I recently watched yet another gripping episode of Game of Thrones and it got me thinking about the mythic hero quest. You know the ones, the ones where the unlikeliest of people leave home, confront a monster, win treasure and returns home triumphant. Arya Stark runs away, lives on the street, leaves the Hound to die, makes her own way to Braavos… You get the picture
Or, to take a more traditional quest that you may be familiar with; Jason and the Golden Fleece.
Rightful king of Thessaly he is sent on a dangerous quest to retrieve the golden fleece by his usurping uncle Pelias who hopes Jason his die in transit.
Jason and the Argonauts have sex with stinky husband killing women on Lemnos, battle six-armed giants on Doliones, save King Phineas from starvation by killing the harpies and sail safely through the Clashing Rocks.
Then, with the help of future wife Medea, Jason ploughed a field with fire-breathing oxen, defeated an army of warriors and put a dragon to sleep so he could steal the fleece.
Escaping Medea’s father, they get past the Sirens and Talos the bronze man and return home in triumph.
These kinds of hero stories are probably part of the folkloric tradition of all cultures – as a child, I had a wonderful big fat book with big writing and brightly coloured pictures and lots of the same kind of stories in it. And a child’s picture book can’t be wrong can it? I think that even today, these stories offer us timeless truths and guidance, and link us with a long history of heroic problem solving and obstacles overcome by others. And perhaps that is what these stories are about – gaining wisdom, solving problems and benefitting others. And not going into the woods alone at night.
As I see it, the mythic hero quest is a transition of some kind. We have all taken many journeys – we left our childhood to learn who we are. Through our education, we became keepers of arcane knowledge that help or hinder others. Through our travels, we learned that we are connected to others. Some are gradual periods of growth, and others are short sharp shocks where your life changes in an instant. The choices we make today have a ripple effect that flows out through time and space…
My battle with kidney failure has been an ordeal. Through it, I learned the value of persistence; just putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward and not giving up. I learned that suffering is not inherently bad; it fosters strength, inspires others and makes the rewards so much sweeter. It taught me focus and discipline, gave me the ability to ignore irrelevant input and work on the important stuff.
Maybe your battle has been with substances, unemployment or loss. These are all deeply tragic circumstances, but in our human need for meaning, you can choose to infuse them with a significance that makes sense for you in your circumstances. Perhaps you have found you can stand alone, gained self-reliance or learned to take better care of yourself. Regardless, these are valuable particles of hard-won wisdom that are yours forever.
And then, post transplant, I found treasure! The sweetness of orange juice… The frisson of a casual caress… The joy of chasing a dog around the garden… The peace in sitting quietly with a glass of wine watching the sunset with my loved ones all around me. The opportunity to choose.
And just as our ordeals are different so is our treasure. Perhaps yours is a (very expensive) 1998 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay French Champagne, the clean fresh air at the end of Mount Everest’s South Col route or the warmth of your baby’s body. These are all hard won beautiful things that add value to your life, and potentially the lives of others as well.
The traditional end to the heroic quest is that the hero returns home and uses their hard-won knowledge and treasure to heal the land and everyone lives happily ever after.
And in a way, I am returned to life. Probably a better person that I was before I left. I have inspired people, I have made them think about how they tackle their own problems and want to be better people. I know that sounds vain, but that’s what they tell me.
But at the conclusion of this heroic quest, I have to say that I am not a returner – I don’t think I can go back to where I came from. It doesn’t exist anymore. Despite the traditional Stoic opinion that we are doomed (or blessed depending on your perspective) to endlessly repeat exactly the same lives in a never ending loop of universe creation and destruction, I think it’s a spiral. I might circle back, but it’s not going to be the same. Like when you revisit your childhood and everything seems a lot smaller than it was then. After all, Jason and Medea were forced into exile because she was a witch (and that’s a whole other story). Or maybe, it’s just that I have only made it past the stinky husband killing women and the six armed battle giants are next on my agenda…
Are you a returner? Or do you have a metaphorical gypsy caravan so you can keep moving forward? What do you think about those times when you undertook ordeals and won treasure? Do they make you feel stronger?
In case you wondered: Today’s beautiful picture comes from Gothem Church, a medieval Lutheran church on the Swedish island of Gotland. It shows detail from a Gothic ceiling painting; a dragon pierced by the arrows of a neighbouring centaur (who you can’t really see well at this angle but is definitely there).