Archive for September, 2010


The Thinker vs. The Fighter



True, a person can demonstrate heroism through incredible physical feats and intense trials and tribulations as we’ve seen with heroes like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Rama, and Beowulf… but not all heroes demonstrate their power on the physical plane. When examining “The Thinkers” we discover that overcoming one’s mental state can be far more challenging than facing a six-headed sea beast or venomous dragon. Humans are stubborn beings by nature, so willing one’s self to be different and be better is no easy task. As creatures of habit, we are generally set in our ways in regard to our actions and morals. The “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude is a heavy weight on the shoulders of us all. But within the principle of Daoism, we find the term: The Way. The Way is an order/method of living. To contrast the linear ideal of right and wrong (found in Western religious practices), The Way teaches us that there is no absolute good or absolute bad. Instead,  it is said that people will learn from their experiences and ultimately make choices that are “right” for them and their personal path to enlightenment. So, how does this relate to The Thinker’s Hero Quest?

In reading Giō, I found the obedient daughter to be quite heroic. The Japanese shirabyōshi dancer demonstrates several heroic qualities throughout her journey. To me, one of her most profound qualities would be that of her selflessness. Like Sita, Beowulf, and many before her, Giō sets aside her personal views and feelings in an effort to keep those around her happy.

[Tangent: Giō‘s mother really irked me. Her character seemed nothing more than an incessant guilt-trip. Her humble and talented daughter was dealing with some extreme internal abuse (from the unappreciative Chancellor) and yet the mother still expected Giō to please the authoritative figurehead so she could remain at peace in her old age? And why? Because she was so comfortable living in the capital that she couldn’t be bothered with her daughter’s free will and feelings? Ridiculous, if you ask me. I would say that Giō‘s mother is her foil, in fact.]

The woman is completely self-serving at one point in the Giō text:

For three whole years you enjoyed favor with the Chancellor. That was a stroke of fortune hardly to be matched. Now if you refuse to answer his summons, if it scarcely likely you will be put to death. Probably you will merely be banished from the capital. And even if you are banished, you and your sister are young and can manage to live even in the wildest and most out-of-the-way spot. But what of your mother? I am a feeble old woman –suppose I am banished too? Just the thought of living in some strange place in the countryside fills me with despair. Let me live out the rest of my days here in the capital. It could be thought of as being filial in this world as well as the next.

Giō, much as it pained her, did not feel that she could disobey these pleas from her mother and so, weeping all the while, she set out for the Chancellor’s mansion. ( 1378)

Due to Giō’s sense of guilt and duty to her family, she goes along with the mother’s request. In my view, setting aside one’s personal feelings and deep-rooted upset in favor of another’s wishes is a mark of a true hero. Towards the end of the tale, Giō impressed me once again by an incredible mental feat. She dropped away any trail of sadness and devoted herself entirely to “the recitation of the Buddha’s name.” By giving herself to the spiritual life, the former shirabyōshi dancer is following her quest for The Way. So despite the protagonist’s lack of physical battle and anguish, she is still a hero in my eyes because she overcomes her mental pain and eventually does what is “right” for her path in life.


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Disclaimer: I had to create a “Hero” music playlist before writing today’s blog. It helped in the inspiration department as this topic proved to be a little more difficult to formulate and discuss.  And here…we…GO!

For viewing The 13th Warrior for the first time, I would say that it was a pretty decent flick. The movie contained all of my favorite things for an action movie, including: sword fights, pyrotechnics, gore, and some horseback combat. More importantly, the story supplied a healthy amount of comic relief. Though most moviegoers would view Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan the Arab (Antonio Banderas) and Buliwyf  the Norseman (Vladimir Kulich)’s to be the most important characters to the story, I would respectfully disagree. For me, one of the sidekicks stole the show, which was none other than the clever blonde and bearded, Herger (Dennis Storhøi.) Herger’s character served as the “guiding light” throughout the journey. I use the term guiding light in two ways: first, to depict Herger as a witty and humorous companion to Buliwyf and his men and secondly, as an innovative  and crafty warrior who teaches Ibn how to trick his opponents into a false sense of security. True, Herger is not the main character. Also true, the story of The 13th Warrior was not told from the point of view of the clever Norseman, but rather the intellectual mind of the Arab, Ibn. Despite all of this, hero-like qualities can be found within Herger.

