On October 14, Princeton Day School's beloved former English teacher Barbara Walker gave a special virtual lecture on heroes in literature. Speaking to an audience of many alumni, faculty and other PDS community members, Ms. Walker, who taught at PDS for 18 years before retiring in 2018, deftly explored the development of the hero archetype. Her wide-ranging talk encompassed themes of experience and growth in our human search for meaning as revealed in literature's heroic narratives. Along the way, Ms. Walker cited the works of Joseph Campbell and other noted literary theorists while including iconic examples in literature and film from James Bond and Sherlock Holmes to Odysseus.
The Cyclical Nature of the Hero
Photo: Ms. Walker's graphic version of Joseph Campbell's "Hero Cycle"
Referencing Joseph Campbell's seminal work, The Hero Cycle, Ms. Walker discussed the four main segments of the cycle: departure, initiation, return and reign/death
- In the "Departure" quadrant, stories detail the world that the hero was born into, a traumatic event that shakes their world, a summons to adventure and the acquisition of helpers or mentors, such as Dumbledore to Harry Potter or Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes.
- The "Initiation" quadrant focuses on trials and tests that the hero faces as they step out of their ordinary world and begin to transform as they fulfill their respective quests.
- The "Return" quadrant explores the hero returning to their original world with the knowledge that they have transformed. The return phase also typically coincides with the loss of the helper and the hero must proceed alone. As Ms. Walker explained, "many stories end here, but death may be in store for the tragic heroes back in their normal world."
- Ms. Walker explained how Oedipus Rex reaches the fourth quadrant, "Reign and Death," as Oedipus returns to fulfill his tragic prophecy and fall from grace, blinding and banishing himself from the city.
Ms. Walker then compared the wildly different Wizard of Oz with Oedipus Rex to demonstrate the enduring similarities in humankind's hero cycle, while reminding her listeners that everyone has the capacity to be a hero:
"The hero's journey is timeless, linking us to the humanity that we share with an ancient past and the far reaches of this world, and today's period of great distress. We've been forced out of our known world to confront the unknown one where we have monsters of our own to face... climate change, racism and a lack of bipartisanship.
"The hero cycle is about learning to be true to ourselves and live in responsible community with one another; learning to promote each other's safety and self assurance, which has eroded so much in recent days. It's about recognizing and being grateful for the heroism of others."
She concluded with a reflection on how to live in these uncertain times, offering her thanks for being invited to present a lecture, which spurred her "to remember that I need to listen when I'm summoned to the adventure of being alive. I encourage you to channel your own inner hero."
A spirited, fifteen-minute Q&A session followed, which included Ms. Walker's thoughts on why anti-heroes are becoming increasingly prevalent in popular culture and some excellent fantasy literature recommendations.
For more on Barbara Walker's legacy at PDS, see this profile written in 2018 in advance of her retirement by former English department Chair David LaMotte.