The Common Hero: Elevating Expression, Words Transcendent
[Because my mind hasn’t yet adjusted to normal post-writing processes, here’s another school essay in lieu of contemplative anime analysis. It’s a comparison of James Joyce’s Ulysses (of which I’ve only read the first three chapters!) and Homer’s Odyssey, which our entire class read previously. After getting some flak for dissing Dr. Campbell last time, I wax lyrical over his ‘accomplishments’ now. This time, the word limit really is 1000 words, which I’ve once again filled completely…]
In 1949, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell discovered a pattern in diverse cultural myths: the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey’s 17 stages encompass many mythological plot points, including Homer’s ancient epic, the Odyssey, and James Joyce’s modernist classic, Ulysses. While neither Telemachus nor Ulysses’s first protagonist Stephen Dedalus display heroic traits, their journeys still exemplify Campbell’s monomyth—a Hero’s Journey without a hero.
The Odyssey starts with Telemachus seeking information of his father. His house is overrun with rowdy suitors, and he feels powerless against them. He commences his own Hero’s Journey to find Odysseus. The main themes in the Telemachia are the suitors’ unwanted domestic occupation and Telemachus’s spiritual growth as he meets Nestor and Menelaus. When he returns, he has become a man.
Ulysses’s first part, also called the Telemachia, chronicles three hours of an ordinary, insignificant Dublin morning in 1904, as Dedalus contemplates life. Dedalus is an ordinary young man living with a ‘friend’ who insults his dead mother and snatches away the house key. The first chapter’s last line is “Usurper”; thus, Dedalus believes his ‘friend’ usurped his home (Joyce 35), like the suitors usurped Telemachus’s. He too embarks on a subdued ‘adventure’, meeting with his anti-Semitic employer, Deasy, and ruminating life along the beach. This parallels Telemachus’s fruitless meeting with Nestor and Proteus’s information about Odysseus. Deasy lectures that “a faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke” (Joyce 53). Actually, MacMurrough abducted O’Rourke’s wife, preceding the Norman Invasion of Ireland (Braín 1152.6). Nestor’s reputation for wisdom, yet lack of useful information, corresponds to Deasy’s historical ignorance. Proteus’s shape-shifting represents change, so Joyce’s interior monologue narrative style constantly changes direction, yet illuminates Dedalus’s perspectives on life and regret over not accomplishing childhood dreams.
The Telemachia displays many early monomythic plot points. Telemachus’s Call to Adventure is Odysseus’s disappearance. Athena aids Telemachus by spurring him on; after reaching Pylos, he has Crossed the First Threshold into the unknown, away from the his home’s safety. The Telemachia ends here; later, Telemachus’s Belly of the Whale is the suitors’ ambush, and he Atones with his Father in Eumaeus’s hut. Odysseus’s adventure is more overtly monomythic, but Dedalus corresponds only to Telemachus.
Dedalus’s Call to Adventure is his ‘friend’ demanding drinking money and the house key, paralleling the suitors’ thankless cadgering. A milk woman indirectly spurs his journey by exacerbating Dedalus’s scorn of his ‘friend’; Campbell observes that “the milk woman is the role of Athena, who comes to Telemachus when he is 22 and tells him to go forth, find his father” (Campbell Disc 3). He Crosses the First Threshold after his meeting with the obtuse sexist Deasy, who gives Dedalus thick racist remarks and his salary. Finally, he enters the ‘unknown’: his own mind. To readers, this is shocking: few writers would illustrate natural human thought with natural—illogical—first-person topic transitions. Readers are truly venturing where no man has gone before.
The Odyssey’s monomythic scope is more obvious than Ulysses’s. Telemachus sets out on a voyage, and Odysseus wanders the wine-dark sea for a decade, encountering fantastic creatures. Telemachus is not a hero. He starts weak, irresolute, and naïve, but grows through his journey. However, the monomyth is about the story, not the character: protagonists can even be morally repugnant ‘villains’, their Ultimate Boon perhaps being world destruction, as long as they venture into the unknown and return with an Ultimate Boon. Thus, the Odyssey, as a monomyth, transcends the Hero’s Journey—it is a journey without a hero.
Ulysses lacks the Odyssey’s scope, merely detailing an ordinary Dublin day. However, as the Odyssey transcends the Hero’s Journey, so does Ulysses. Joyce’s writing elevates Dedalus’s thoughts to a godlike level; the sheer breadth and range of his interior monologue’s allusions equate his commonplace musings to an epic. He sees midwives carrying a misbirth, and ponders about an unending chain of navel cords, linking all humanity back to Adam and Eve: “Gaze in your omphalos. Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one” (Joyce 57). This connection to the Genesis broadens his monologue’s temporal scope; a typical day on the beach and Dedalus has already alluded to all human history.
The grandiosity gradually decreases over the chapter. He broods on what could have been in his own past: “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves […]? Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara […] You were going to do wonders, what?” (Joyce 61, 63). This shows his disgust with his past’s naïve optimism. Like all epics, the scope is first historical, and now personal. Eventually, reality overtakes his philosophical reverie, and his thoughts deal with the immediate: “My handkerchief. He threw it. I remember. Did I not take it up? […] He laid the dry snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock” (Joyce 76). This concludes the chapter, a tour de force from Eden to snot. Although the setting is a walk on the beach, Joyce’s purview transcends its humdrum nature: from molehill to mountain, from the mundane to the sublime.
Both Ulysses and its hypotext, the Odyssey, contain early monomythic plot points. The Odyssey transcends a Hero’s Journey because Telemachus is not heroic, yet his tale is still a monomyth. Ulysses transcends the monomyth because, although Dedalus’s ‘journey into the unknown’ is ordinary, Joyce’s interior monologue transforms his thoughts into a genuine adventure. Thus, both Ulysses and the Odyssey represent the monomyth.
It is only appropriate: Campbell, a Joyce scholar, borrowed the term ‘monomyth’ from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. These two works, Ulysses and the Odyssey, stand as a testament to the monomyth’s ubiquity—so many works embody the monomyth that we learn nothing from cross-comparison! Joyce creates an oxymoron—a common hero, shaping the power of literary form into a medium of literary expression. Stephen Dedalus’s Hero’s Journey has no hero, has no journey; Joyce elevates the everyman to create a hero, his words transcendent.
Word Count: 1000 (not including title)
Braín, Tigernach U. The Annals of Tigenach. Edit. Corráin, Donnchadh Ó. Cork: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts, 1996. Web.
Campbell, Joseph J. On the Wings of Art: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce. New York: Highbridge Audio, 1995. Audiobook.
Joyce, James A. A. Ulysses. London: Random House, 1992. Print.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.