A few years ago, my friend David Green introduced me to the work of Australian Michael Leunig whose cartoons and writings show a unique blend of humour, wisdom and compassion. This particular image was quite widely circulated on the internet during the recent London Olympic Games and I think it speaks wonderfully to those of us in the second half of life: our days of heroic quests may be over but we are still on a journey – albeit one with very different qualities from our youthful adventures.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how these differences are reflected in different types of traditional story. Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) would have us believe that the hero’s journey is a monomyth: a universal archetypal pattern for individuation but I have found the work of Allan Chinen (Beyond the Hero, Once Upon a Midlife) to be a richer and more satisfying exploration of our developmental path in the second half of life.
Whereas the hero’s (or heroine’s) youthful quest begins with a call to adventure (e.g. finding the Firebird’s golden feather) and ends with “happily ever after”, the post-heroic quest begins with a fall from grace (e.g. losing the beloved wife or husband) and ends with a sense of “coming home” or finding one’s true self.
The hero (or heroine) overcomes all obstacles by a mixture of courage, magic and luck; the post-heroic figure wins through by a combination of constancy, purpose and fortitude. The object of the heroic quest is known although “impossible” to obtain (e.g. the stag with the golden antlers); the object of the post-heroic quest is much more difficult to locate – often only to be found at the world’s end – and frequently unknown (as in the appropriately named Russian story: Go I Know Not Whither, Bring Back I Know Not What).
The ancient story of Cupid and Psyche as told by Lucius Apuleius circa 160 C.E. is a well-known version of this story-form as is Homer’s Odyssey (in contrast to the heroic tone of the Illiad). The Norwegian wonder tale The Three Princesses of Whiteland (which I tell and write about in my book under the title of The Furthest Shore) is a particular favourite of mine.
The protagonists of these post-heroic tales are mature men and women, often depicted as kings and queens rather than princes and princesses. They travel to the ends of the world to regain what they have lost and they endure by holding true to what is most precious to them.
The culmination of their long journeys is to become their true selves so that they can live well and wisely for the rest of their days. Although they are not there yet, they are well on their way towards eldership.
Slower. Deeper. Wiser.