How Postmodernism, Polybius, and the Battle of 1066 changed the way we tell stories.
No one fears a Pirate named James. The name doesn’t conjure fierce imagery. One almost pictures a prudent captain in a naval uniform standing at the wheel of his ship. But James is fierce; in fact he’s downright evil. And while committing one of his evil acts he receives a terrible wound; an eternally young boy cuts off his hand. With a missing hand, James is forced to find a substitute in cold metal; Captain Hook is born.
A rather common “bad guy” has been reborn a much more powerful villain. “Powerful” meant in the literal sense, but also the literary. The tradition of Mythic Injury, a key part in the rise of a hero in the earliest forms of oral tradition, has now been taken on by the villain. To the point were we even resurrect our villains multiple times before they truly fall.
Mythologists and Anthropologists use the term “mythic injury” in reference to the point in a Hero’s story in which he is marked physically. This can happen in a number ways. The hero can cause an injury to himself such as Pinocchio who burns his own feet to cinders. A villain can also cause a mythic wound such as the witch pushing the prince from Rapunzel’s tower, causing his blindness. But the mythic injury can also come from a divine interaction.
When Moses returned from Mount Sinai after being in God’s presence, he had two horns coming from his head. There is great debate over the translation of this section and some argue that instead of horns, Moses had “Rays of Light” coming from him. For the purpose of this blog, it doesn’t actually matter. What does matter is Moses, after encountering God, had been changed in some way.
Moses with Horns
There are other forms of Mythic Injury. Sometimes they are a mark of a good deed done by the hero. In the Argonautica, Jason stops at a river and sees an old crone (Actually the Goddess Hera in disguise) who is unable to cross on her own. Jason agrees to carry her across, but in doing so loses one of his sandals.
Many have written on the subject of mythic injury. It appears among the 32 “functions” recognized in Vlademir Propp’s “Metamorphosis of the Folktale. Here it is identified simply as function 17, the “Hero is Branded.” According to Propp’s, the hero can receive the branding during a skirmish with the villain, or he can receive an injury from a princess who awakens him by making a small cut on his face. She can also kiss him, burning the mark of a star on his forehead.
In the book “Iron John,” Robert Bly describes the purpose of mythic injury in folktale and myth as a representation of one step in becoming a man. As a young man grows, as he gains more life experience, he is likely to acquire injuries. Sometimes major, sometimes just a scrape, he receives a mark that symbolizes becoming a man.
Bly brings up that one of the most notable figures in epic mythology, “Odysseus,” has special meaning when it comes to mythic injury. His roman name “Ulysses” roughly translates into “wound above the knee.” When Odysseus was a boy he was hunting a Boar on Mount Parnassus. He did manage to kill the boar, but only after receiving a deep wound above his knee. Here we have a perfect example of a wound symbolizing a transitional period to manhood, but the wound plays a specific role in his story.
When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, disguised as a beggar, his old nurse recognizes who he truly is by a scar on his leg. Here we have a hero who not only has a mythic injury, it literally defines him; just like Captain Hook.
In more recent times, these injuries have been happening to our villains. We have already mentioned the Captain, but there are other examples. In 1995, “Waterworld” came out with its villain “The Deacon,” played by Dennis Hopper. At the beginning of the film, Hopper’s character is rather minor. He’s mean and he’s in charge of the bad guys, but he has no relationship with the main character. Then the Hero and Villain meet. After the clash the Deacon has received a major injury; he is missing an eye. After this point he becomes a menacing villain with a real emotional vendetta aimed at the protagonist. Like Captain Hook, the deacon really didn’t have a true villain’s presence until he received his injury.
For Comic Book Fans, the Batman villain “Joker” is also a prime example of a villain’s ascent after an injury. Before falling into a vat of acidic chemicals, our villain is simply a masked bandit. Afterwards, he is not only changed physically, but mentally. He has become one of the most memorable villains in comic book history.
