessors. The values these stories explore are not as significant in comparison to the universal concepts explored in myths. Their journey, obstacles and trials are shorter in duration, less momentous and less significant, lacking the inspirational power and self-sacrifice that myths are renowned for.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the original heroic myth described by Joseph Campbell as “the greatest tale of the elixir quest”. Originally an oral tradition, it was later transcribed into twelve clay tablets in cuneiform script in approximately 2700BC in Ancient Mesopotamia. Its epic status is attributable to its archetypal hero Gilgamesh. He is the King of Uruk who is two-thirds god and one-third man. His archetypal role is evident from the onset as “Gilgamesh was a hero who knew secrets and saw forbidden places”. Phrases such as his “immovable presence” and “no one else ever built such walls” emphasises the true heroic qualities he possesses as he personifies all of society’s desires and virtues. His mythic status is due to the immense strength he has, evident through the intertextual link to the God of heaven, Anu in Tablet One; “He is a strength like that of Anu’s swift star”. Gilgamesh is an established hero who was idealised in his respective Mesopotamian society for his inherent courage, physical strength and experience. The heroes of today are measured by far a much smaller scale but significant nonetheless.

Similarly, Homer’s The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem written towards the end of the eighth century BC. Heavily entrenched in Western literature, its continuing popularity is a result of its central mythological hero, Odysseus. He has the distinguishing Homeric traits of strength, nobility, valour and self-belief, all attributes associated with mythic heroes. From the opening stanzas, his epic position is evident through his heroic twenty year quest back home to his wife in Ithaca, “many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home”. Odysseus is the anthropos polytropos, “the man of many ways or tricks”. These introductory phrases build his role as an epic mythological hero. Although heavily appropriated and contextualised, the modern hero no longer projects the same image. 

This epic hero quality is mirrored in Mulan but in a weakened form. The film Mulan is loosely based on the Chinese poem, “The Ballad of Mulan” dating back to the Southern-Northern Dynasty 420-589AD. Much of Mulan’s mythic properties prevalent in the Ballad are lost in the film. In the film, Mulan is presented initially as a damsel in distress, who is transformed into an adventurous shero. Mulan is an outsider in a society that values female beauty, shown when her father Fa Zhou says, “I know my place. It is time you learned yours” and when he prays to “help Mulan impress the matchmaker today”. She does possess heroic tendencies as she is brave, daring and goes against the patriarchal conventions, but she lacks the internal determination and fortitude evident in the heroes of the ancient epics. From the onset, her position is equivalent to that of a servant as she is portrayed in lacklustre clothing consisting of grey and pale tones. She does not have the elevated status of the mythological heroes as she is an inexperienced teenager trying to be the son her father never had. This is again shown through her androgynous disguise as a male soldier, suggesting that her gender prevents her from being a true “hero”. She cuts her hair short and takes her father’s armour in order to appear as a bulky masculine soldier. She reflects on her situation and asks herself, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” which challenges viewers to see her in a different light.

Mythological heroes appear strong and their superior strength is often a medium for their success. However, this waning power is mirrored in Mulan where her femininity provides a physical limitation in an army composed of men. It is evident that she lacks the presence of heroes such as Gilgamesh and Odysseus.  Finally, the reasons behind the construction of Mulan and the ancient epics such as Gilgamesh also differ. The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally an oral text where it informed the citizens of its isolated society that they were mere mortals. On the other hand, Mulan appropriated many elements of these ancient epics to captivate its responders in the aim of generating a sizeable profit for Walt Disney. This is evident through Mulan’s generated revenue of $304 320 254 in 1998.

The waning power of heroes is again reflected through Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak’s polysemic picture book of 37 pages can hardly be called an archetypal myth in comparison to Gilgamesh, which consists of 12 clay tablets. The diminutive nature of Sendak’s book in comparison to the sheer size of Gilgamesh’s tale is testament to the waning power of heroes in modern texts. He explores the heroic quest of Max, a four year old rambunctious child dressed in a wolf suit. Margery Hourihan asserts that his journey, “dramatizes the mastery of patriarchy” as he challenges the gruesome monsters, although an inexperienced and insignificant figure. This is, however, unlikely as his story represents a mere microcosm of a child’s imagination.

The hero’s journey in all three texts differs. The Epic of Gilgamesh follows an archetypal structure that is not found in Mulan and Where the Wild Things Are. The enormity of the task can be compared and contrasted. Gilgamesh’s journey is one of experience, understanding and growth that ultimately changes him and the society he lives in. He “is a man of action and it is in action that he expresses his nature - skill, courage, dominance and determination”. He takes part in an epic journey for immortality. This arduous trek in which he encounters various physical and psychological challenges from villains such as The Bull of Heaven and Humbaba, rivals, gods and even from within, is testament to his mythic status. He finally arrives at Utnapishtim, “the epitome of both life everlasting and death that is eternal”. Gilgamesh is ordered to “stay up with the stars for seven long and sleepless nights” and he will be rewarded with the intangible elixir of immortality. He subsequently fails, evident through his rhetorical question, “Why do I bother working for nothing?” The power of these heroes such as Gilgamesh is that they explore absolute truths that are essential in understanding our human experience. This failure enables Gilgamesh to realise the truth that humans cannot have immortality.

Parallels may be drawn with other lesser heroic quests of self-sacrifice such as that of Orpheus, who travels to the Underworld to save his love, Eurydice. He is given permission to enter the Underworld on the condition that he must walk in front of her until he reaches the Upper World without looking back. He too subsequently fails, as his anxiety makes him break his promise so she fades back into the Underworld a second time, for eternity. These are both examples of how myths encompass universal truths that survive throughout time. Two such truths include the fact that no individual can attain immortality on earth and no mortal returns from the Underworld. Their epic proportions inspire readers to reconcile with mortality as the acceptance of death is the “prerequisite for emotional maturity”. The journeys of these epics are all similar. They all appear insurmountable in their respective supreme ordeals which they overcome. This stage is referred to by Christopher Vogler as the hero’s “inner most cave” where they experience a near-death incident before returning to their society. Nonetheless, despite the many similarities between The Epic Gilgamesh, Mulan and Where the Wild Things Are, they also differ considerably in their journeys, in the nature of their quest and in the values attributed to each individual.

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The journeys such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and many other ancient epics like Homer’s The Odyssey encompass a lengthy time frame in which the hero encounters a plethora of challenges, test and trials necessary for their transformation and development. Odysseus took ten years to journey home to Ithaca following the ten year war against Troy. Their mythic character has resulted in their continual appropriation of a myriad of contemporary texts such as in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain and the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Are Thou? 

Cold Mountain follows the formulaic archetypal structure of The Odyssey. It traces the ...

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