The Society Pages is a twice-monthly column about stories and feelings, through a sociopolitical lens. Because these are analyses of full narratives rather than reviews, they almost certainly contain spoilers for major plot points and narrative elements. Proceed with caution.
Today: E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights and the Hero’s Journey.
We love heroes, and why wouldn’t we? Heroes save the day. Heroes have some special spark inside them, some special magic or weapon or benefactor that makes them the perfect match for the villains in ways we know we are not. More importantly, heroes keep us safe without us having to sacrifice a whole lot or even pay all that much attention. Some of the most popular heroes of our modern mythologies do their work so well that we don’t even know they’ve done anything at all. It’s perfect: evil exists, sure, but we never have to see it or think about it. If it does manage to get out in the open, everything gets fixed. This is tremendously convenient, because as we know, our history is filled with troubling times. The dominoes fall, things cascade, everything comes apart, and in the midst of it, people go about their daily lives until they can’t anymore. Whether it’s denial, or fear, or a failure to notice changes until it’s too late, over and over we have fallen into the same traps as a species. What seems inevitable and vital in Hero’s Journey narratives is that someone—usually an unlikely someone—must almost singlehandedly do the work of saving the world. We send others and let them fight; we hide in enclaves, safe as long as the oppressors don’t turn their attentions our way.
The Hero’s Journey is a narrative format you’ll probably recognize by substance even if you don’t recognize it by name. Much in the same way a haiku gives a shape that can be filled with near-infinite ideas, the shape of the hero’s journey is the framework to a staggering number of genre stories and mythologies. First described by American mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it traces the arc of these stories in a 12-step structure: beginning in the ordinary world, the hero then receives her call to adventure. She hesitates, initially refusing the call. A mentor comes along, and helps her find her strength, her powers, or her special tool. She crosses the threshold and begins her journey, either in a new place or with her perspective on her home world changed, where she encounters tests and challenges. She approaches the major challenge, the Big Boss as it were, and undergoes an ordeal to defeat him. She wins a treasure of some kind, and begins the journey home, which often includes a chase. Nearly home, one last challenge arises, and the hero fully embraces her new, powerful self after conquering it. Finally, she returns with the treasure and takes her new place in the original world. You’ve encountered this structure before. If you play video games, read fantasy, or follow superheroes in any format, you’ve almost certainly seen it in infinite variation, and it’s these variations that make the structure so culturally important. We value the journey as much as we value the hero herself; powerful characters who do not complete the journey or who cheat their way through a step often end up as villains.
E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights is one of these stories, but it is the source of the narrator’s power that makes it something a little different. Instead of a standard hero, who finds something in herself, the narrator’s mentor and power sources make her something more recognizable to participants in representative government: after she sacrifices herself on behalf of her sister, her community spreads her message across the desert, and it is ultimately the combined strength of every participant that she uses to bring about peace. She is not Katniss Everdeen, despite the seeming parallel of volunteering to take her sister’s place. Because her power comes directly from her people, rather than through structurally approved channels, the unnamed heroine in A Thousand Nights stands apart: no one arrives at the moment of doubt to prove she has the power, the strength, or the weapon. She has no guide. Yet as she walks the gardens of what is essentially a prison, she recognizes what the others in the long line of dead queens have never had time to see:
“Always, it seemed, men would overlook unpleasant things for the sake of those that went well. The statues’ eyes for the melodious sounds of the fountain. The deaths of their daughters for the bounty of their trade. There was great beauty in this qasr, but there was also great ugliness and fear. I would not be like those men who turned their eyes from one to see the other. I would remember what those things cost.”
― E.K. Johnston, A Thousand Nights
This calls attention to what is often glossed over in the hero’s journey narrative arc: the people left behind, living their lives. Of course they exist in all the stories, but generally they stand in for the Original World, the unenlightened and the endangered. They often have little or no power of their own, and more often than not are not part of the story at all. But in A Thousand Nights, they are mentors, power sources, and the final wrench in the works. The reader is never allowed to forget: This is the cost. This is what we trade when we ask for heroes and scapegoats alike: we turn people into a price, and make human lives into a currency we exchange for safety and security. In A Thousand Nights, every girl sent to the qasr is the price paid for the safety of the other girls in her village. In The Hunger Games, each child sent to the Games is quite literally the price of a year’s peace.
In her Disney film, a teenage Moana is sent across an unknown ocean to battle a god to protect the adults of her island, and she’s hardly the first. We do not question this; they are heroes. That’s what they’re for. They volunteered. But we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility. We owe a debt.
Real life doesn’t follow narrative structures, most of the time. The path to becoming a leader is more winding and less circular, and it’s a little more difficult to define who is and isn’t heroic. What A Thousand Nights reminds us is that we owe the debt regardless. When someone has saved us, we owe them the care they require when they return home. We owe them the courage to continue their work, to go beyond the limits of what they might have imagined the healed world to look like and make sure the world and its people thrive around us. We owe it to them to encourage one another to continue the work in whatever ways we are strongest. In the real world, we are the mentors. We are the power. We are the treasures, and we can all be the heroes. We owe it to each other to do the best we can.