The Norseman, Herger, follows the path of the Hero Quest in a number of ways. He proves his devotion to his people by signing up to be a warrior. He demonstrates his ingenuity and cleverness while clanging swords with the giant ginger, pretending to be weak and striking on the opportune moment. Herger displays his physical brawn by besting the likes of numerous “bear” creatures and beheading the Prince’s right-hand oaf. But despite his triumphs and tribulations, Herger and his men still answer to their leader, Buliwyf.

Buliwyf is a doppelganger for Beowulf. Alongside the Arab, Buliwyf descends into the cave of the Eaters of the Dead (a manifestation of the Underworld) in an effort to extinguish the lives of those who torment King Hrothgar’s people. At this point, he has already confided in his guide(s) in the forms of Ibn the Arab and Herger the Norseman. These two combine know-how with combative skills in order to form a powerful warrior-hood. With a lengthy journey, a promise to save Hrothgar’s people, and trustworthy guides and confidants at the helm, Buliwyf kills the treacherous “bear” people… but with great cost. The woman-leader has poisoned the great warrior and he falls sickly, very fast. Despite his poor health, Buliwyf shows true heroism by engaging in combat with the son of the slain mother. Even in the clutches of death, the true hero (Buliwyf) emerges for a fight. Though I was rooting for Herger the whole time, it is apparent that the selfless Buliwyf (Beowulf-like character) is the true hero of The 13th Warrior. All in all, I enjoyed this movie much more than the ancient text because Beowulf lacked comic relief and Herger was just the man to provide it. Laughs make a heroic tale more relatable to the common folk, anyway.

Herger the Joyous

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If a hero is defined by that of his brawn, then Beowulf takes the cake for most heroic. Time and time again, the Geatman demonstrates his physical power and worth through extraordinary feats. For example, he defeats the terrible Grendel single-handedly, ripping off the beast’s entire arm without the use of weaponry or protection. “The fiend soon found he was facing a foe whose hand-grip was harder than any other he ever had met in all Middle-Earth” (Beowulf, p.1581). That’s a pretty intense physical feat, wouldn’t you say? After combating Grendel, he then faces the brooding she-wolf, Grendel’s mother, inside her underwater cavern. (Though I’m not quite sure how he managed to hold his breath for so long while searching for the water-dwelling mistress? Super-human lungs, perhaps? Gills? SCUBA?) At any rate, seeking out and destroying this murderess was another incredible physical accomplishment. During his later years, Beowulf even battles a menacing dragon, alongside Wiglaf. It’s a rarity to see an elderly gentleman face a crazed monster. Though wrinkled with age and gray of hair, Beowulf sets out to destroy this new threat before it demolishes his people. Sadly, while killing it, the dragon inflicts a severely venomous neck bite upon the Geat, which ultimately kills Beowulf. Despite losing his life, Beowulf proves his heroism even in his final moments of life. (Which is saying something, because most of the elderly people I know relax in retirement, whereas Beowulf exerted much energy and his life one last time, in order to save his kingdom.) It is just unfortunate that he had to die to save his people because in this hero’s absence, the Geats are left vulnerable and unprotected. As much as I admire Wiglaf’s bravery during the dragon battle, does he really have what it takes to protect  the people of Geatland without Beowulf to guide him?

Another quality that sets Beowulf apart from most heroes is his seeming faultlessness. Unlike Gilgamesh, Beowulf does not fear death and therefore does not search for immortality. To contrast Odysseus, Beowulf does not succumb to the advances of goddesses/beautiful women (the movie doesn’t count) or receive divine aid from a higher power whenever he’s in trouble because Beowulf fights his own battles. Sure, he utilized an incredibly useful sword forged by giants while in Grendel’s mother’s lair, but I see this as a fortunate happenstance. He didn’t beg the gods for assistance. In relation to Rama, Beowulf does not desert his loved ones (Danes, Geats, warriors) as Rama initially did with Sita. Beowulf is not a death-fearing pansy. Beowulf is not a sex-crazed manipulator. Beowulf is not a “holier than thou” type figure. When examining faults, none of the aforementioned men are up to snuff when compared to Beowulf. The only other truly selfless hero or heroine in this case would be Sita, particularly in Sita Sings the Blues. At the end of her tale, she completely surrenders herself to Mother Earth. Beowulf surrenders himself to death at the bite of the dragon. There was no whining along his hero quest. Beowulf is a “let’s get to it” sort of hero, with no if, ands, or buts about him. Unless we imperfect humans consider “faultlessness” a fault in and of itself, then Beowulf is an undeniable hero. He cared for and saved as many people as he could during his mortal state and if it weren’t for that fatal bite, I’m sure Beowulf would be helping little old ladies cross the street.

