Epic Heroism for the 21st Century, an undergraduate research project designed and written by students at Georgia Regents University, aims to educate secondary- and college-level students as well as the general public about the diversity of the concept of heroism. By defining fundamental heroic paradigms, the website authors analyze the continuities and divergences of heroism as ancient narratives that are carried forward into new media and popular culture. The site addresses the following research questions:

  • How have ancient paradigms of heroism been re-imagined in the modern era and for what purposes?
  • When we call someone a ‘hero’ in 2013, what do we mean, and what is the relationship of contemporary ‘heroism’ to past heroism?

The concept of heroism diversified early in the twentieth century; nevertheless, it maintained fundamental characteristics from the ancient world, such as: strength, mental and physical power, courage, and devotion to duty. Contemporary heroic narratives strongly emphasize the significance of family structures, psycho-social processes of identity-formation, personal development, and individual motivation; the importance of friendship and solidarity; and the heroic potential of ordinary people.


This site is structured around the heroic paradigms listed in the menu above. These paradigms identify common—not universal—behavior patterns and characteristics of heroic figures in narrative. The paradigms provide flexibility in the analysis of heroes because many heroes can inhabit more than one paradigm. For example, Beowulf is both a Monster-Fighter and a Savior-Martyr, while Judith is both a Female Hero and a Righteous Avenger. This paradigmatic approach emphasizes heroes’ deeds and functions in their diversity and multiplicity.

Giambologna, Flemish, 1529-1608, Hercules and the Dragon Ladon

Our paradigms do not coincide exactly with any past approach to the study of heroism. Myth criticism fostered discussion regarding the hero, and, at the forefront of myth criticism, anthropologist Levi-Strauss promoted the study of cultures “without writing” and contested the perception that myth was insignificant and counter-intellectual.[1] Following suit, several scholars began examining trends in narratives on an increasingly profound level. In his psychoanalytic theories, Carl Jung postulated the existence of archetypes in which “the psyche [manifests] itself in definite and specific archaic forms.”[2] Both Maud Bodkin and Northrop Frye adapted Jung’s view of the archetype,[3] with Frye defining the archetype broadly as “’an element in a work of literature, whether a character, an image, a narrative formula, or an idea, which can be assimilated to a larger unifying category.’”[4] Frye emphasized that archetypes unified diverse stories from many parts of the world; he “[used] the term archetype interchangeably with the term motif, emphasizing that the role of these elements in great works of literature is to unite readers with otherwise dispersed cultures and eras.”[5] Joseph Campbell also developed Jung’s concept of the archetype, arguing that “stories emanating from the unconscious structures of archetypes contain certain elements that help people navigate life. In fact, these myths and stories are microcosms or maps of the fundamental human life process, telling the story of all people.”[6] Campbell’s “Mono-Myth” and emphasis on the Hero’s Journey have emphasized the paradigmatic approach to this resource,[7] but this site demonstrates the diversity of heroism rather than insisting on its following one fundamental narrative path. In other words, not every hero follows Campbell’s structure for the journey of the hero; as the paradigms listed above demonstrate, heroes inhabit paradigms of heroic behavior in variable patterns and to diverse degrees. This offers the path of heroism to an extensive array of characters.

In our configuration, paradigms acknowledge more clearly the role of human creativity and intellectual engagement during the process of storytelling. Myth undergoes “a never ending process of re-creation” and those involved in this process move mythologies forward in conscious ways to negotiate and redefine values.[8]  These paradigms acutely analyze the heroic archetype and account for individual variation among heroes through character pages, an approach that allows for a more flexible definition of the hero. For example, Buffy Summers kills demons and monsters like ancient heroes, but of course, as a young, apparently fragile female, she inhabits the Monster-Fighter paradigm in a fundamentally different way than Beowulf or St. George. Even St. Margaret, an early female Monster-Fighter, performs her role differently than Buffy, with St. Margaret promoting purity and piety, while Buffy embodies teen struggles through the metaphor of monster fights.[9] Typically, the archetypal analysis reduces a character to broad generalizations with minimal crossover between character types, while also discounting the mythological “soup” notion endorsed by Tolkien.[10]  Campbell’s approach limited the inclusion of females within the heroic archetype by reducing the female character to a “mother” or “goddess” figure, which both Buffy and Saint Margaret immediately contradict. Most of these approaches also complicate the presence of Antiheroes, Righteous Avengers, or Noble Thieves because these heroic paradigms often create moral inconsistencies and contradict the general concept of a “hero.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer courtesy of http://aprilandjoseph.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341d81

 As a multimedia resource, this project recognizes the capacity of emerging scholars to mediate between the stories of the past and contemporary narratives, while also integrating academic research, the reading of traditional texts, and the critical analysis of new media. This web source also acknowledges that people in high school and early college increasingly engage with the world utilizing the internet, film, and video games. This level of engagement creates a unique advantage for undergraduate scholars, who are proficient in navigating these resources. Undergraduates thus meet the ideal qualifications to teach the university and the broader community about new media that integrate global historical narratives with modern storytelling.

Written by: Kayla Wirtz, Sarah Carter, Wes Milam, and Jacob Baggett

[1] Levi-Strauss, Claude.”’Primitive Thinking’ and the ‘Civilized’ Mind” in Myth and Meaning. Trans. Wendy Doniger.(New York:Schocken Books, 1995) 15-24.

[2] “Archetype,” New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 95, accessed 5 July 2013, http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?vid=2&sid=98e3d13d-7a44-4bf5-93bb-f6fa66938516%40sessionmgr111&hid=2&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=lfh&AN=18911570.

[3] See Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934) and Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

[4] Frye, “The Archetypes of Literature,” quoted in Mark Ryan, “Fearful Symmetries: William Blake, Northrop Frye, and Archetypal Criticism,” English Studies in Canada, 37, no. 2 (June 2011), 176, http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=5&sid=98e3d13d-7a44-4bf5-93bb-f6fa66938516%40sessionmgr111&hid=102.

[5] “Archetype,” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Literary Reference Center, accessed 5 July 2013, http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?vid=5&sid=98e3d13d-7a44-4bf5-93bb-f6fa66938516%40sessionmgr111&hid=2&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=lfh&AN=39044399.

[6] Jason T. Duffy, “A Heroic Journey: Re-Conceptualizing Adjustment Disorder Through the Lens of the Hero’s Quest,” Journal of Systemic Therapies 29, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 1, esp. 5, accessed 5 July 2013, http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=98e3d13d-7a44-4bf5-93bb-f6fa66938516%40sessionmgr111&hid=109.

[7] See Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

[8] Seznec, Jean, “Myth in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, University of Virginia Library, accessed 8 July 2013,  http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=DicHist/uvaBook/tei/DicHist3.xml;chunk.id=dv3-37;toc.depth=1;toc.id=dv3-37;brand=default.

[10] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories,” ed. Stacy Tartar Esch, accessed 8 July 2013, http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf.