A guest post by Jody Gentian Bower, Ph.D. The initial quote is from her book Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.
"The Aletis represents a feminine archetype every bit as important as the masculine archetype of the hero. This is why people keep writing her story, trying to put down in words something felt and understood unconsciously, something important about women."
Ever since Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, the story of the Hero’s Quest has informed the thinking and writing of countless authors, scriptwriters, folklorists, mythologists, and depth psychologists. Campbell’s work forms one of the pillars of education at Pacifica Graduate Institute and continues to be amplified by and inspire the work of many Pacifica students and faculty.
The Hero is almost always male, however, and so there has been a concurrent effort to either re-vision the Quest story from a female perspective, or to find another story that fits a woman’s journey to individuation better. Works such as The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock and The Bridge to Wholeness by Jean Benedict Raffa fall into the former category, while Christine Downing, Jean Shinoda Bolen, and Clarissa Pinkola Estés are examples of authors who have sought wisdom in myths and folktales featuring goddesses, princesses, and witches.
Yet none of these efforts look at the stories women write. Three decades ago, I began to be aware of a pattern in the books I read by women authors that was consistent across time, from the Middle Ages to recent novels. Once I noticed this pattern, I found it in the biographies of famous women . . . and in my own life. Intrigued, I researched this pattern for my dissertation.
What I found is that women—and quite a few men, including Apuleius, Shakespeare, and Dickens—write a story about a female protagonist that is different in almost every particular from that of the Hero’s Quest. While both the young hero and the young heroine are misfits who have to leave home, from that point on the two stories take very different paths.
The Quest is a circle; the Hero returns home after accomplishing what fantasy author Sheri Tepper calls “the single wondrous thing”: he slays the dragon or defeats the evil Emperor and by this act both saves the community and proves his manhood. He is now able to connect without fear to the feminine, and so marries the princess and rules his kingdom with her.
The heroism of the heroine—I call her the Aletis, a Greek term for “wandering heroine”—is very different. Instead of proving herself by a single feat to a community that wants her to be extraordinary, she has to constantly fight against the expectations put on her to stay at home and conform. Instead of being called out on the Quest by some external sign, she is forced out of home by her will, and wanders until she learned how to be herself in every situation. She never returns home but instead creates a new and better home somewhere else.
While the Hero preserves or restores the status quo, the Aletis has a transformative effect on others. Rather than forcing change, she enables it by providing a role model—not just for women, but also men who do not relate to the Hero archetype—on how to honor one’s feminine traits in a society that privileges the masculine. She shines a light on what needs to change.
Hers is the story of Psyche, Vasilisa the Beautiful, Viola of Twelfth Night, Jane Eyre, and Hermione Granger. It is the story of most famous women and, indeed, most women I know (and some men!). It is time to look more closely at these stories for the wisdom they have to offer us.
keywords: Joseph Campbell, Hero’s Quest, heroine journey
Jody Gentian Bower earned her Ph.D. in Mythological Studies from Pacifica in 2012. She is the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story (Quest Books 2015); has contributed to several other books, and blogs about myths and archetypes in television and the movies at jodybower.com. She also speaks and facilitates workshops on the wisdom of women’s stories. A professional nonfiction writer and editor for 30 years, she has taught writing classes, coaches professionals and students on effective writing, and offers editorial services to writers at every level.