Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Lord of the Rings. What is it about a story that makes us want to read it, hear it, tell it, or be part of it?
One of my students, who shares my interest in narrative, recently sent me a link to a short video applying Joseph Campbell’s theory of heroic myth to the adventures mentioned above. The heroes all embarked on adventures that took them out of the ordinary world, through trial and crisis. Even when they returned to ordinary life, they did so as people who had been transformed. They were no longer the people they were before they left.
But having explored heroic quests in this way, the video makes (to my mind, at least) an important misstep: it flattens the story by redefining the quest in terms of our own more limited personal goals. A fear of public speaking, for example, becomes our Voldemort or Sauron. Our quest for self-improvement becomes recast as a heroic journey.
I remember my first reading of The Lord of the Rings. I was caught up in the story, flopping down to read every chance I could get. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with its ancient mythic history and richly drawn characters, gave me a whole wide world for my imagination to inhabit. I walked with Frodo on his quest, learning from his example of sacrificial determination and from the undying loyalty of his companion Sam.
I want Frodo and Sam to be my heroes, not my therapists. I’m not saying that there’s nothing for us to learn from such mythic heroism that might help us in our personal lives; some narratively-oriented therapists use stories in just that way. But that’s just not the same thing as being drawn into a larger story.
We may first be attracted to the gospel message, for example, because in it we hear of a God who loves outrageously and cares about our problems. Sin itself may be posed as a personal problem to be solved, and the cross as its solution. That’s the story I was told when I became a Christian, and I’m grateful that God drew me to him through it.
But I also need to be pulled into something larger than my problems. After all, isn’t that what The Lord of the Rings is all about? Hobbits. Men. Dwarves. Elves. Each group has its own concerns; each is reluctant in its own way to work with the others. Hobbits in particular seek their comfort above all. They never have adventures.
But they are all drawn out of their self-concern and into a common fellowship because of a shared quest of cosmic proportions. Even the hobbits–especially the hobbits!–discover heroism, not because they sought to be heroes, but because they remained true to the cosmic story into which they had fallen.
I may begin by asking God to join me in my story, to save me from the personal consequences of my sin. But at some point, I have to accept that he is asking me to join him in his story, in which sin and salvation are themes that spread far, far beyond my personal horizons. We become part of a fellowship in which some are our own kind, while others are as unlike us as elves are from dwarves. And together, we make common cause, overcoming evil with good, until the day of the return of the King.
Now that’s a story worth telling.