I’ve always found it interesting, and a little mystifying, why many archetypal stories from across human culture – the sort that Vladimir Propp and Michelle Sugiyama spent and spend their lives researching – are so often about lone heroes and heroines, disjunctive from their communities, striking out into some abyssal wilderness. If we agree (as I do) that such narratives are the survivals of the oral methods by which early human cultures transmitted useful knowledge – knowledge that would, in an evolutionary sense, increase the cognitive fitness (and thus the survival prospects) of those who imbibed them – what are such protagonists demonstrating? Considering that human beings have evolved to run in complex, interdependent packs, and that we are a species for whom ostracism is a fairly dire prospect for the phenotype, they seem strange exemplars. Often, an integral component of these myths is the condemnation of the community – even its destruction – and as a narrative type they are pretty much defined by their lack of interpersonal interaction. What scenario, in the complex cultural and genetic emergence of such stories, did such stories grow to service? What do Beowulf & Gilgamesh serve to demonstrate to creatures who cannot hope to be such lone wolves, if they wish to survive, but instead are better remaining scared, chattering and clustered?
Of course, it’s not all that simple: and though our culture has been well and truly infected with the monomyth, it isn’t always helpful: and perhaps the individualistic, self-determining elements of these myths have been exaggerated in the modern (Western) cultures which particularly value them. Perhaps, instead, these stories are designed not to be instructive, but in part as a means of social control – to inclose the imaginations of those who hear them, disgruntled as they are in a rigid, stifling tribal hierarchy, and dissipate dissent in dreams of rugged self-reliance. Or perhaps they demonstrate that a community – a pack – can be something allegorical, something which can be movable, can be carried with the hero like equipment – in a magical locket, or a kindly crone, or the trees and the birds and the clouds – and upon which, after all, their entire success hinges.