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Being a Hero: Jung, Putin and Frodo Baggins

Written by Professor Lance Butler.

It may not be fashionable to say so but there is a difference between men and women – a difference whose recognition could easily and quickly transform our life on Earth. It is a difference located in the word ‘hero’.


The impressive group of young women who are now in charge, as presidents or prime ministers, of some of the best countries in the world (Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Iceland, Slovakia, Denmark, New Zealand) show how we can benefit from Jung’s analysis of the archetype of the hero. One of these women, I think it was the president of Finland, recently pointed out that female leaders don’t go to war and it’s surely unimaginable that she or any of her fellow national leaders would have done anything remotely like what we are seeing in Ukraine as I write. The question arises: why is that the case? Why don’t women make war?


Jung, followed by Erich Neumann, developed an anthropologically-based analysis of the hero in which the hero appears to be an inevitable component both of most known cultures and of the male psyche. ‘Being a hero’ is a common modern cliché used whenever one of us does something slightly beyond normal requirements, and we are encouraged, in the words of the song, to ‘search for the hero inside of us’. All well and good, for there is courage to be found in the most unlikely places and among the most unlikely people.


But the hero archetype is deeper than this and can be less innocent in the male mind. It is a formation, in culture and in the psyche, that arises as the adolescent boy’s method of dealing with, on the one hand, the oppressive father and on the other hand the all-consuming mother. Boys (‘of all ages’, as they say) read stories of heroic deeds. Simple tales of derring-do, from the Odyssey to the Boy’s Own Paper (1879 – 1967 – note the title) and on through to the James Bond films of today, appeal to all men. This results from the adolescent’s need to individuate, to find his place in the tribe or culture, to learn how to cope with the boss and the bully, to negotiate the separation from the over-protective mother, to ‘become a man’.


Clearly Vladimir Putin has the usual male relationship with the hero archetype, but it is wildly out of control. His adolescent fantasies are presumably no different in kind from yours or mine (especially if you are a man) but they have consumed him in a way that I hope they haven’t consumed you or me. He is the macho martial-arts expert, the ice-hockey bruiser, the naked torso on the horse, the wielder of the big guns. He yearns for a replay in which he will do the heroic deeds and right the wrongs of the world and rescue the doe-eyed damsel. Alas that he was born too late to defeat Hitler! Alas that the Cold War is over! These can be resurrected however, and the battle re-fought. Bring out the tanks! Here goes!


So Putin finds places to be a hero in: Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Ukraine, even Syria. He imagines the monsters that are to be slain: ‘Nazis’, NATO, ‘The West’, all those who would encircle and defeat poor Mother Russia. In his bedroom he daydreams of the blow David gave to Goliath, of St George’s courage, of Arthurian knights and the courage of the besieged at Leningrad in the Great Patriotic War – he yearns for a world cleansed by heroism – his own heroism of course, that’s the point of fantasies.


We all do it, but boys especially. As evidence we can look at a million modern cultural artefacts that imitate the old heroic myths and stories, from poems and novels to films, television series and video games. We all dream of ‘being the hero’ and we all applaud him when he wins his struggle. By an irony not to be missed the real hero of the Ukraine crisis is a small Jewish comedian who has ‘found the hero’ inside himself in the most extraordinary way; what is so satisfying about admiring Zelensky is that, like all the best heroes, he didn’t want to be one, he has his machismo well in check, and he shows signs of ‘female’ softness (signalled by his empathy, his size and his association with comedy). A reluctant Galahad whose Grail is peace.


Up to a point there is no alternative to this pattern. Boys must be allowed their fantasies (and who is to stop them?) and their maturation is important. And for this we have an obvious and benevolent version close at hand. This version is a good example of the Hero Archetype in modern Western culture and the one that may have had the greatest impact on my generation (post-1945 baby boomers) and on the generations since. I’m talking about The Lord of the Rings, that brilliant re-imagining of the heroism needed for us to get through two World Wars.


That Frodo Baggins, the Zelensky of Middle Earth, is a reluctant hero is underlined time and again by Tolkien. His uncle Bilbo has had an adventure and come home rich after helping in the defeat of the dragon Smaug, but Frodo (and Sam) want nothing more that to stay in ‘the quiet Shire’ and  have life carry on as normal. They are thrust reluctantly into the great deeds of their time, into war and horror, into a sort of terrible maturity which they reach without ever losing their basic innocence and decency.


Frodo (at about three feet tall even shorter that Zelensky) is the non-heroic child living in a rural playground of peace, birthday parties, fields, streams and agricultural simplicity. He grows up through the trilogy and into heroism by being asked to confront the Terrible Father (Sauron) and the Terrible Mother (Shelob, the disgusting giant spider, very explicitly female as even her name shows) and to defeat them to bring peace back to Middle Earth. Nothing is ever the same again after the War of the Rings and with Sauron’s defeat many good things such as the Elvish kingdoms will pass away. Thus when, as adults, we look at the world we have made for ourselves, even if we are ‘happy’ we know that the perfect world imagined in childhood is no longer available. As Proust puts it, les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdu. But the hero Frodo has been victorious and is crowned to the joy and delight of the Good Father (here represented by Gandalf and Aragorn) and the Good Mother (Elbereth and Galadriel).


And we love it, this perfectly-balanced re-working of the hero myth, especially we boys. Millions of copies of The Lord of the Rings were sold, tens of millions watched the film versions by Peter Jackson. It is a very old story re-told for a modern audience.


Thus the hero archetype can be good (very good in the case of Frodo Baggins) and we can all hope to activate it in our lives when we display courage and its Buddhist and Christian accompaniments – detachment and compassion, modesty and kindness. But, like everything else in the deeper psyche, it is a two-edged sword and, alas, the masculine mind seems to need to wield the sharper edge. Women seem automatically to have the aggression of the hero better under control, to have less need to play out the death drive.


Replace Putin with almost any competent woman you can think of and hey-presto! No more war.

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