So why do contemporary stories bestow villains with what used to go to the hero’s. And when did it start? I believe this is a topic you could write an entire volume, if not volumes on, and there may not be a simple answer. But I have found some contributing evidence.
While reading a piece on the Battle of 1066, I found a peculiar piece of information. One of the key historical figures, Harold Godwinson, was killed in a battle by an arrow to his eye (some sources say he was killed shortly after by a sword, but was still hit in the eye). I then found that an arrow to the eye was a symbol of perjury in medieval Europe.
An Arrow To The Eye
Harold, although king at the time, had promised the throne to William the Bastard, even if the throne was given to Harold. This promise was made while Harold was being held captive by William, so its very likely that he was pressured into swearing this oath. The winners, however, write history, and according to them, Harold went back on his word; this act of perjury leads up to the actual Battle of Hastings.
So hear is an example of a “villain” receiving a significant injury to the face. It is possible that our villainous injury motif was rooted somewhere in this earlier perjury motif. The roots could go even farther back. The bible does write of an “eye for and eye.” Maybe we didn’t just start giving our villains a hero’s motif, but evolved a much older idea.
There is another possibility that can be found within the history of the Punic Wars. Many historians debate over Hannibal’s military genius. Some argue he was brilliant, while others think he was just lucky. The controversial point in the timeline takes place after the battle of Cannae. Hannibal had been decimating the Roman legions and at the battle of Cannae, he successfully encircled the Romans and slaughtered 60,000 of them. Before Cannae, Hannibal has killed another 15,000 men. In both these battles, Hannibal lost very few of his own men.
After the success at Cannae, Hannibal was told by one of his generals that if he marched on Rome, they would take it. Hannibal said something along the lines of “maybe.” This is why people argue over his military intelligence. If he was so brilliant, why didn’t he take the big win? The answer may be found in the work of Polybius.
Polybius is one of the major sources for the Punic Wars, but he wasn’t there for most of it. It seems that Polybius was asked to write the histories by the family of Scipio Africanus. Scipio was the one who defeated Hannibal’s army at the battle of Zama. Some historian’s believe that Scipio’s Ancestors wanted to really build up Hannibal as a great warrior. This would elevate Scipio, and therefore his future ancestors, for his victory over an epic villain.
So maybe our contemporary use of villains is a reflection of Polybius’s Method; make a stronger bad guy, and your good guy is all the stronger for defeating him. No one would care much if Batman defeated the Red Hood, but taking down The Joker is a major victory.
The Villains don’t simply stop at this point anymore. They’ve now continued forward, borrowing another motif from our hero’s; resurrection and rebirth. In 2006, under the authorization of the Great Ormand St Hospital, Geraldine McCaughrean published “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” the official sequel to “Peter Pan.” In the story, the character of Ravello is introduced. He is an old circus ringmaster who joins in the adventure as Peter’s butler. Towards the end of the story, we find that Ravello is none other than Captain Hook. After being swallowed by the crocodile, Hook incubated within the stomach, changing, until was reborn as Ravello.
In the Scream movies, the masked murder finally is overcome, only to swing the knife a few minutes later once the audience has relaxed again. Sometimes, even when the Hero has truly won the day and walks away with the girl, after the credits have rolled, the audience is given a sneak peak that there is life in the villain and he’ll probably be back again in another sequel. In Carrie, we see this at the end of the film with a hand shooting out of a grave.
And so it would appear that our villains don’t die; they simply change into something stronger. Now we see how this motif can be useful. What better way to prepare for the dangers in life than admitting that they aren’t going to go away, but only come back in a new form; sometimes recognizable, sometimes not.
I like to think that Polybius’s method has had a strong influence on how we tell stories. In a time where writers are trying to come up with a new, powerful story, we make our villains super-villains and our hero’s into super-heros. In our post-postmodern society were issues are no longer quite so black and white, we like to see a little bit of our hero’s in our villains, and vice versa.