Real Quests and Heroes

A year ago tonight, Charming was born.  In the annals of my blog, I dubbed him a prince after our first face-to-face meeting in more than a decade.  My sophomores are studying archetypes again, like the week before that post, again fixating on the function of setting, conflict, and plot in revealing a theme.  I declared him a hero before I could possible predict what theme would manifest itself through our acquaintanceship.

I polled my kids to explain who their personal heroes were and why.  The qualities that emerged repeatedly were perseverance, self-sacrifice, love, and inspiration.  The desire to be like their heroes became a refrain throughout all my classes.  Then, I introduced archetypes, explaining them as recurrent characters, symbols, and scenarios we all intuitively recognize.

It’s why we’ll assume that the step-mother in a story is evil even if we happen to be a great one, at home getting ready to make the kids a bedtime snack right now.  It’s why Breaking Bad is set in the desert, symbolizing despair, hopelessness, and loneliness.  It’s why when I leave out the word “personal” and simply ask my students to describe the qualities of a hero, they’ll offer up bold, courageous, strong, and fearless… quite different from their admired qualities in their personal heroes explored just fifteen minutes before.   Now, they name off Hercules, Batman, and Captain America.

Perhaps a more familiar term with associated meaning would be a stereotype.  The stereotypical hero saves a damsel in distress as a part of his quest.  When I penned Charming into existence, I did so on a whim, and I was adamant that I was not, in fact, a damsel in distress.  I didn’t need saving.  When he was just a three-hour conversation on a weekend, I was still dressing out in the Rugged Individualist archetype, perfectly capable of solving my own problems.

Perhaps I was even trying to be my own hero, on a quest to find significance for my life absent any hopes for a husband or children.  And this is where archetypes are most relevant to our lives.  When we read a story or watch a movie, characters typically maintain one of these identities throughout the duration.  In reality, I think we move in and out of different roles more like characters do over the course of a trilogy or seasons of episodes.

At varying points in my life, I’ve been able to identify with the innocent in the coming of age story, the doomed mistress to a star-crossed lovers scenario, and admittedly to the damsel in distress, varied versions of the same story carried out with half a dozen different protagonists in as many cities over the past twenty years.  A myriad of favored books and TV shows circulate through my inventory, and not surprisingly, a brief accounting shows they reflect the current state of my own character.

A year ago, after naming him, I explained, “He’s charming because he’s like fall.  The temperature moves between warm and cool, different memories triggering the varied sides of him.  His insights, stories, suggestions, and confessions made him brilliantly colorful.  And there’s a fire just starting to warm the brisk, dark nights of his soul. .”

If we rewind WordPress to one week before that, I declared that I was falling in love with fall, and that a prince’s only quest with me would be to break through the cynical repercussions of my past.  I wrote that the story I was writing wasn’t about Prince Charming yet.  I used those words.  Four days later, I met him.  Three more days, and I didn’t realize I was beginning a new story already.

I couldn’t see it when I was in it.  I couldn’t see that there was a part of me that did need saving.  It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I’d righted my relationship with God that I could see where my quest for significance had brought me, that I’d reached the climax in the story, where meaning and purpose would come through fulfillment in Him.  Charming wasn’t the hero.  I was the innocent, like Frodo, unaware of my own tragic flaw.  He was Sam, the faithful companion, helping me on my quest.

I had to finish writing that story, I had to complete the quest that I was on in my life before there could be another plot line.  And I couldn’t see it when I was in it, but Charming played an integral part in restoring my faith.  I didn’t see that the falling action and resolution had ended… not really until now, looking back at my own words and thoughts from a year ago.  And I’m not sure that the quest Charming was on when he met me has been fulfilled yet either, after he emerged from his own dark night.

Even the fashion-challenged among us know what it means to fish through the closet in search of the clothing, shoes, and accessories that fit the “look” that we’re going for that day.  If I’m going for sporty, I choose a T-shirt, workout shorts, tennies, and a hoodie.  We understand that certain items are intuitively recognized as going together.

The same is true for an author when attempting to weave a certain message about life into a short story.  He starts with that theme.  Ray Bradbury, writing in the 1950’s, observed the shift into reliance on technology for entertainment, and imagined for us a writer walking the silent streets of a city in 2053.  Archetypes are timeless.  We’re reading this short story, The Pedestrian, in 2016, where we can identify with this theme tenfold.  Bradbury keeps emphasizing how cold and dark it is, making comparisons of his current surroundings to a desert and a graveyard.

It fits the “look” that Bradbury was going for in that story, the statement about society that he wanted to make.  He created a world in which technology had led to alienation and isolation in the future.  He used the Outcast archetype, banished by society for failing to conform to the norm, walking outside while everyone else is watching television.  It fits the “look” Bradbury was going for.

That story was set in November, where you could see your breath like puffs of smoke.  But in September, I don’t even need a jacket yet.  That’s the fall I love, and it fit the story I was writing before I met Charming.  Something was coming to an end.  My summer plants died, and I’d planted autumn mums instead.  I retired my hydrangeas and put out a scarecrow and pumpkin display.  My quest to find meaning absent love had ended in a church pew, and I started writing another story, playing another role without realizing it.

A year and a week ago, I wrote that I would fall in love when I met my perfect match.  Four days later, that story began.  We met initially simply to swap stories about life after divorce.  I couldn’t have anticipated that we would begin to share stories, living life after divorce together.  Charming’s my perfect match for the look I’m going for, and he is a hero… because of the qualities like my kids named, not the archetype.  Superman doesn’t fit the look I’m going for in this story.

He inspires me to want to be better, to be more like him.  I think Charming’s quest is to find happiness and mine is to find love.  We’re only in the rising action here.  Unlike Bradbury, I still don’t know what theme is going to be revealed in our story, but I like that we’ve come full circle through four seasons to falling leaves again.  Because of Charming, I see fall as potential.  As hope.  As promise.

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It’s the right setting for the theme I’m hoping will manifest itself, that fall will turn to winter to spring to summer, and I’ll be falling in love with fall and Charming all over again.  We’ll probably be playing different roles in new quests and journeys, but somehow facing them together weaves those story lines together so seamlessly that it’s difficult to discern where his quest ends and mine begins.

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