Once upon a time a professor of philology, (that is to say, a lover of language), was daydreaming in his university rooms when he scribbled on the back of an anonymous exam paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” Thus was begun a true story—one of the greatest of the true stories ever told. A true story is a story that is true even if it is not factual. It does not just express truth or explain truth or argue for truth. It is simply true. It is true in a way that defies explanation and analysis and explication and argumentation. It is true because in its very fiber there is truth. It is true in its texture and structure. It is true through and through.
This kind of story is very rare in modern literature because the modern author either does not believe in truth at all, or he believes in a watered down sort of truth which is usually no more than an ideology or a collection of catch phrases which feel like wisdom. While this sort of story is rare in the modern world it was very common in the ancient world. The stories they told long ago were full of mystery, monsters and magic. They were full of depth and darkness and delight. They were superabundant with the supernatural and overflowing with all that was awesome. That is to say that the ancient tales were all about the interwoven mystery of gods and men. In them the mysterious realm was locked in an eternal interplay with the everyday world. In the old stories the invisible was alive within the visible and human beings were players on a supernatural stage. In those stories all the ideal throbbed within the real, and the dramatic interplay was constantly alive and frightening and unpredictable and exciting.
The true stories were constant pointers to the real possibility that the unseen world could interrupt this world, and that powerful forces were constantly at play influencing what seemed to be ordinary history. There was always something going on behind the scenes. There was always another level of meaning, a hidden truth and a veiled presence.
Where the Wild Things Are
This is why the hobbit (and Alice’s rabbit) lived down a hole. The hole was the entrance to the underworld. This is why Dante went through a dark wood and found a hole down into the underworld. This is why Neo goes into the alternative world in The Matrix, and why Batman lives in a cave. The heroes were all going into that deep and dark world where the wild things are. They were going into the unknown. This quest down into the unknown world is a sign (in one way or another) of the task of the mythical hero. He must be a person of two worlds: the upper world that is seen and physical and the lower world which is unseen and spiritual. He must go from the conscious with all its clarity to the subconscious with all its obscurity. In that sense the mythical hero is also a mystical hero because he must go on an adventure into the mystical realm. He must be both a physical and a spiritual being.
When the hero goes down into the underworld he is showing everyone who would be a religiously romantic hero that he too must go down into the depths. As Jesus Christ commanded his fishermen friends, “Cast out into the deep.” The ancient Hebrews were not seagoing people. They feared and dreaded the sea. For them it was the realm of the deepest and darkest things. There was the mighty Leviathan, the monster of the deep. Their prophet Jonah was cast into those depths and was swallowed up by the sea monster, only to rise again on the third day, covered with vomit, but triumphant. This is the process of the romantic hero. He must go down to go up. He must face the dark to find the light. He must go into the underworld like Orpheus to rescue his beloved, and the beloved he rescues is life itself.
To translate all of this into more ordinary terms, it means that if we are going to embark on the journey, then we must be willing to face the dark, and the first dark we must face is the darkness within ourselves. This is not a task for cowards, and most of us are cowards. Furthermore, we know we are cowards and we know that we must face the dark. “Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.” So, instead of facing the path through the grimpen where there is no foothold, we stay in the world of light, where we imagine we are safe, and we devise new and devious ways to deal with the dark: we project it on to others.
Instead of facing the darkness within ourselves, we see the darkness everywhere else but in ourselves. Of all the evils within the human heart, this is the deepest and the darkest evil, for when we project our own fears and unknown darkness onto others, then two dreadful things happen at once: we make others evil and ourselves good. As soon as we shift the darkness onto someone else they become the villain and we are launched upwards into the exhilarating heights of fake self glory and artificial goodness. This flight from the depths is the hallmark of the coward, and the sign of the truly dreadful villain. This is why, in the great stories, the greatest villains think they are good, while the greatest heroes know they are not.
The great hero knows he is not good because he has gone down into the dark underworld and found himself there. He has gone where the wild things are, and he has discovered that the wild thing is himself. The villain, on the other hand, is a big sissy. He is afraid of the dark–especially the darkness within himself. However, he pretends to be a big tough guy. He struts like Darth Vader who justifies his evil and continues to pretend that he is good. He blames others. He fears others. He views everyone else as the enemy, and before long everyone else is his enemy.
Down is Up
The hero, on the other hand, knows that he must go down into the depth, and he does so with the courage and the beauty and the grace of the pearl diver. He sheds everything that holds him back, and plunges naked and alone into the cold, dark depths. What does he find there? He finds the pearl of great price. He finds himself, but he also finds humility. Humility is a beautiful virtue, but it is also a beautiful word, for it is means “earth” and is linked with the words humus and humor. The hero goes down into the underworld. In other words, he goes down into the earth–into the humus, and as he does he discovers humility and good humor. He crawls under the bed where he thought there were monsters, and comes out the other side laughing for all he found was dust.
The startling truth about the religious hero, therefore, is that he is a man of the earth. Unlike the classical heroes who hold their heads high with pride, the Christian hero holds his head high with laughter—laughter at the world, laughter at the pride of men, and laughter at himself. He has come to know himself and what he knows is that he is a joke. He is laughable in his puny power and his high hopes, and because he laughs at himself, the Christian hero is above all heroes, the most dignified. It is only a humble person who can laugh at himself, and it is only the person who can laugh at himself who has the most dignity, for true dignity is based on true worth, and true worth is understood only in humility.
This is the essential story that has been told in every age and in every culture: the hero goes on a long journey to a distant, alien land. While the journey is outward and visible, the real journey is always inner and invisible. This is why the land where the hero goes is peopled with monsters, magic, wizards and all kinds of wonders. In myths and tales of science fiction and fantasy he goes to a strange and mysterious land because that represents the strange and mysterious land of the spirit that anyone who is truly human knows he must one day traverse.
Deep, down within each one of us we know that we must go deep down into that strange and terrifying land. It is the adventure we were made for. It is our destiny and our darkest desire. We know that we must go into that dark and mysterious place because each one of us are haunted by the realization that sooner or later we will go into the dark whether we want to or not, and by the dark this time I mean dark with a capital “D”, and the “D” stands not only for “dark” but “death.”
The trek into the unknown land, the way down into the dark is the journey that awaits each one of us, and the romantic hero always sets out on this journey alone because each one of us know that there is one journey that we go on with no companions: the journey into the land of death. This looming presence; this ominous call; this persistent summons lurks like a shadow on the other side of every solid object and every ray of light in our lives.