I’ve written before about using archetypes to help my students make connections between various stories and films. One of the most common archetypal devices storytellers use is the notion of linking a particular object to a hero. This association often occurs early in a story, and it is a process Christopher Vogler refers to as “seizing the sword.” Sometimes the object is literally a sword. For example, the young Arthur Pendragon must successfully draw a sword from a stone and anvil in order to become “King of all England by right of birth.” Later, he is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, and with it, a magical scabbard. Likewise, Beowulf uses his ancestral sword Hrunting to defeat various monsters, and when this sword breaks during the fight with the dragon, it signals the hero’s impending death and the eventual demise of his society.
In Greek mythology, the fourteen year old Theseus lifts a giant boulder to find a sword and a pair of sandals that had been left there for him by his father. This discovery sets the young hero on a quest to defeat the murderous monsters Sinis, Procrustes, and the Minotaur. In the same vein, Luke Skywalker’s journey toward his destiny begins when he receives his own father’s “sword”—a futuristic light saber.
While there are plenty of other examples of heroes seizing sharp, pointy weapons to fulfill their quests, storytellers sometimes use other objects to convey the same idea. The God of the Israelites gives Moses a staff which helps to defeat the Egyptians and lead his people to the Promised Land. Gandalf also has a staff which proves useful on numerous occasions in The Lord of the Rings saga. In the film The Natural, Roy Hobbs carves a baseball bat (an interesting variation on both the sword and the staff ideas) from a tree that had been struck by lightning. This bat would go on to serve Hobbs faithfully on his path to Major League greatness. When Josey Wales finds a lone, wooden-handled pistol in the smoldering debris of his family’s cabin, he teaches himself to shoot and becomes the killing scourge of the fallen Confederacy. And of course, what would Indiana Jones be without his Fedora and bullwhip?
I find it intriguing that so many storytellers down through the ages have relied on such simple concepts to bring their heroes to life. Yet as simple as this archetype may be, the range of personalities associated with these swords and sticks is as wide as the human spectrum itself. So while weapons and technologies may have changed, the basic motivators of human behavior have not, which is certain to make for countless more archetypal heroes in the centuries to come.