Sworn To Valor:
Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Hero in Dragonheart
Heroes abound in all forms of storytelling; from the first heroic stick figures battling mammoths on cave walls to today’s movies and television, the hero has always been with us. As Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, all heroes, no matter their origins or abilities, have one important thing in common: they all travel through the same mythic journey. All heroes must endure the same stages in their adventure, which Campbell names departure, initiation, and return, for their story to be complete. Dragonheart, the story of a disillusioned knight finding redemption in the friendship of an ancient dragon, adheres to Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey perfectly.
Prince Einon is grievously injured. His mother, Queen Aislinn, and his mentor, the knight Bowen, turn to an ancient power, a dragon, to save the prince’s life. When the dragon heals the prince by bestowing upon him half of the dragon’s own heart, Bowen swears his allegiance as a knight of the “Old Code” to the dragon. “Call when you have need of me,” he swears. “Ask what you will of me. My sword, my service, are yours.” This is the first step of Bowen’s heroic journey, his call to adventure. According to Campbell, this call “reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood” (Campbell, 51). Though Bowen has probably always known that dragons exist, he is drawn into their “unsuspected world” by Prince Einon’s injury and Queen Aislinn’s faith. By swearing his allegiance to the dragon, Bowen is “drawn into a relationship with” a creature and its powers that “are not rightly understood.” And, ultimately, it is his failure to understand the dragon’s good nature that leads him to the next step in his heroic journey: refusal of the call.
Campbell says of this step, “Often in actual life, and not infrequently in myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered, for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests” (59). Shortly after the dragon saves Einon, now King Einon, as his father was killed in the same battle that wounded him, the former prince begins to show his true colors, becoming a worse tyrant than his father was. Bowen refuses to believe the boy he’d known could be as cruel as he’s showing himself to be. Bowen saves an old man from being blinded by the new tyrannical king and tries desperately to remind Einon of the Old Code. Einon responds flippantly, saying that the king is above the code. Heartbroken, Bowen leaves his former student and rides to the lair of the dragon that healed Einon. Not finding the creature within, Bowen shouts into the cave that it is the dragon’s fault that Einon changed. “Today I make a new vow!” he shouts. “I will spend the rest of my life hunting you down!” By making this vow, Bowen disregards his sworn allegiance to the dragon, leaving his “call unanswered.” He “turn[s] [his] ear to other interests,” becoming a dragon slayer and leaving the King’s service completely. This refusal of his call begins putting things into place for the third step of his journey: meeting his “supernatural aid.”
Twelve years after his vow to hunt the dragon down, Bowen is a successful dragon-slaying mercenary. Right after slaying an old, scarred dragon and taking her horn as a trophy to prove the deed done, Bowen meets Brother Gilbert, a traveling monk and scribe on a quest to discover Avalon, the fabled resting place of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Campbell writes about just such a meeting in The Hero With A Thousand Faces: “…the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure… who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass” (69). In Bowen’s current line of work, “dragon forces” are quite literal, and while he does not at first appreciate the monk trailing after him and attempting to write the “Ballad of Bowen,” Brother Gilbert’s company, faith in the Old Code and his skill as an archer prove invaluable to Bowen later in the film. In fact, Brother Gilbert’s unwavering faith in the Old Code is the main “amulet” he brings to Bowen’s arsenal. And it is his presence that makes the “guardian” of the next step show itself as Bowen “cross[es] the first threshold.”
Campbell explains the “first threshold” thus: “With the personification of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian’…” (77). In Dragonheart, this “guardian” is none other than the dragon himself. Bowen approaches the old reptile and challenges him to fight. In a way, considering the later events of the film, this event could be seen as the “first threshold” for both characters, human and dragon, with each as the other’s “threshold guardian.” The battle that ensues is as much a battle of wits as a contest of strength. The fight ends in a stalemate, leaving both characters entrenched in the next step of Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey, the aptly named “belly of the whale.”
The novelization of the movie describes this scene thusly: “The dragon reared up, opening his jaws. And opening. They distended like a snake’s, stretching inordinately wide as the jaw unhinged and the sharp eyeteeth fangs sprang out. Helpless, Bowen watched the black maw of the dragon descend on him” (Pogue, 83). At the last second, Bowen manages to retrieve his sword, but it is too late to keep from being scooped up into the dragon’s mouth. Undaunted, he pushes the sword tip through the dragon’s soft palate, shouting, “Your teeth come down and my sword goes up! Right into your brain!” Both combatants freeze, remaining in their positions long into the night. Campbell has this to say about “Mexican standoffs” such as this, in the step of the hero’s journey he calls “the belly of the whale”: “But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again” (Campbell, 91). As Bowen sits on the dragon’s tongue, surrounded by razor-sharp teeth and staring down the throat of his enemy, he is most definitely forced to “[go] inward.” Understandably, a conversation of sorts begins between dragon and dragon slayer. An agreement born of exhaustion and desire to remain living passes between them, and Bowen exits the dragon’s mouth. Face-to-face with his enemy, Bowen listens to the dragon describe their predicament, confirming that he is indeed the last of his kind. “How do we gain?” the dragon questions. “If you win, you lose a trade. If I win, I wait around for the next sword-slinger thirsting to carve a reputation out of my hide.” Finally, the dragon proposes a mutually beneficial alternative. Both characters exit the “belly of the whale,” being “born again” by their new agreement, and emerge into the morning light as allies rather than enemies. This alliance puts the two in line to enter not only the next step of their heroic journey, but also the next section of Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey, which he calls “initiation.”
