My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (1936) by Lord Raglan is not the kind of book for the casual reader. The Hero is for those serious writers/professors willing to study the craft of writing and storytelling at a much more intellectual level.
“The thesis of this book,” writes Lord Raglan, “is that the traditional narrative, in all its forms, is based not upon historical facts on the one hand or imaginative fictions on the other, but upon dramatic ritual or ritual drama… I then took a number of quasi-historical traditions and showed that there is no valid evidence for their historicity, and that many of them are demonstrably unhistorical. I next gave the evidence for connecting the myth and the folk-tale with ritual, and for believing that the hero-tale is derived from ritual and not from fact” (p 278).
Throughout the book Lord Raglan repeatedly shows that stories such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Tale of Troy, the Norse Sagas, Robin Hood, King Arthur, etc., are based on dramatic ritual and the heroes therein are set on 22 key characteristics (a pattern for the traditional hero).
Many heroes that fell into this pattern were from cultures all over the world and from various religions as well. For example: Theseus (20/22), Romulus (18/22), Perseus (18), Pelops (13), Apollo (11), Zeus (15), Moses (20), Watu Gunung (14), Arthur (19), and Robin Hood (19/22). These are but a portion of heroes studied within the book.
Lord Raglan also defines the purpose of myth in relation to the hero. “Myth is ritual projected back into the past,” writes Lord Raglan, “not a historical past of time, but a ritual past of eternity. It is a description of what should be done by a king (priest, chief, or magician) in order to secure and maintain the prosperity of his people, told in the form of a narrative of what a hero–that is, an ideal king, etc.–once did” (p 147).
A writer will take just as much pleasure from this book as a historian might. One of my favorite passages of the book concerns the criterion of a successful writer, and is as follows:
“Nobody can hope to be a successful poet or composer of stories unless he has familiarized himself with a large number of poems or stories of different types, both in their general outlines and in the details of their construction; and the better writers whose works he studies, the better are his own writings likely to be. This simple fact is, of course, the basis of all literary education. In addition, our budding author must, if he is to produce anything possessing the least degree of originality, observe and read a good deal, and thus acquire a large fund of ideas. By drawing upon these he will be able to vary the form and content of his writings; this is the most that he will be able to do, since imagination at its highest is no more than the combination of two or more old ideas to form a new idea” (p 136-137).
One of the reasons why I read this book was for research in my own writing, and to study in further depth the understanding of what makes a lasting and classical narrative and hero. After reading this book, I have learned more about the construct of myth, folk and fairy tales, sagas, the basis for drama and ritual dramas and the success of the age old heroes in narrative form.
Actually, this is one of the most intelligent books I’ve read (to be compared with the works of Tertullian and Cicero and the likes). Therefore, this is a strong recommend for any serious-serious writer who wants to excel, or for any professor diving deeper into the depths of history, philosophy, religion, and literature.
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers