You know you are a literature major when you see an essay on a syllabus and get excited because it is your favorite “lit crit” essay — as I did when I saw “On Fairy Stories” on the syllabus.
As much as I would like to discuss “On Fairy Stories,” however, class discussion got me thinking about something entirely different. I cannot deny that something was really bothering me, and I believe here to be the best place to let it out.
Even before we read Peter and Wendy, class has often raised the question of Peter’s heroism. His conceit, selfishness, and lack of attention to consequences have many people claiming he is thoroughly unheroic. The problem with this understanding, though, is that it claims heroism is based on personality rather than choices or actions. Additionally, this understanding does not help us to understand the significance or impact of heroism, which is particularly important to literary discussion.
I will check myself, however, and note that hero studies in mythology have long been a preoccupation of mine. I have long believed that understanding a Joseph Campbell-like hero pattern is much more productive to literary understanding than labeling various personality traits as heroic. As such, I am biased.
According to a Campbell understanding of heroism, The hero and his or her path is defined by actions and choices rather than by personality traits, as the dictionary would have it. The simplest definition Joseph Campbell could describe in The Hero with a Thousand Faces was this: “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life enhancing return” (Campbell 35). The other 390 pages of the book emphasize the importance of self discovery, the nature of dichotomies, and the influence of actions for personal gain versus societal gain -- among much, much more. Essentially, a hero is called to adventure, crosses the threshold to a sequence of trials through which a revelation is gained, and returns to society with new power.
Peter repeats this cycle over and over, as he goes back and forth between our reality and Neverland. An argument against his heroism would be that his forgetfulness prevents him from learning and making a difference in society. However, he unconsciously makes an incredible impact around him, which fulfills his heroic role by changing the world around him.
Anyhow, I blew that steam out, and needed it. I would like to see us distinguish these notions in class more, as discussion would be more productive.