Hero’s Journey: Books for the trip

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“Ancient Greek heroes were men of pain who were both needed by their people and dangerous to them.” – Jonathan Shay in “Odysseus in America.”

“A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” –Gen. George C. Patton

We reward our heroes with medals and praise whether they march away to war or run into burning buildings to bring people out to safety.

In either case, praise, like glory, is fleeting, and the transcendent renewal expected through trial by fire (or under fire) in the mythic sense of the hero’s journey may be a dream unrealized. The hero’s character, as Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America believes, may be wrecked by the trauma of the experience.

A psychiatrist working with Vietnam War veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Shay focuses his books on what soldiers need to know before they go to war and on what all of us need to know when they return in psychologically damaged condition.

New York Times reviewer Chris Hedges, in his review of a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, wrote “It is his hero’s heart that he must learn to curb before he can return to the domestic life he left 20 years earlier. The very qualities that served him in battle defeat him in peace. These dual codes have existed since human societies were formed; and every recruit headed into war would be well advised to read the ‘Iliad,’ just as every soldier returning home would be served by reading the ‘Odyssey.'” The same can be said of Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America.”

Those who march away are praised for marching away and for going beyond the call of duty to perform those duties thrust upon them. When they return, we ask what it was like, but our eyes glaze over when they try to tell us. Is the problem to large to fix? Shay doesn’t think so.

Betrayal of What’s Right

As Shay points out, soldiers often face what happened to Achilles in the “Iliad” when they go into combat. They face a betrayal, via commanders or the system, of what they believe is right and proper. Likewise, when they leave the battlefield, they often face what Odysseus faced in the “Odyssey.” They face the lack an adequate way of dealing with what they experienced while re-integrating into the mainstream world.

Whether it’s the trauma of war or the trauma of other horrific, and often traumatic, events where heroes serve of humanity’s behalf, Shay’s books are wonderful resources for the journey. Shay brings an optimism to his work that might help those who were there and those who were not there come to terms with each other and what happened before the medals were awarded and the fleeting praise was bestowed.

The books are also excellent reference materials for writers, psychiatrists and philosophers who study the classic hero’s journey.

Malcolm R. Campbell

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4 responses

  1. I have personally found that the responses of different people to traumatic situations are interesting to say the least and often surprising. I’ve also noticed that those who have had real military experience hold up best.

  2. My main character is having trouble adjusting to “civilian” life.
    I just went to on line to the library and put a hold on those two books.
    Thanks for the review.