Friday, September 08, 2023

A Hero Journey

Max is sent to his room for making mischief. His walls become the word all around and Max, a young boy, steps out into it, boarding a boat that sails on an ocean that tumbles by, sailing night and day, in and out of weeks, and almost over a year to where the wild things are. We don't know if he is afraid or not, but the wild things roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth. He doesn't fight, nor does he run away, but rather tames them with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes and commanding them to be still. He is now king of the wild things and they celebrate with a wild rumpus. But then Max finds he wants to be with those who love him best of all. So he sails back home over and through all those nights and days and weeks. And when he gets there, despite the passage of all that time, his dinner is still hot.

You will recognize this as a synopsis of Maurice Sendak's classic hero's story Where the Wild Things Are. It was first published in 1963 when I was a baby, not even a year old. My mother didn't read it to me, but I read it to my daughter. I wrote the above synopsis from memory, not because I read it again and again (although I have read it countless times to hundreds of young children), but because it is what the American mythologist Joseph Campbell calls a "hero journey," the story with which we are all familiar.

Children continue to love this story because they understand it is their own story. They wake each morning in their familiar home, surrounded by those who love them best of all, then venture out into a world of obstacles, mysteries, and even terrors. Sendak's text doesn't tell us that Max is afraid, nor does it mention his bravery. We don't know why Max sets out on his journey, nor what he expects to find there. The sparse text of the story, slightly over 300 words, leaves most of the emotional content to the reader to fill in, other than right there at the end when we find the word love. But we all know how he feels, even the youngest children, who by the time they are able to understand the story, have already lived it, over and over again.

Campbell's life's work was about demonstrating that stories of the hero's journey are common throughout all cultures and times: this going out into the world, overcoming obstacles, facing fears, having experiences, then returning home again. Are we better or wiser for the journey? Maybe, probably, but that's not the point. As Campbell saw it, the hero's journey is a metaphor, the metaphor, for a life will lived. 

"What I think is a good life is one hero journey after another," wrote Campbell. 

It would have been much easier and safer for Max to have remained at home in his room, even as a forest grew around him. But there is never a question of whether or not he will set out. Ease and safety are not options for a hero. He did not set out because he was a seeker. He did not set out because he was particularly brave. He had not lost anything that needed to be found. He was not after riches or glory (the destinations that we always feel compelled to append to our modern hero journey's, confusing the point). He was not after love: he already had that. In Campbell's words, he is doing nothing more or less than following his bliss. Max the hero is someone who is called to set out, not knowing when he will return. When a private boat comes tumbling by he steps into it, pursuing his purpose, which is, simply, to accept this journey that is his and his alone.

When I read Where the Wild Things Are to young children, I'm often moved by the eagerness with which they attend. They have never known a time when they did not understand, from experience, the hero journey. They've been out in this magical world, afraid and brave and curious and homesick, over and over again, through night and day, in and out of weeks, and almost over a year. They have tamed wild things. And they have returned home where they are loved. 

A good life is not one of having or being, but rather of doing. It's not made of goals and plans, but rather the setting out on the journey that beckons us to sally forth, to experience the wild things we find there, returning home again, maybe better, maybe worse, but always with the satisfaction of having lived. 

A good education, it seems to me, is one that does not let us forget that to truly live is to accept one hero journey after another, not for glory or gold, but because our hearts call us to the journey.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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