Since my post about heroism, I’ve known I would have to post on Lord Raglan’s scale for comparing heroes of legend. I learned about it while working on my English degree and was fascinated by the commonalities it revealed between various heroes.
Lord Raglan in his work, The Hero (1936), analyzed the legendary heroes of western culture and came up with a list of narrative features. Of all, Oedipus and Krishna scored the closest to perfect with 21 out of 22. [Note: Different experts interpret story vs. line item differently so you will see fluctuations on various sites regarding the actual numbers. Also, it doesn’t tend to apply as neatly to heroines, but I haven’t seen a scale built for them.]
The hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
His father is a king, and
Often a near relative of his mother, but
The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
He is spirited away, and
Reared by foster parents in a far country.
We are told nothing of his childhood, but
On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
After a victory over the king, and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and
For a time he reigns uneventfully, and
Prescribes laws, but
Later loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
Is driven from the throne and city, after which
He meets a mysterious death,
Often at the top of a hill.
His children, if any, do not succeed him.
His body is not buried, but nevertheless
He has one or more holy sepulchers
The scale was used to further the “myth-ritual” origin of religion and to demonstrate the commonalities across western culture. While many of its highest recipients are Greek, we also see English (Arthur, Robin Hood, and Guinevere at 19, 13, and 11 respectively), Judeo-Christian (Moses and Jesus at 20 and 19), and even heroes of current literature. People have rated Anakin Skywalker between 16 and 18, Superman @15, Optimus Prime at 14, Aragorn and Captain Kirk at 13, and Harry Potter at 8.
Some have used the scale as a sort of Occam’s razor for the veracity of historical truth with scores above a 6 being considered of suspicious historical accuracy. Personally, I just think it’s fun to think about what these commonalities say about our shared values.
In my last post I discussed my most embarrassing moment, so for this post, I’m delving deeper into the worst day of my life. [Don’t worry, I will swing back to my usual cheerful self in the next post, this one is just time sensitive.]
The season was spring of 1994 and I was finishing up my pre-student teaching coursework. The big event of the season was Kurt Cobain’s suicide which had many of my peers up in arms about “the tragic loss of an icon.” Personally, I was more into Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. I looked at it this way – here was a guy who to me had pretty much everything: wife, kid, and success in a field he was passionate about. How screwed up do you have to be to throw that away?
I was no stranger to dark thoughts, or needles for that matter, having been a medical guinea pig. There were no “it gets better” videos for boys who struggled with asthma and hypopituitarism. I had always been less physically mature than my peers, having just entered puberty at the age of 25, and my social maturity was also skewed – a modern day Peter Pan. I had never truly fit in, aside from gamers, English majors with similar genre interests, techies, and the student newspaper staff (given my fascination with superheroes, you had to expect I did the mild-mannered reporter stint, right?). I had looked into that void numerous times, often under the influence of Hamlet and vodka, but I always found some semblance of hope.
So when I got together late that month for our combined birthday week with my former A&E editor, Mike Champlin, I was ready to let loose and celebrate. While we waited for our third amigo to join us, we started buying each other drinks. I had my obligatory fruity drink followed by a long island and I was comfortably numb through the first set of the local band Blue Velveeta, before they went “plugged” for their second set in deference to the MTV phenomenon.
Our third amigo never showed up but I didn’t seem to care for the rest of the night. My attempt at moshing devolved into slam dancing to amped versions of Tori Amos and folk songs. I got home after bar close and insisted that one of my roommates make me hashbrowns while I proceeded to unburden myself with pretty much everything I had consumed in the last 6 hours.
I assume I made it back to my bed or was carried, but I got up the next morning feeling like the grave. I had luckily developed some semblance of responsibility after hitting puberty as I made the long walk up the hill to the university as the previous month I had been elected to the presidency of our campus gamers society.
I don’t remember much of that day. The next thing that I can solidly remember is sitting in an alcove in the kitchen either that night or the next being told by Mike that the reason Tom had been unable to make it was he had an aneurysm that night and had been rushed to the hospital. He was in Rochester and was in bad condition, but there was hope. I was in disbelief. He had been so full of life, always witty and smiling. I thought back to the night we spent drinking at Mike’s place talking about all things geeky and literary. We took turns filling a mutual friend’s answering machine with fake telemarketers whose inquiries eventually turned to “animal husbandry” as it was a phrase that raised that friend’s hackles.
After the phone call I watched Vampire Hunter D. It was the last thing that Tom had given me. Tom had accumulated the most extensive collection of horror films in southern Minnesota. Vampire Hunter D had been my favorite of the bunch and had turned me onto anime as an art form. (Full movie – beware, it’s early 80s anime)
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see him or not, but as I didn’t have a car, it was going to be a bus ride up to Minneapolis and back down to Rochester and a night’s stay which I really couldn’t afford. I was also unsure of whether I wanted to see him like that – if it would forever cloud my memory. We had some hope for a recovery and I believed that it would happen.
