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King Arthur and the Heroic Pattern

by Susan Barton Young, Deering High School, Portland, ME, 2009

Texts

  • Any version of Greek Mythology (Mythology & You, ed. Rosenberg & Baker, works particularly well; but many schools still use Edith Hamilton’s Mythology; Roger Lancelyn Green’s books work as well)
  • John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur & His Noble Nights, Ch. 1: “Merlin”
  • Optional: Star Wars, Lion King, Harry Potter, etc.
  • Bill Moyers interviews with both Joseph Campbell and George Lucas (note that the Campbell interview was conducted at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch!)
  • Handout: Blank “Heroic Pattern” chart (PDF)

Target Audience

7th-9th grade Mythology class

Objectives

  • Familiarize students with the common “monomyth” pattern of the Heroic Journey. Being able to identify such story-structures helps students recognize these sorts of elements in other stories they read; therefore, such structures need to be taught explicitly.
  • Help students recognize familiar mythic names and motifs from at least two cultures (Greek & British)
  • Help students begin to conceive of their own lives as a story-structure

Background

Joseph Campbell popularized one version of the “monomyth” of the Heroic Journey in his Hero of a Thousand Faces. (Interestingly, Campbell & Steinbeck crossed paths in Monterey in the early 1930’s). Campbell’s monomyth includes 15-20 steps, depending on which version you use. I have simplified this version into 8-9 steps, as follows:

  • Prophecy: There is a prophecy about what the hero will accomplish during his lifetime (or sometimes, as in the case of Hercules, after his death).
  • Unusual Conception/Birth: Heroes often have unusual conceptions (unions between Gods and mortals, often involving the male being disguised as the woman’s husband); sometimes their births are unusual in some way (early, late, needing divine help, etc.)
  • Precocious Childhood: The hero shows early on that he will be something special—often he demonstrates unusual athletic prowess and/or courage; another facet of this “unusual” childhood is that the child is often raised by a single mom or a foster family.
  • Call to Adventure: Around the time of puberty (usually), the hero encounters a challenge he feels he must embrace (sometimes to save his mother, or salvage his honor, or save someone else).
  • The Quest: What the hero is searching for, or something he must accomplish (often involves killing a monster, or finding some treasure to prove he’s been somewhere)
  • Helpers/Gifts: The hero almost always has some supernatural helpers or tangible gifts to help him along the way.
  • Journey to the Underworld: The hero must journey literally or figuratively to the underworld—under the sea, through forest, or actually to Hades itself
  • Flaw: Though not traditionally part of the “monomyth” pattern, it can be helpful to introduce students to the idea of a “fatal flaw” that limits the hero’s greatness
  • Return/Reintegration into Society: The hero returns from his quest, and often gets married and/or becomes King of some society. He frequently becomes the founder of some great initiative (the Olympic games, the Round Table, etc.)

Joseph Campbell includes many more steps (including an initial refusal of the quest, a confrontation with the father-figure, the role of the woman in the quest, etc.). For the 7th-9th grade levels, however, I have found that these 8 steps (plus the flaw) are more than enough for them to handle. Campbell also draws connections between this monomyth and an individual’s psychological development (leaving the mother, tackling one’s “life-quest,” etc.) These connections, and other metaphors, can be very fruitful to discuss, depending on the emotional maturity of the class. For example, in the story of Hercules, he uses the claw of the Nemean Lion to cut its own skin (Labor #1). It can be a neat question to ask students when they have seen an example of using an enemy’s strength against himself. (A similar theme emerges when Theseus is learning to wrestle by using strategy rather than brute strength.)

Some of the questions I ask include:

  • Prophecy: Ask your parents what “prophecies” were made about you before you were born or adopted. What were the predictions or stories or hopes they had for you?
  • Unusual Birth: (I stay away from “conception” on this one!): Ask your parents for your birth or adoption story. What time of day were you born? What do your parents remember most? Were both parents able to be there? (An “unsual birth” nowadays might be one where one parent has to watch from a remote military base; for adoptive children, their birth always has an “unusual” aspect to it.)
  • Precocious Childhood: What is unusual about your first 10 years? What is a special talent? Were you raised by a single parent? Are you adopted or a foster child? Especially for children with tough backgrounds, this can be a very fruitful discussion: that most heroes come from such unusual childhoods, which can serve to make them stronger, more resilient, more creative, etc.
  • Call to Adventure: When did you feel a “call” to do something different? Did you move at a critical juncture? Did you lose a parent or close friend that made you realize how precious life was? Did you discover a new skill or passion? Or are you still waiting for a “call”? What do you think it might be?
  • Helpers/Gifts: A wonderful discussion to have with teenagers—looking at all the mentors and gifts (both physical and spiritual) they have received to help them become who they are, and who they will be.
  • Journey to the Underworld: In what ways have you had to confront deep fears, insecurities, depression, etc.? When have you had to journey to a scary place, either literally or physically? What did you learn about yourself from this difficult experience?
  • Flaw: If you had to pick one “flaw” that could turn into a “fatal flaw” for you, what would you pick, and why? How has this habit held you back thus far? In what other great heroes do you see this flaw? How did they deal with it? (Note: Being “heroic” does NOT mean being flawless!!!)
  • Return/Reintegration to Society: What do you have to offer to the world around you? What is your unique gift that can help make the world a better place?

Lesson Plan

Day 1: Introduce the idea of the “monomyth” and its parts.

You might start with a well-known movie (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Lion King, etc.) Give students the steps of the “heroic pattern,” and see how many of them they can figure out on their own—come up with their own definitions and examples, based on their current knowledge of “hero” stories. [They may well have examples from anime, or other graphic novels.]

You could also show them clips from the Bill Moyers interviews with both Joseph Campbell and/or George Lucas.

Homework: Think about your own life in terms of the Heroic Pattern, and answer some of the questions provided above about how their own life can be seen as a Heroic Journey.

Day 2: Perseus

Read the story of Perseus aloud with the class, and help them fill in the Heroic Pattern Chart (PDF) for his story. (Modeling the process).

Homework: Have students read the story of Theseus or Hercules, noting which Heroic Journey elements they notice.

Day 3: Theseus or Hercules

Have students compare notes about whichever hero they read about. Have them develop consensus about what belongs in each box of their chart.

Homework: Read whichever Hero story is left. Repeat the note-taking and comparing process.

Day 4: Theseus or Hercules

Repeat the same process as the day before. This is a good day to give a spot check—perhaps give groups of students an envelope with the elements of the Heroic Pattern written on separate notecards. They have to put them in order AND define that step in their own words. The first group to finish well gets a prize.

Homework: Read Steinbeck’s “Merlin” chapter from King Arthur

Day 5: King Arthur

Complete the Arthur column of the chart. Discuss how Arthur is similar to and different from the Greek heroes.

Advanced question: While the “monomyth pattern” remains surprisingly consistent across times and cultures, how do certain heroic behaviors or values reveal cultural difference as well?

Extension Activities

  • Include some female heroes: Psyche, Mulan, etc. What are the similarities and differences? Are any parts of the traditional Heroic Pattern left out for them? Discuss why the traditional heroes all seem to be male….
  • See how the biographies of some modern day “heroes” (Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King) could be written in the form of a Heroic Journey Pattern
  • Bring in a heroic myth from a different culture and see if it fits any of the pattern