I was speaking to a writer whose work I very much admire tonight and the conversation turned, as conversations between writers inevitably will, to whether there is in fact more than just one story. The one story being “the Hero’s Journey.”
A quick definition for the uninitiated: the hero’s journey was laid out by Joseph Campbell in his infamous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. And that’s a very interesting book if you are a nerd like me, but if you don’t feel like slogging through it, the basic point is that the hero is called to adventure and a quest. After some convincing, the hero goes off on the quest. He overcomes obstacles, he slays dragons, he is changed, he saves the day.
As an example in an actual story: Frodo is called to leave home with the ring to protect the people of middle earth. He has adventure thrust upon him, but he resists. And then when he does undertake the journey, he meets with orcs and wolves and the dangers within the hearts of men, oh my! But he changes through the journey, he becomes strong and grave and something deeper than he was before. And eventually he destroys the ring. And he returns home changed. That is the hero’s journey in a nutshell.
The idea that the hero’s journey–be it high fantasy or merely one student’s discovering the inner strength to overcome bullying–is the only story to be told in children’s literature is nearly ubiquitous. And this makes a certain sense. The idea of a child leaving the safety of home, taking on some personal challenge for himself or herself, growing, and eventually returning to the safety of home, is a soothing idea. It’s natural. And for many children, it actually bears some resemblance to how they grow and gain mastery over their world.
But I want to make two points here. 1) The hero’s journey is actually not the only way to tell a story. The early Welsh cycle of stories, The Mabinogian, from which the earliest sources of the Arthurian Legends emerge, has nary a hero’s journey in sight. These stories are twisted and bizarre, hard to understand in our point-driven, stream-lined narrative culture. And I believe this trend persists in tales from other cultures. But even closer to home: Anne of Green Gables, one of the most beloved children’s tales of all times, is episodic. Anne grows and changes throughout the stories, as anyone alive does, but she is not on a quest, and the only palpable tension that pulls (at least me) through the book, is the question of whether or not she and Gilbert Blythe will finally get together. What really keeps us reading is not a quest, but the delight in a wonderful, loveable character who I think many of us want to be like.
This brings me to my second point, and the one most relevant to this blog: not only are there alternate story structures to the hero’s journey, but I think we do our children a disservice when we only tell the hero’s story. Consider the picture book Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting. In it a child lives with his father in the airport. They are obviously homeless. Though the story ends with hope, by the end of the book they are still homeless. The child has taken no steps to end their homelessness. If we think about the reality of homelessness, there is not much that a young child could realistically do to end his homelessness. And I’m not saying that there is no place for a story where a child uses ingenuity or virtue or intelligence to better his situation, but most children who are homeless are going to remain homeless. In most cases, to portray a child overcoming homelessness would be to downplay the seriousness of the situation. And it would be to misrepresent the likely outcomes of their situation, and their actual control over it.
But this extends further than homelessness to emotional, physical, sexual abuse, to war, to illness, to death and bereavement. For much of the really shitty stuff that kids face, there is no solution. And there is very little that any child can realistically do to “overcome” any of these things while still a legal minor. To write only stories, therefore, where children take these “bulls” by the horns and give them a thorough thrashing, goes counter to reality, and is actually horribly negligent.
I believe hurting children, perhaps even more than other children, need honest narratives that realistically depict their lives. I believe that they need to see children handling their unfixable situations with grace. I believe that they need to have hope by seeing that even if they can’t “solve” their situation, that someone else might step into their lives to help, that one day they might be able to find a way out, that even if their is no easy solution, others have been where they are.
So to those writers who are reading this: you could write an edgy YA about a girl being molested by her father who finally gets fed up, turns him into the police, and goes on to be class president. But I wouldn’t. Kids who are living through hard times deserve for us to write honest narratives that don’t shy away from darkness, and allow for the true ambiguity of life. That girl is not going to get fed up and fix her situation. Maybe a teacher will notice something and inquire and help her into a different life. Or maybe nobody will notice, but there are other parts of life that aren’t so horrid and she’ll survive and one day there will be no more father.
I guess what I’m saying is that there are a million different stories you could tell. When it comes to real pain that kids deal with, though, consider if the hero’s story is the most honest one. And if it isn’t, what other story could you tell instead?