While I vacillated, the unthinkable happened. I got another call from Mike a week later informing me that Tom had passed away. I was shocked. I had never had anyone so close to me die. A few years earlier a guy who I had hung out with a couple of times in the literary circle had been killed in a motorcycle accident, but this was my inner circle. On Halloween 1990 after putting the newspaper to bed, Tom and I had pulled a Dead Poets’ stunt and snuck into a graveyard to tell ghost stories and recite poetry by candle light (in thematic fashion, it was a black candle I had purchased while on assignment at Renaissance Festival).
Tom’s parents respected what Tom’s wish would have been and held the funeral on Friday the 13 of May. They celebrated his life by bringing in memorabilia from his collection including a large model of the NCC-1701-D. I recognized a number of former Reporter staff there and numerous Free Press staff members at the funeral and we chatted briefly afterwards. We wound up getting together afterwards at the Reporter office to reminisce about Tom and common memories. I had thought of potentially going to the late matinee of The Crow which I knew Tom would have enjoyed, but it felt better to be with his peers.
I then headed home to change out of the black shirt and tie in preparation for a gathering at Mike’s. Shortly after I arrived home, I got the call from my parents. My grandmother (the grandparent I had always been closest too) had a stroke and was in a hospital in Rochester. I wound up crying, it was far too much in too short of a time frame.
I was late to the party, but I showed up and my friends helped console me. I didn’t stay very late as I wanted to get home to be by the phone in case there was another call. As crushed as I already was, I wasn’t optimistic and I was worried that I wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye like with Tom.
Luckily, my grandmother pulled through with partial paralysis on the right side of her body which meant she wound up listening more than contributing during chats with my aunts about grammar. She was with us for a few more years, and the tears would come back at her funeral during the grandchildren’s eulogies (I spoke about how she inspired me and recited Sonnet 29 from memory as she had turned me on to Shakespeare).
I’ve had a lot of bad days in my life that I haven’t written about, but none have matched May 13, 1994 in terms of initial and enduring emotional impact. I’d never known death that intimately before.
This timeless classic helped me to keep my eye off the abyss in times like those. In true Shakespearean style, it builds through the first and second quatrains, exposing the narrator’s darkest thoughts – feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and self-loathing. Then in the third quatrain it turns as the narrator considers his loved one and the clouds metaphorically part. The ending couplet completes the swing from depression to joy.
There are times in our lives that we all wish we could do over. That one embarrassing moment that pops into my head at the most inopportune times took place in the wee hours of the morning on a long trip home from Texas.
It was March 30th, 1998. You might think I would remember the date with accuracy because of my paternal grandfather’s funeral that weekend. There are pictures in my head of that day that will stick with me: the Texas countryside in its purple and green splendor instead of the dry husk as I normally saw in the late summer, the creepy guys in robes at the service who were probably free masons or their ilk, my grandfather’s assistant waiting behind the church because he lived in an area where some traditions had not yet entered the modern era, and taking a photo with my cousins, suddenly aware that with the passing of both grandparents, we were now the second generation.
It was a sobering experience and a lot to process. I would never again be asked to “come over here and pull my finger” just as there were no more lazy mornings out on the lake in his fishing boat. Long gone were the days when we would try to pull out our baby teeth in Texas because the Texas Tooth Fairy paid double.
The true reason I remember the date is because a tornado had just cut a swath through the heart of south central Minnesota the afternoon prior, doing over $235 million in property damage. I had no idea if my home, office, co-workers, students, or friends were still in one piece. We had seen reports on CNN before we started back, but we did not have wireless Internet like we have today so I was completely in the dark on what was going on.
Somehow in the midst of all this chaos, I was able to sleep as my brother Andy drove the first leg of the trip home. We’d packed all 4 sons and both parents into Mom’s minivan and Dad’s car. The halfway point was in Missouri on an off ramp in a commercial/industrial park, so no convenience stores for about 20 miles either way. Andy got out to stretch his legs and woke me up. I was a bit groggy. It sounded like he said was getting in the van to sleep so I slid over into the driver’s seat and waited for the minivan to take off.
I followed them back over the highway and down the on ramp. They swerved suddenly and then gunned it. I wondered what the commotion was about when my headlights illuminated my brother in the middle of the road with a crazed look on his face. I slammed on the brakes and let him in. As we drove to catch up with my parents he let me in on his harrowing dash down the embankment, over a fence, across 2 lanes of highway and the median, just in time to avoid getting hit by my parents and catch up with me.
My mind started going through all of the possible scenarios given the distance to civilization, the fact that we were in the middle of Missouri in March. I felt so small and so stupid. I didn’t have to worry about keeping myself awake for a couple hours. From the point where we stopped for munchies and gas and explained it to my parents and brothers to somewhere just south of Minnesota, I don’t remember anything – it was just moment after moment of beating myself up mentally while maintaining distance from the minivan’s rear bumper.
The story comes up in conversation now and again. Some times as a joke, but some times I think he remembers the panic and then it’s not so funny. If there is any saving grace to the incident, it’s that the embarrassment eclipses what I felt when I accidentally flashed the girls in my 1st grade class, which up until that point had been my most embarrassing moment.