The first step of the “Initiation” phase is appropriately dubbed the “road of trials,” and for Bowen and Draco, it consists of them going about their business as usual, as a dragon and a dragon slayer. In this “favorite phase of the myth-adventure,” (97), Draco pretends to attack small villages and Bowen plays dragon slayer by “shooting” the dragon out of the sky. This is always done over a deep lake into which the “dead” dragon sinks, and summarily swims away while the “dragon slayer” is paid for his work, and the duo move on to the next town. The trials Bowen faces during this period are not so much trials of physical strength as trials of emotional and mental fortitude. It is during this time of traveling together that Bowen gives the dragon a name: Draco, after the constellation. Bowen rationalizes what they are doing when Draco questions if this type of deception is “befitting a Knight of the Old Code,” saying, “All my life I’ve dreamed of serving noble kings, noble ideals. Dreams die hard and you hold them in your hands long after they’ve turned to dust.” Draco seems to let the subject drop then, agreeing that any kind of life is better than death. It is this “traveling act” as one critic dubbed it that eventually leads them to the next step of “Initiation”, a “meeting with the Goddess.”
Campbell says of this step, “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is one who comes to know.” (116). During one of their “attacks” on a village, they find themselves back at the village in which the original rebellion that lead to King Einon’s father’s death began. Kara, the daughter of the man who had incited the original rebellion, is trying to stir up the village against King Einon’s tyrannical rule. Bowen and Draco appear to run their little scam, and the villagers decide to attempt appeasing the dragon with a maiden sacrifice. Of course, they choose Kara. Draco obediently flies away with the maiden, but, much to Bowen’s chagrin, refuses to do away with her. Instead Bowen finds the dragon happily serenading the young woman beside his waterfall cave. It is this meeting, and the friendship of Kara and Draco, that leads Bowen to the next step of his journey, “temptation away from the true path.”
After returning to the village and unsuccessfully trying to run their scam again, Draco flies Bowen, Kara, and Brother Gilbert to far-off Avalon, the resting place of King Arthur. It is here, through the story of how dragons used to watch over humanity, that Draco finally reveals to Bowen that it is indeed his half-heart that beats within Einon’s chest. “Yes,” the dragon says bitterly. “My half-heart that cost me all of my soul.” It is the dragon’s belief that he cannot enter heaven without doing some good for humanity. He thought he was doing the right thing, but Einon’s evil might as well be his own as long as his heart beats within the tyrant. As Campbell says, “Wars and temper-tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations that come too late” (121). Draco then leaves with Kara and Brother Gilbert. Bowen is left at Avalon to be alone with his thoughts and regrets. And that night, amid a torrential rain storm, Bowen moves on to the next step in his journey, the magnificent “atonement with the father.”
“Valor… Valor… Valor…,” a deep voice cries into the night. Bowen is drawn to the foot of a monumental statue of King Arthur himself, glowing with an unearthly light. “A knight is sworn to valor!” cries the spirit of King Arthur. In a powerful scene, Bowen atones with the father-figure that the ancient king represents, repeating the entirety of the Old Code along with the king’s spirit. As Campbell observes, “Therewith, the center of belief is transferred… and the dreadful ogres dissolve” (130). Draco returns and shields Bowen from the rain. Reunited, and with Bowen’s spirit restored, the two companions return to the village together, moving into the final step of the “initiation” stage: “Apotheosis” or “becoming God-like.”
Meanwhile, Kara once again tries to convince the villagers to form an army and fight against Einon. Even with Brother Gilbert there with her, they are refusing to listen. Just when a particular villager is about to hit Kara with a shovel to knock her away, the shovel is hit by an arrow. Bowen rides his horse over a hill and down to the village, bow in hand. “Save your strength for the fight against Einon,” he says to the villager. Angry, the villager responds, “There is no fight against Einon.” Bowen smirks. “I’m going to start one.” On the villager’s sarcastic “You and what army?” retort, Bowen whirls and rides at top speed back toward the hill. As he reaches its crest, a powerful beating of wings can be heard. With the setting sun at his back, Draco rises majestically over the hill and Bowen as the knight’s horse rears up dramatically. Campbell says of just such an occurrence, “The hero has become, by virtue of the ceremonial, more than just a man” (154). It is true. Bowen is now more than just some knight riding around without being under the crown. Now he is Bowen, the Dragon Knight, and it is he who will lead the oppressed villagers to their freedom in the final step of his hero’s journey, the stage Campbell terms “the return.”
