The Epic Metaphor For Life

Tonight, I caught a few minutes of an interview with Sylvester Stallone, conducted by Pat Robertson. It was not a new interview, but part of a series of interviews of famous people discussing their faith. At one point in the interview, Pat Robertson asks Stallone how he can consider Rocky a Christian story, as it’s all about boxing and men slamming each other until they’re bloody.

Stallone replies (and I had to keep stopping it to get the exact quote or as close to it as I could; it was beautiful, and I didn’t want to paraphrase): “There is one thing about speaking the Word. Eventually, you do need the crusader, someone who has to go out there and defend it and face evil one on one. And that’s pretty much what Rocky is. And the entire Rocky series has never been about ‘staunch reality’ like Raging Bull or other boxing movies. It’s more a metaphor about life. And then at the end of Rocky, this last one, Rocky Balboa, he has basically come full circle, and he just, at the very end, he just disappears and the entire journey is over.”

Ever since John C Wright posted the transcript of a speech on his blog, Ancient Epic and Future Fiction, I’ve been mulling over the human need for epic stories. Epic stories are so rare these days that we have what I like to call “detox symptoms” when we encounter them. What that means is, instead of the profound psychic well-being that comes from engaging with epics, they instead make us angry and break our hearts. Jeffro over at Castalia House likes to put together groups of links to articles he’s been reading, and in this recent list we find an article titled How the Lord of the Rings Broke My Heart. The article is not new; it’s in fact three years old, and I really didn’t want to link to it because of that. It’s very strange when an old blog post, one the author may have moved past, suddenly gets all manner of traffic. However, my blog is read regularly by about ten people, so I’m not going to make much dent in her traffic — not as much as the Castalia House blog probably did last week.

If you do read the article, notice the fourth paragraph down, when the author discusses Eowyn and her story trajectory. Eowyn fights in battle, and then falls in love and desires nothing more than to settle down and become a healer rather than a battle-scarred warrior. Essentially, Eowyn is having her own personal story within a larger epic. It turn out she doesn’t want to be a warrior; she wants to be a woman, and this breaks the heart of our modern female reader/watcher. The author clarifies her thoughts in the comments, when she explains that it isn’t that Eowyn marries and becomes a healer that breaks the heart, but the language Tolkien uses, which implies that marrying and healing are what Eowyn should have done all along. Being a warrior is unnatural for a woman, Tolkien implies. Along with talk of sexism in the article, there is talk of racism, but the charges of racism are passed over fairly quickly.

I’m not mocking this woman’s article. I enjoyed reading it. But I have to admit to ultimately finding it sad. It’s sad to me because epic stories have for thousands of years used archetypes to describe what it means to be male and female, and these archetypes are upsetting to a modern audience. There is no longer any sense of completion through our being actors in a larger cosmic story. In an archetypal sense, Eowyn’s story is perfect because she does rise up and fight; she is truly strong. She crushes the shadow or monster.

However, she’s traumatized by fighting, which demonstrates her humanity. What she perceives as healing for this trauma is uniting with the masculine, rather than continuing her masculine role of warrior. This is ultimately what heals mankind — facing the shadow, standing up to evil, and integrating the elements that make us who we are. Also, it helps to understand that in an archetypal sense men are warriors and women are not. It helps us when we grapple with the reality that exists behind the metaphysical concept of archetype.

Returning to Stallone, he recognizes what his story is: a metaphor for life. His story is an epic, and because he’s a Christian, his story is specifically a Christian epic. It’s an epic for all the reasons he gives in the quote. And oddly, because the Rocky films were mass media hits, people watched them and weren’t upset or heart-broken by them (except perhaps by the silly Russian one). This is because our souls recognize truth when they are caught off guard and able to see it. The heart-brokenness — the “detox reaction” — is artificial until we’ve gone so far as becoming Gollum. That was just to bring the Lord of the Rings back into it.



  1. @Jill, If I understand Jungian archetypes, and also what you are saying, when Eowyn kills the Witch King, she is conquering her own Shadow (Archetype of the Hidden and sometimes Darker aspects of Personality).

    Performing this important ‘Shadow Work’ allows for the possibility of integration with her Animus (Archetype of the internalized Universal Male). Tolkien uses a marriage to show this.

    By becoming a Healer, Tolkien is showing that she has become healthy and whole (integrated). In addition, marrying, or uniting with the Animus (the Animus, too, is a part of her), allows for the possibility of producing a child (the Divine Child), which also hints at the healthy transformation and integration that Eowyn has gone through (or will, shortly). She goes through all the stages of transformation/integration: Slaying the Shadow, Uniting with the Animus, and Producing the Divine Child.

    That Tolkien places a female in the role of an epic Hero in the universal Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell), I think, is a fair approximation of the time and space in which he lived, neither more or less.

    That she slays evil and goes on to marry and become a Healer, I think, demonstrates a symbolic integration of personality, which is the at the heart of all these tales.

    That all of this understanding is hopelessly out of fashion I understand. Postmodern thought will seek to say that there can be no archetypes or any universal values of any type, because truth cannot be known, simply put. This, I think, denies that humans, as a race, possess a certain amount of instinctual programming, some of which is tied to biology, sex, and the natural cycle/circle of life.

    At any rate, using Jungian archetypes has at least been a very illuminating thought exercise for myself, and does seem to resonate with a lot of people, at least on a subconscious level, given the impact and prevalence of these themes in art, religion, and literature.

    Just sayin’.

    1. It does resonate. I find that American culture is quite happy to skew the traditional archetypes, pat themselves on the back, and then call themselves clever. When their stories don’t resonate with large audiences (caught unawares, as in Rocky), they become more bitter and adamant about re-educating people. I actually think this is a big problem in the scifi/fan community, and why traditionalists have drawn battle lines.

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