sistermagpie: Sigh. (Monet)
sistermagpie ([personal profile] sistermagpie) wrote2013-01-02 01:38 pm
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Refusing the Call

The concept, I mean. According to Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth there are these stages the hero passes through as part of that big uber-story where the hero has a thousand faces (and one of them is Luke Skywalker).

I was thinking about this concept this week because I finally saw The Hobbit and really enjoyed it. I've been resenting the fact that they took this small book and blew it up to be possibly even longer than LOTR. I just hate the whole "we're splitting this one book into more than one movie" trend and have since DH. So I wasn't in a rush to see this, but I went with a group of fellow pervy hobbit fanciers, and it turned out to actually draw me in more than I expected. Some of the ways PJ found to add more weight--both in terms of the plot and the emotions--I thought worked pretty well. One moment I really liked was Bilbo's refusal/acceptance of the call.



I'm calling it that because I was listening to a podcast where the movie came up. The person speaking was very much not a Tolkien fan. I don't think they'd ever seen or read LOTR and hadn't gotten very far when they tried to read The Hobbit. They felt the movie took too long to get on the road (a criticism another non-Tolkien friend of mine had about Fellowship, though she wound up loving the trilogy). They didn't see the need to watch dwarves do dishes, while of course I had a great need to hear them sing about what Bilbo Baggins hates.

Anyway, when asked why Bilbo didn't just go with Thorin & Co. right away they said, "Oh, I know! Because he has to refuse the call!" Because that's what Joseph Campbell says, right? You have to refuse the call and then accept it. Obi-Wan tells Luke that he must come with him to Alderan and learn the ways of the Force. Luke says he can't, he's got responsibilities--even though he's been champing at the bit to leave Tatooine and go to the flight academy. Obi-Wan accepts Luke's decision, but on the way home they come across the slaughtered Jawas, which tips Luke off that his aunt and uncle might be in danger. He zooms home to find them dead and the farm destroyed. Then he returns to Obi-Wan and says he wants to go with him, learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like his father.

George Lucas has of course openly talked about this as the refusal/acceptance moment. But I sometimes feel like all that gets a bad rap. Like, it starts to seem as if people do these things because they feel like they're supposed to according to some arbitrary story outline when really, Campbell just found this stuff in all sorts of myth because it makes sense character-wise. Unless you're a professional hero or a nut you actually should think it's crazy to drop everything and run headfirst into not only danger but a quest that seems impossible.

Okay, maybe not a nut. There are probably plenty of fangirls ready to step into the TARDIS tomorrow if it ever showed up. But that's because they've already struggled with the question in their minds. The hero in a story usually has it dropped into their lap. They need a really pressing reason to agree, and that's why you see a lot of first refusals.

For instance, while Frodo's departure from the Shire gets stretched out over a season in the book FOTR, he really doesn't refusal the call that I remember. He certainly doesn't do so in the movie. Of course his first response on learning he's got the One Ring in his kitchen is to do something other than ride away with it himself. In the movie he first says they'll just hide it since no one knows it's there. Gandalf tells him someone does know it's there: Gollum has given the Ringwraiths two words to go on, "Shire" and "Baggins." Frodo freaks out and tries to give the ring to Gandalf, who explains why he can't take it. Once that sinks in--which doesn't take long--Frodo closes his little fingernail-bitten fist around the Ring and asks, "What must I do?"

Sure one could point to Frodo's initial alternate ideas as a refusal, but he doesn't refuse to the point where Gandalf is starting to think about alternate plans. Because Frodo has good reason to go. It's like he realizes he's holding a live grenade in a crowd of people--he knows he's got to just run as far as he can and throw it. (I'm totally remembering the movie now, so I'm hoping I'm not forgetting some whole thing in the book that contradicts my saying he never truly refuses, just argues other possibilities first.) Once he gets it to Rivendell he volunteers to take it even further for pretty much the same reason.

Bilbo, otoh, like Luke, is faced with something more like an adventure. He's told of a problem that has little to do with him personally, but with which a white-bearded dude tells him he should get involved. I really liked how PJ did that in this movie. In Luke's case the burning of the farm takes his former life away so that his choice becomes one between moving forward or collapsing in the rubble. Plus it makes him see the danger in ways he didn't before. It's one thing to hate the Empire in an abstract way, quite another to feel it breathing down your neck.

Yet somehow I found Bilbo's scene a lot more effective. Having learned from Gandalf that there's no guarantee he'll come back if he leaves with the dwarves, and that if he does come back he'll be transformed into someone else, Bilbo decides not to go. As he really shouldn't if he is the kind of hobbit we're told he (and most other hobbits) are. So he says no, and falls asleep listening to the dwarves singing about the Lonely Mountain, and wakes up to an empty house. Somehow that empty house was more horrible to me than Luke's dead family! And I love Bag End--usually I'd love to think of waking up there and padding into the silent kitchen. But when Bilbo did it I could completely see it as he did right then. He'd gotten what he said he wanted, but he knew he'd made a terrible mistake. You couldn't have a company of dwarves at your table, have them ask to be your burglar and then say no and have them just leave! I had no trouble understanding why Bilbo tore out of there after the company. It was one of my favorite moments! (And I really liked how Bilbo would still later go from having an adventure to having a purpose he cared about in helping the dwarves--that, too, helped fit TH into the same universe as LOTR.)

Anyway, this is probably just stating the obvious. But I'm so used to hearing the whole Joseph Campbell thing tossed around--and tossing it around myself--that it somehow surprised me to remember that the reason these things showed up in so many myths was because it's good storytelling and accurate human behavior. It's not just about ticking off boxes on the outline. If there's a case for why the quest is important personally it makes more sense for the hero to take it on. I'm not knocking the SW version since it's often a logical, efficient one. But I thought that moment in TH was one of the most effective emotional moments in cinema for me. One that in a way summed up some of the conflicting emotions at the heart of Tolkien in general--the longing for home and the longing for adventure mixed up together.

There ought to be a word for that. Maybe there is one in Elvish.
jlh: Holly and Paul sitting near skyscrapers (duos: Holly and Paul in midtown)

[personal profile] jlh 2013-01-03 06:21 pm (UTC)(link)
I heard that podcast and remember that moment! I wonder if part of this is that in American mythology you're really not supposed to refuse the call. You're supposed to light out for the territory; you're supposed to feel internally dissatisfied and do what you need to do to make your life better. Teddy Roosevelt would not refuse the call. Don Draper would not refuse the call. James Kirk would not refuse the call--even in the new movie it's more that he's not sure it's a real possibility than that he actually initially refuses. All of the cowboys and pioneers in our past would not refuse the call. The pilgrims didn't even refuse the call. In American storytelling stasis is bad, it's deadly. You're supposed to reject the life of your father and find a new one of your own, however minimal that change might be.