The first step of this final stage is actually a step backwards; Campbell calls it “the refusal of the return.” In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell says, “When the hero quest has been accomplished… the adventurer still must return with his life transmuting trophy… But the responsibility has been frequently refused” (193). Bowen has trained the villagers to fight, and with the dragon as their ace in the hole, they attack the castle. Draco keeps up a constant barrage on the castle itself, while Bowen and the villagers wage war in the forest surrounding the King’s grand castle. Einon himself leads his knights into battle, underestimating his former mentor’s capabilities to train ordinary men to be fearsome fighters and awesome tacticians. In the culminating moment of the battle, Einon is shot through the heart with an arrow. But rather than die, the King simply pulls the arrow out and stares at it. Meanwhile, Draco cries out as if he was the one shot, and crashed into the castle courtyard. Bowen and Einon realize the truth at the same time: as long as the dragon lives, Einon will remain alive, and be immortal. Einon makes his forces retreat to the castle, insisting that he wants the dragon kept alive and safe. That night, Bowen, Kara, Brother Gilbert, and a few of the core group of villagers arrive at the castle on a rescue mission. But just as Bowen is about to free Draco, the dragon insists the former dragon slayer kill him. “For Einon to die, I must die!” Draco says to his friend. “And it’s you who must do it!” Bowen refuses, and Draco tries to force him to do it by breathing fire at him, challenging him. Still, Bowen refuses. Einon attacks from behind them, grabbing Kara and threatening her, thus bringing Bowen, Kara, and Draco into the next-to-last step of the journey, “rescue from without.”
Campbell says of this common theme in the hero’s journey, “The hero may have to be brought back from his… adventure by assistance from without” (207). This is indeed the case with Bowen as he stands frozen, watching Einon wield a knife against Kara’s throat. Draco becomes the “assistance from without” by sinking his fangs into his own hand and causing Einon to feel the pain. Einon drops the knife and Kara runs away, picking up a double-bladed dragon-slaying axe and tossing it to Bowen, even as Einon recovers and charges his former mentor. Partially freed from his bonds by Bowen earlier, Draco lifts himself as far off the ground as he can, exposing his chest. With one scaly hand, he pulls up his own chest scales, exposing the scar he created when he gave half his heart to Einon twelve years earlier. Bowen, confronted with his friend’s death as the only way to end Einon’s rule, finally takes the final step of his hero’s journey and crosses “the return threshold.”
The novelization of this movie begins and ends with the same sentence, “This is the tale of a knight who slew a dragon and vanquished evil” (Pogue 1, 383). I find it amazing that one simple sentence can have two completely different meanings based on its context. Campbell says of this final step, “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world” (Campbell 226). Einon attacks Bowen with a short sword. Bowen holds the dragon-slaying axe in his hands. Draco has exposed his heart to the knight. For an instant, it seems as if Bowen will not do what he knows is necessary, but at the last moment he turns and throws the axe with the precision born of twelve years of practice. The axe buries itself in Draco’s chest, and the dragon falls to the ground. Einon is cut off in mid charge and collapses to the ground, panting. The lesser side of the dragon’s heart dies first, as Einon breathes his last breath. Draco lives long enough to see his “greatest sin” die, offers Bowen a tired, and somehow relieved smile, and then lays his head down, never to move again. “What now, Draco?” Bowen questions his friend’s corpse. “Without you… Where do we go? Who do we turn to?” And to the grieving knight’s surprise, he hears his friend’s voice one last time. “To the stars, Bowen,” Draco says from beyond the grave. “To the stars.” The dragon’s body glows, and then dissolves into thousands of tiny light particles, making their way up to join the constellation Draco. In giving his life, Draco completed his own hero’s journey, and redeemed himself enough to allow entrance to the Dragon’s Heaven. Bowen, knowing Draco’s spirit will continue to watch over him, can now get on with his life. Brother Gilbert observes at the end of the film that, “…in the days following Draco’s sacrifice, Bowen and Kara led the people in a time of justice and brotherhood… And when things became the most difficult Draco’s star shown more brightly for all of us who knew where to look.”
Dragonheart is a wonderful movie, and a perfect example of Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey. It’s overwhelming themes of friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice not only tell a strong story, but follow virtually every step of the journey; from the “departure,” through the “initiation,” and finally into the “return,” the story follows the carefully laid out ancient path, holding true to the journey throughout. And Bowen continually proves himself to be a perfect example of Campbell’s classic mythic hero.
Dragonheart. Dir. Rob Cohen. Perfs. Dennis Quaid, Sean Connery. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1996.
Pogue, Charles Edward. Dragonheart New York, NY, MCA Publishing Rights, 1996.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1973.