He subsequently fails, evident through his rhetorical question, “Why do I bother working for nothing? “26 The power of these heroes such as Gilgamesh is that they explore absolute truths that are essential in understanding our human experience. This failure enables Gilgamesh to realise the truth that humans cannot have immortality. Parallels may be drawn with other lesser heroic quests of self-sacrifice such as that of Orpheus27, who travels to the Underworld to save his love, Eurydice. He is given permission to enter the Underworld on the condition that he must walk in front of her until he reaches the Upper World without looking back.
He too subsequently fails, as his anxiety makes him break his promise so she fades back into the Underworld a second time, for eternity. These are both examples of how myths encompass universal truths that survive throughout time. Two such truths include the fact that no individual can attain immortality on earth and no mortal returns from the Underworld. Their epic proportions inspire readers to reconcile with mortality as the acceptance of death is the “prerequisite for emotional maturity”28. The journeys of these epics are all similar. They all appear insurmountable in their respective supreme ordeals which they overcome.
This stage is referred to by Christopher Vogler as the hero’s “inner most cave”29 where they experience a near-death incident before returning to their society. Nonetheless, despite the many similarities between The Epic Gilgamesh, Mulan and Where the Wild Things Are, they also differ considerably in their journeys, in the nature of their quest and in the values attributed to each individual. The journeys such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and many other ancient epics like Homer’s The Odyssey encompass a lengthy time frame in which the hero encounters a plethora of challenges, test and trials necessary for their transformation and development.
Odysseus took ten years to journey home to Ithaca following the ten year war against Troy. Their mythic character has resulted in their continual appropriation of a myriad of contemporary texts such as in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain30 and the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Are Thou? 31 Cold Mountain follows the formulaic archetypal structure of The Odyssey. It traces the geographical and ideological journey of W. P. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate Army towards the end of the American Civil War (1861-65).
However, through its appropriation the decline of the power of the hero, Inman, is made apparent. Opposed to journeys of exploration and self-sacrifice, his quest is a form of desertion and escapism from the slaughter he witnessed in the Civil War pusillanimously stating, “I’m ruined beyond repair, is what I fear”32 and “four years gone warring, but back now on home ground and I’m no better than a rank stranger here”33. Whereas his mythological predecessors such as Gilgamesh and Odysseus would have remained in battle and not have deserted.
Inman acts in a cowardly fashion by returning home to North Carolina, rejecting the incomprehensible violence and cruelty of war. Similarly, the film O Brother Where Are Thou? , another appropriation of Homer’s The Odyssey in a contemporary text explores the journey of its hero Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney). He lacks most of the epic heroism of mythic texts. Everett escapes from jail to return to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) and their seven daughters before she remarries similar to Odysseus’s epic homecoming to his wife Penelope.
Even though he is told by the blind seer, “I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path for fate has … vouchsafed your reward” he lacks the valour of the heroes of old. However, like Gilgamesh, Ulysses Everett makes his journey a shared journey with two escapees Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) as he undertakes the odyssey of return. The heroic journeys of Inman and Ulysses are clearly for personal gain and fulfilment. Although they encompass a long and demanding journey, they cannot be classified as mythological heroes on an archetypal quest.
On the other hand, the quest of mythic heroes such as Gilgamesh and Orpheus is for the benefit not only for the individual, but to reveal a truth to society. Gilgamesh reconciles the responders that immortality cannot be grasped while Orpheus shows that no mortal has the power to return from the dead (Underworld). Thus, it is clear through each subsequent appropriation that the mythological hero is in decline, replaced by lower grade heroes, even anti-heroes, who lack the defining characteristics necessary for an epic quest. These epic journeys are not reflected in Mulan and Max.
They occur within hours or days, further demonstrating the weakening power of the mythological hero. Unlike the original ten year quest described in “The Ballad of Mulan”, the Walt Disney film Mulan reduced the time frame to several months. The film was well received as a children’s animation. The audience empathised with the shero Mulan as she takes her ailing father’s place to perform military duties against the invading White Huns34. Although not an epic journey it is a heroic journey because “if the army finds out she’s a girl the penalty is death”.
It can be argued that elements of the mythic journey still survive. This is evident through the heroic tendencies she manifests when she uses her wisdom as opposed to physical strength in firing a cannon at the mountain peak during the climactic battle. This creates a devastating avalanche that engulfs the majority of the Hun Army, “the bravest of us all… your king of mountains”. However, her achievement is not long-lived as she is brought back down to earth when they discover her femininity. She is now described as “treacherous snake…
Ultimate dishonour” in spite of her great accomplishments. In contrast to this is Max’s quest of lesser significance. Rather than an insightful and difficult quest, his journey is only a psychological progression through his mind and cannot be classified as an archetypal journey. He journeys to the island of the “wild things”35 where they “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth”36. The amalgams of various monsters are only extensions of his mind’s wildness and ego yet he ironically tames them through the grammatical imperative, “Be still!
“37 This demonstrates the waning power of heroes by presenting a hero who lacks physical strength, experience and wisdom yet is able to conquer the threatening creatures. Whereas Max is a child undertaking a psychological journey in combating fear, he represents the beginning of what is each individual’s personal and heroic journey through life. Max is a junior member in the league of heroes. The hero acts as a form of social commentary and the values they show are what distinguishes the mythological hero from the heroic figures in contemporary stories and films.
However, the question must again be asked, what do texts tell us about values if they are not widely read? In The Epic of Gilgamesh, to restrict his power the gods construct his equal, Enkidu, his “alter ego”. They are foils and after fighting for supremacy they befriend each other. This is shown through their physical battle against Humbaba; a monstrous giant force who guards the Cedar Forest. They “recall the courage and the force they vowed to bring upon this mission”38 in defeating him mercilessly by swiftly cutting his throat.