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Wishful Thinking...

Sita Sings the Blues was a highly entertaining film! Honestly, after seeing the time length of the video, I was a bit skeptical as to whether I would enjoy it or not. How could an hour and twenty-minute homework assignment catch my interest? Well, this production proved me all kinds of wrong. The music, vibrant geometric drawings, and silly character dialogue added just enough flare to make the story of The Ramayana that much more interesting. A fascinating aspect of this production is that it is not entirely devoted to the text of The Ramayana. True, the film recounts the heroic journey of Rama, but it does much more than that. Sita Sings the Blues delves farther into the mind of the damsel and examines Sita’s point of view, after she is happily reunited with Rama.

Nina Paley, the creator and artist, illustrates the world of ancient Ayodhya in simple terms so as to help captivate the audience and promote understanding of the story. The old-time songs, sung by Annette Hanshaw, paint a picture of Rama and Sita’s tumultuous relationship with its lyrics, creating an emotional environment for both the characters and audience. Also, the sarcastic, conflicting, and sometimes confused comments made by the narrators were my favorite part. Their overlapping conversations and witty banter were reminiscent of a student debate, which also made the story more relatable.

I believe it was a wise decision on Paley’s part to completely rehash the tale of Rama and Sita before diving into her own take on the work by Valmiki. She relates the events in The Ramayana to that of a modern American couple, struggling to keep their relationship together. Struggle is paramount in a hero quest. After Sita was kidnapped, Prince Rama struggled to reclaim his bride from the clutches of the evil Ravana, ruler of Lanka. Rama battled numerous foes along his quest and because he is a manifestation of the god Vishnu, Rama was able to conjure divine weaponry (i.e. arrows, swords) which aided him in the killings of said beasts. Throughout the telling of The Ramayana, we are led to believe that Rama is the hero. However, during Sita Sings the Blues, we are introduced with the possibility that Sita could be our heroine. After all, throughout the original tale, Sita displays numerous heroic acts, including: resisting the advances of Ravana and jumping into a pyre of flames in an effort to prove her purity to her husband.

Following the bizarrely delightful “Intermission,” Sita’s character is then developed further in Sita Sings the Blues. We discover that Sita is pregnant with Rama’s child. As opposed to delighting in the pregnancy of his wife, Rama banishes Sita to a far away land, for fear that her presence in the kingdom would upset the subjects of Ayodhya. How could a responsible king bed with a woman who has lived in another man’s house? During her exile, Sita again shows devotion and bravery by remaining pure of heart. She bears twin boys and teaches them about their father Rama and to “Sing his love, sing his praise.” When Rama discovers his children and wife in the forest, he demands Sita prove her purity once again. Sita says, “If I have always been true to Rama, if I have never thought of another man, if I am completely pure of body and soul, then let Mother Earth take me back into her womb.” This selfless act sets her apart from most heroes, in that she sacrifices herself, body and soul, entirely just to prove her point.

When combining both of these tales, we encounter two heroes. Rama is the hero of The Ramayana and Sita is the heroine of Sita Sings the Blues. He stops at nothing to save his precious bride and she sacrifices herself to prove her devotion to her beloved Rama. In a way, their relationship reminds me of Disney’s Hercules. Hercules, son of Zeus, will stop at nothing to save the soul of Megara, whereas she sold her soul to Hades in an effort to save her ex-boyfriend. With this telling, the term “hero” becomes less ambiguous, in my mind. Heroes will always encounter struggle. Overcoming said struggle is what makes them heroic. Like the song suggests, “If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain” which indicates that with hardship, comes ultimate delight. Being a hero doesn’t always have to mean defeating monsters and stopping crime. Committing a selfless act like that of Sita’s can prove to be just as heroic.

Before & After

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