In 1949 Joseph Campbell wrote a book about a pattern he'd noticed in the stories of heroes across many different cultures. The book was called The Hero with a Thousand Faces and in it he talks about the moments that seem to mark the quest of every hero like guideposts.
A classic example of the hero’s journey is Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie. It is no accident that George Lucas admired Joseph Campbell's work.
Departure: Luke is living the safe but boring life of a farmer on Tatooine. He is already a skillful pilot. He gets the call to adventure straight from Princess Leia when R2D2 plays her message. Luke's supernatural mentor Obi Wan Kenobi comes out of hiding and teaches him about the Force and gives him his father’s light saber.
Initiation: Luke crosses the threshold into the unknown world of the Death Star. Luke suffers trials, passes tests, gathers allies, confronts enemies and rescues the princess. Luke’s abyss is the loss of his mentor. Obi Wan sacrifices himself to protect Luke and his gang as they escape the Death Star and flee to the rebel base on Yavin 4.
Return: Luke transforms and takes on the role of a Jedi Knight. Using the Force (his mentor’s death was not in vain), and knowledge of the Death Star’s weaknesses from the princess’s stolen plans (the gift from the goddess), he strikes the crucial blow, destroys the Death Star and saves the world! All is well again.
But what about the girls? Personally, the princess role - waiting around for the hero - was not one I every relished. I never played the sidekick in my own adventures as a kid. But the girls are only guides and goals in Campbell's analysis of the hero's quest. Luckily there are many myths and archetypes of questing girls found in folk tales and religious stories the world over. A good number of them appear in From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine's Journey through Myth and Legend, by Valerie Estelle Frankel. And there are many questing girls in contemporary tales.
One of my current favorites is The Dustlands Trilogy by Moria Young, published May 2014
Of all the embattled heroines in contemporary YA fantasy, and they are legion, the character of Saba in the Dust Lands Trilogy sticks most closely to the classic monomythic path of the hero's journey. Young places her heroine in a post-apocalyptic American Wild West, littered with “Wrecker tech,” the junk left over from the generation that all but destroyed the ecosystems of the earth.
Home for Saba is by the shores of Silverlake where she idolizes her twin brother Lugh (pronounced“Lou”), is annoyed by her little sister Emmi and does as best she can by her father, a man bewildered and broken since the death of his wife. Saba's call to adventure is forceful and sudden when men in dark robes ride in on horses, kill her father, kidnap Lugh and disappear into the dust.
She seeks out and finds her first mentor, Mercy, a tough and canny elder who gives Obi Wan a run for his money in the courage and sacrifice departments. As a supernatural aid, Mercy gives Saba her dead mother’s heart stone, a small stone that warms whenever it is near Saba’s heart’s desire. It is not a straightforward guide.
The threshold Saba crosses is a vast desert of sand dunes that ebb and flow over the ruins of Wrecker civilization. She enters the dark and brutal world of Hopetown where, in order to protect her little sister Emmi, she becomes so efficient at killing folks that she earns the moniker “Angel of Death.”
In the manner of trilogies, Saba’s heroic journey cycles through Campbell’s iconic steps several times. Each call to adventure grows more urgent, each mistake more dire, each abyss darker, each transformation more complex. The loyalties and betrayals of companions become more costly and, as Saba transforms into an inspirational leader followed by multitudes, the stakes become almost unbearably high.
Internally Saba's self-doubt tracks with what and who she stands lose. Saba is a deeply flawed and human hero. She is torn between two lovers, whom she keeps secret from each other and everyone else. She is haunted, quite literally in one dark stretch, by the friends and foes who have died by her hand. She is uncomfortable when people look to her to lead them. She knows she has faults.
In the second book, Rebel Heart, Saba encounters another elder, Slim, who becomes one of her growing crew of companions. Slim is a grizzled, wisecracking, cross-dressing, snake oil salesman, who runs guns for underground rebels on the sly. He and Mercy come and go in Saba's travels. But when she needs to hear it, these two elders, who have their own complicated flaws, whisper in Saba’s ear that leadership is hard, that humans make mistakes and though the consequences are terrible, there is no other way to go except to go on.
Young’s variations on the tropes and icons of the American western are too numerous and clever for me to do them justice in this short appreciation. I’ll just say that as Saba emerges from the abyss for the final time, her revelation resonates with epics from ancient times to the present. The healing of a broken land must be built on a foundation of heart. The toughness of family love, even a difficult family, will always trump the cold practicality of logic alone. Human society breaks down when human beings are accounted as nothing more than cogs in a machine.
Saba's triumph as a hero is complete, but there is no place for her to live in the new world she brings into being through her heroic victory. Saba gains enough self-knowledge to know she that if she tries to live the settled life she will only ruin it. Instead of returning to a home made whole with the gift of the god/goddess, Saba journeys on, riding off into the proverbial sunset, not alone, but with… well, I won’t spoil it for you.