Or Staying Fit with Mythological Paranoia
Assume, for a moment, that you have lived your life with images of people fighting giant serpents beating in your mind like a heart beat.
Also assume that your mind lives in a body that wants very badly to whither into nothing in front of a TV, and you have decided to battle this withering by forcing the body to run several miles down a dirt road that is nestled in, let’s say, a modest wilderness.
You like this road, for the most part. The scenery is nice, and there’s no one else around to watch you struggle. The anti-withering project goes well for several weeks.
Then one day the misaligned bouncy balls playing as eyes in your head spot a weird stick in the middle of that road. You can’t make out the details of the stick because you’re a bit of a priss, and left the glasses you need to compensate for one of your many physical defects back in the car because you don’t like it when they get sweaty. But your evolution recognizes the danger before your mythologically beating consciousness does, and moves you far to the side where the suddenly angry and rattling stick can’t bite you.
Somewhere at the midpoint of running past the rattlesnake you will realize that you had a split second space to choose to turn around, but the chugging momentum of your run has already carried you lateral with the snake, and the extra second of turning and running the other direction feels like daring the fates.
So you run past the snake. This is what they call “crossing the threshold”. You’re in another world now, starkly separated from the safety of your car by an angry snake, and at this point you might as well finish your run.
After this, every single shadow, stick. and rustling of the bushes will be a snake to you. You gain a new, vivid understanding that evolution has spent an incomprehensible amount of time tuning your body with reactions to avoid snakes, but your poor, soft iteration of that evolution has spent more time soaking up overblown stories of long-dead or entirely fictional people battling mutated versions of the real-life thing you just encountered, and now that under-prepared mind and body are effectively spinning in the mud with thoughts about snakes and your grotesquely bare ankles and where other snakes might be and why the hell did you not bring a stick or something you baby-skinned fool?
The good thing is that the adrenaline of the encounter makes running easier. The whole activity has been supercharged with meaning: “Don’t get bit by that god damn snake”. That purpose is only slightly shadowed by the knowledge that this road doesn’t loop, and at some point you’re going to have to turn around. It makes sense now why so many cultures tell stories about a world-shattering serpent, because your entire existence has now been brought into question.
After a mile or two, you might start to feel better about the encounter. Surely after so much time the snake will have moved on, and what are the odds of running into another snake in the road anyway? It’s not like snakes love being on roads.
But then you see a long dark shape in the road up ahead. You slow down, and your brain has already told you it’s eighty different kinds of snake and it is not at all a relief when you get up to it and see that it’s a dead hawk lain full spread eagle (or spread hawk) in the middle of the road.
A normal person might be relieved by this, but, again, your brain beats stupidly and softly with myth, so you know foreboding when you see it.
You run past the hawk. Your spinal column barely survives the repeated whiplash from you snapping your head from the bird corpse to every shadow along the side of the road and back to the bird. At this point you are eighty percent certain that you’re going to die, so every sound within forty yards sounds like a banshee cry. You are not even a little embarrassed when a titmouse flutters out of a tree and makes you squeal just the tiniest bit.
You get to the turnaround point, and this is where it starts getting very real, because now you’re running back toward the snake. It’s no longer a situation of being “beyond the threshold”. It’s the challenges in the belly of the whale, and you’ve run right through the trials and temptations and gotten nothing like a mentor except for a dead hawk, which, again, probably symbolizes your oncoming death.
This is approaching the innmost cave. This is marching toward the dragon’s lair. It’s climbing up to the medusa. It’s swimming out to Tiamat, except you aren’t St. George, Perseus, or Marduk, and you definitely aren’t Hercules, and even if you were you have nothing to even cut off the head of a snake with, much less cauterize the wound to keep two heads from growing in its place, and why did you not bring a stick or something you near-sighted jackass?
Even Bilbo knew he needed a good walking stick when he first left the Shire, and he was basically just some fat guy with a sweet living room before a wizard forced him into being an interesting person. What’s your excuse?
And there’s a kicker to that comparison: Bilbo was content and independently wealthy at the beginning of his story. Maybe his ordeal was Smaug, but the conflict he was trying to resolve was a bunch of dwarves eating his food and breaking his plates, and, at the end of the day, Bilbo didn’t even kill the dragon. He talked to it until it got mad and destroyed a town, and then thousands of people got in a fight over a jewel. You don’t have the luxury of talking to your snake, and, even if you did, most of the literature indicates that trying wouldn’t end well anyway.
Suddenly, from around the bend, come two men on mountain bikes. They’re going slow, and they seem relaxed. You’re about six miles into your run so you don’t really have the breath to say anything more than “good morning”, but they say it back, and they sound perfectly fine. You start to reason that they had to have ridden by the snake and come out fine. If it was still there they would have told you. Everything should be okay now.
That thought doesn’t last very long, because the thing about snakes is that they can move. And if it can move off the road, it can surely move back on. If there’s one thing you know about dragons or hydras or sea serpents it’s that they can be very cunning, and are specifically concerned with human destruction, and in this case “human destruction” translates firmly as “you destruction”.
You also reason, briefly, that this kind of thinking is why you have very few friends.
Regardless, the moment comes. You round a bend and descend the hill to the stretch of road that has been burned into your memory for the last forty minutes. It’s the cave, or the ordeal. It’s the moment, structurally speaking, that determines whether your life is a proper hero’s journey or a tragedy.
And there’s no snake in sight.
Again, this isn’t the relief you had hoped, because you know the snake is nearby. You just can’t see it, which is the particular element that the majority of horror stories thrives on, and, at its heart, horror is just a disastrously aborted hero’s journey. But you keep running. There’s still no snake.
You make it all the way back to your car without seeing anything at all snake shaped, and you even checked beneath your car before you got in and got the hell away from that trail. This is the “Rescue from Without”, or the “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”, which are supposed to be followed by you being a “Master of Two Worlds” and having the “Freedom to Live”, so you can’t help feeling a little nervous at the fact that you barely feel like the master one world, and, if someone were to ask, you wouldn’t be able to name what either of those worlds are.
First you wonder if maybe Hercules could have just run around the Hydra. But that would defeat the purpose of going toward it in the first place, which brings up an important pinch point in this flat story: you didn’t slay the serpent, which means the hydra is still out there and you haven’t actually had your Ordeal yet.
And if that’s the case, you’re somewhere in the “Temptress” portion after crossing the threshold. The temptress, here, is “not going anywhere near that fucking road again”, and that begs another question: Did St George really need to kill the dragon, or could he have just found another road to run on? Or, better yet, stayed home and got drunk?