Chapter 1 in the series Myths and Dragons
In February of this year, Saigon released “The Greatest Story Never Told”. Saigon spent some time in prison for shooting at someone in a bar. He has referred to the album as a kind of testament to his redemption. The Background section on the wiki page reveals a few intriguing parallels to many redemption stories.
In 1965 a movie came out called, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” A child is born in a humble stable of a small town from a backwater province in a vast empire. The child grows and becomes a passionate teacher and guide, wanting to effect social change in his people. He challenges some of the traditions in place and is brought before the legal system of the province. The hero dies by crucifixion on top of a hill.
Christians know this story quite well. It’s the story they base their lives on, the story that is supposed to be their guide, their map, in navigating through life. And the pride they take in that story can be seen by the title. I mean, it’s a pretty bold statement, right? The Greatest Story Ever Told.
It can be kind of surprising how familiar this sort of story can be, regardless of what culture you grow up in. The setting, the events, and the characters may take different forms, depending on which culture is telling the story, but the story seems to go the same way each time. A humble beginning and a series of challenges lead the hero to a dramatic moment where a treasure is won that can change the lives of people forever.
Every story is part of something even bigger than one culture. Each story is a telling of the Greatest Story that’s Always Told.
What’s the Greatest Story Always Told?
Great stories tend to either be based on common experiences or on their ability to make what happens in the story feel like a common experience for the readers. Great stories draw on things with emotional significance for people or produce emotional significance for the readers. And great stories create those moments where the reader is sharing the events with the characters, involved and part of the story as much as reading it.
Long before Saigon, and long before the movie, and long before the events that inspired that particular telling of that version of the story, there were tens of thousands of years of storytelling. In those long years, people may not have had our culture or education system, but they certainly had time. And in those long thousands of years certain patterns emerged. Quests. Romances. The challenge of understanding nature. The challenge of understanding social culture. The challenge of bringing new information or innovation to use. The challenge of facing change.
There’s a saying that if you chain enough monkeys to enough typewriters, they could produce a masterpiece even just by chance.
Our ancestors didn’t have typewriters. But they were apes, they had good enough memories to hold and share their stories, and they had a mythological consciousness that could comprehend, on some level, the vast importance of the patterns emerging in those stories. But maybe most important of all, they had time.
Our literary history is almost literally the story of chaining so many apes to the memory-recording-and-processing-machines that are our brains, letting trial-and-error run its course, and then waiting while time churned out those masterpieces and changed how we viewed our lives in the world.
Mythology and storytelling have had one crushing advantage above all other forms of expression.
Now strangely, over those vast stretches of years, there is a common thread of experience that we can all share, with our ancestors, with our neighbors, with everyone on this story-filled planet. And it’s starting to look like we even share it with some other animals, too.
What’s The Most Common Experience We Share?
Some might say death. It’s certainly something we all must encounter, but there is something even more common. Behind our emotions like love and fear there is something even more common to us all.
What do you do when faced with uncertainty? How do you act when you don’t know what to do? What is your attitude towards new information, or something that you cannot yet comprehend?
Change. And what to do when faced with the something you don’t know. Experiencing the unknown is more common than death and is the instigator of the whole spectrum of emotions.
Somehow, those apes, chained through time and working steadily away at their masterpieces, recognized that the right attitude while facing change could make the difference between a hero and a loser, between a family’s growth or falling apart, between a community’s survival or destruction.
Creation stories, hero stories, epic quests, battles between gods, all say something more than what’s found on the surface if you’re willing to explore. Behind each word there are a thousand thousand apes with a thousand thousand moments of deliberation. And quite possibly, there are millions of voices bringing that story to you. It isn’t just a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. You are standing on the shoulders of every conscious creature that has called this world home.
The Greatest Story Always Told, as this proud title suggests, holds a great pattern that addresses the process of change. Some stories may use all the elements of that great pattern. Some might not. And some stories might even reverse or modify the steps. Story can be a dangerous shape-shifting beast, but ironically it can be understood and even mastered if you serve it well.
The Greatest Story Always Told is the Hero’s Journey. It’s a map on how to live in each moment, and can be used as a complete and workable moral system on its own.
There are three main parts of the Hero’s Journey, and they can be further broken down into smaller steps. These are guidelines and labels, but not hard and fast rules.
If we help people face change and adopt the hero’s attitude – respect and responsibility towards what is already known, humility and curiosity to the unknown, appreciation towards the mentor, willingness to take on trials, confidence once skilled qualification has been achieved, and voluntary distribution of gifts – then we would be giving people the tools and the process needed to transform their own lives and communities.
The Greatest Story Always Told earns its bold title because it’s about you, every single time it is told, and it holds the key to the treasure that can be your life. But you have to take part in it and choose wisely, each step of the way.
The Hero’s Journey
For reference, here is a short description of the parts of the Hero’s Journey. The choices at each ‘stage’ will be looked at more closely in the post “The Structure of Behavior”. [If you have questions, suggestions, ideas or possible edits to give, please leave a comment below.]
1. Departure From Home
Separation from the known, experiencing an anomaly or something not comprehended, stepping into the unknown
||What is known and predictable. Characters and culture are introduced, things go as expected.
|Call to Adventure
||A problem, challenge, or anomaly appears. Something threatens the home culture and isn’t fully understood.
|Refusal of the Call
||Usually an emotional response to the call. The hero ignores the problem or finds reasons to not address the call.
|Meeting a Mentor
||A guide or some form of help appears. It is often unexpected. or only partially understood.
|Crossing the Threshold
||Full commitment to addressing the unknown, often taking the form of a first obstacle to face or act upon.
The world changes. A mental journey merges with a physical journey in order to develop consciousness, awareness of self, awareness of purpose, and spiritual awakening.
|Tests, Allies, Enemies
||The hero undergoes trials and is found vulnerable, but also possessing unexpected strengths.
The hero may find an ideal companion that encourages or helps with going further. Someone sees value in the potential change and in the hero.
The hero might find a distraction or block in the journey. Someone or something wishes to halt change.
|Viewing the Whole Picture
||The hero is able to go beyond his/her own initial ignorance and sees the ultimate trial or sacrifice.
|The Ultimate Treasure or Ultimate Challenge
||The hero can come out of the darkest moments transformed. The hero is the wielder of new insight, but there has been a price to pay, emotionally or physically
After sacrificing the old self, the hero has found an enlightened state, and must choose - bring the new gifts back to the old known world, or remain suspended in a perpetual state of challenge and change.
|Refusal of the Return
||A moment of choice between escaping from or staying in the realm of enlightened change. The hero is often alone or isolated at this point.
|The Chase and Rescue
||Some peril still remains because this is the realm of the unknown, and so escape can be treacherous or filled with trials. The hero may even need help from someone else as a reminder of the interdependence involved in social living.
|Crossing the Threshold
||Back to the known world once again, only it is now (or still) in jeopardy of collapse. The hero uses the new insights or hard-won gifts (a weapon or elixir or new information or new attitude) in a final challenge of application which re-orders the old world, making it stronger, more complex or new once again.
|Master of Two Worlds
||Home becomes a state of being, and the hero becomes comfortable, living in the moment and able to face both known and unknown.
Hero no longer fears change due to possessing the ability and good attitude towards both the known world and the unknown world.
Hero may even voluntarily enter death for something that is more important than his own survival.