By Anthony Stanley.
For the past few months, I’ve been teaching creative writing. Now that’s not me being ostentatious in making that statement, the facility I teach in is for heavily marginalised individuals – some of whom are homeless or possess a chronic addiction. So I’m not trying to claim that I’m a literary lion. But in teaching the course I have become more and more exposed to the concept of the Hero’s Journey, a monomyth espoused by Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. From Gilgamesh to Jesus, from Theseus to Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece, from Don Quixote to Han Solo, from Frodo to Harry Potter; this journey has many stages and a great many are a constant through disparate cultures, mythology and religion.
A disclaimer – I view Rodgers as a hero. When Suarez left, I didn’t worry too much as I was of the opinion that we still possessed that X factor in the Ulsterman. But I fully understand that there are still a great many who are not as behind Brendan as I am. ‘Hero’, for the majority, I suspect, is going too far. So let’s call him the protagonist – he is, without a shadow of a doubt, the main protagonist of the narrative that has been Liverpool’s season.
No screw it, I’m calling him a hero – it’s more dramatic, it’s how I view him and it’s how I expect the majority of Liverpool fans will within the next year or so – sometimes dodgy soundbites notwithstanding.
So, what is the hero’s journey? Campbell identified twelve stages, some of which are literal; some metaphorical. The first is the Ordinary World – the safe place, where the hero resides, oblivious to the trauma and adventures that may be ahead; we can identify with him and we can empathise with his plight.
The second stage is the Call to Adventure – a call to action, the stability of his world has been threatened, and the hero’s relative comfort is disrupted. A challenge is starting to manifest itself. Think Luke Skywalker meeting the droids for the first time or Frodo discovering the grim truth of the Ring.
The third stage is the Refusal of the Call. The hero may wish to accept the call to embrace his fate and destiny but something – some fear or obstacle – is holding him back. He may suffer for not answering the call and his situation may worsen; the reluctant hero must step up.
After this, there is Meeting the Mentor: simply put, at the stage of his journey that he desperately needs guidance, he meets a figure – or concept – that can do just that.
The fifth stage identified by Campbell is Crossing the Threshold – the hero is finally ready to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This may be leaving home for the first time or overcoming an uncomfortable obstacle. This stage signifies the hero’s commitment to his epic journey and determination to meet whatever may lie ahead.
The hero then encounters Tests, Allies and Enemies – he is confronted with an ever more series of challenges which will test him in a variety of ways. Every obstacle must be overcome in the search for the ultimate goal; he will learn who he can trust, who is friend and who is foe and he will have to face down and triumph over some of the latter.
Now the hero is ready for The Inmost Cave; this can be literal but is typically metaphorical. It could be an inner conflict which must be resolved, it could be a location that must be reached – but it is a leap into the unknown. At this juncture, there may be more doubts and fears that were first encountered earlier on his journey. This may be a time for reflection, to view the path thus far travelled and to anticipate the treachery of the road ahead.
The eight stage is the Ordeal and follows organically from the Inmost Cave; it could be a dangerous physical test or it could be a deep inner crisis that the hero must overcome in order to continue his journey in this world.
If he can overcome this stage, the hero is granted a Reward which Campbell called Seizing the Sword – the hero may be transformed and emerges from battle with greater resolve and steel, often with a prize; this could be a weapon or reconciliation with allies, it could be the acquisition of greater knowledge or insight. But crucially, despite this hard-fought boon, the hero must quickly move on; his journey is not yet complete.
He now faces the tenth stage in Campbell’s monomyth; that of the Road Back. He must return to the known world and, though there are dangers ahead which the hero anticipates, there is also the promise and hope of acclaim and absolution, of vindication and perhaps even exoneration.
But first the hero must face Resurrection; this is the climax and where the he must face his most dangerous encounter with death. It is the final battle and its outcome will, not only determine the hero’s fate, but also have far reaching implications for the Ordinary World that the hero left behind. The hero is on a precipice as the reader shares his conflict, his hopes, his trepidation. But the hero vanquishes his enemy and emerges from the battle reinvigorated.
And so the hero returns home with the Elixir; he has grown as a person, has faced many trials, and has stared into (metaphorical or literal) death’s beady eyes. He returns and brings renewed hope to those around him and obtains a final reward. The story now reaches a resolution; his enemies are vanquished or punished, his friends rewarded. The hero is back at the beginning of his journey but – crucially – thanks to what he has learned and the trials and tribulations of his journey, he will never be the same person again. The metamorphosis is complete.
Right, still with me? Not hard to see parallels is it? Am I guilty of artifice in suggesting that the narrative of Rodgers’ season and journey follows the constants of the hero’s journey? Perhaps, but I don’t really care. I love having something to believe in, I adore having something to get behind. The pain in defeat is real because I care so much; I support the club – not any individual – but for years I’ve attributed Messianic levels of kudos to Rodgers. I won’t apologise for that.
Rodgers’ very own Ordinary World was the beginning of the season. Lauded by his peers, about to embark on a return to the Champions’ League, he was secure in his surroundings despite the fact that he had lost a talisman. Southampton were dispatched with a less than impressive performance but the joie de vivre of the previous season was resurrected when Spurs were trounced. Still the Tricky Reds, still onwards and upwards – all very familiar to what we expected.
We’ll probably all be of the same opinion at the identity of the crisis which signaled the Call to Adventure; the injury to Daniel Sturridge. The stability of Rodgers’ world was threatened, and the Ulsterman’s relative comfort was disrupted. Things were changing though we had no idea to what degree. The injury to the England striker meant Rodgers’ world – the tried and tested blitzing of the previous season – was in serious jeopardy.
But Brendan – perhaps because he, along with the rest of us – underestimated the degree and length of time of the injury, resisted any change. He refused the call and sought to get by with a mishmash of options including playing a relatively immobile centre forward as a replacement for Sturridge. Though his world was changing irrevocably, Rodgers resisted the need for transformation and persisted with a line-up that looked both turgid and toothless. Quoting Einstein erroneously and his definition of madness became the status quo for many Liverpool fans. The road ahead looked perilous and the comfort of home looked profoundly tempting. But the path did reach a fork and Rodgers met a metaphorical mentor eventually.
The mentor could actually be a few things here; Campbell stresses that the hero, rather than actually meeting an archetype as when Luke meets Obi Wan Kenobi, could simply gain insight into a dilemma he faces. We know Rodgers said that he stayed awake at night searching for a solution to the rapidly escalating troubles of his porous and impotent Reds. It was possibly a combination of this and a potential eureka moment as his Liverpool side took on Basel in the Champions’ League tie that may have had a mentoring effect on the Liverpool manager. The Swiss champions played with a 3-4-3 formation that night; Rodgers would need strength and courage to begin his quest to transform the fortunes of his team but he may well have been given the tools for this recovery from the wreckage of another wretched European performance. That’s right; for quite possibly the first time in their history, I’m calling Basel a mentor, at least in part.
Rodgers’ own personal threshold may well have been the Crystal Palace game; Campbell illustrates that the hero may go willingly or may be pushed – this may have been the shove the Ulsterman needed to finally venture into the unknown. This was the nadir of the grim winter of discontent; this was when the Reds looked as poor and disjointed as any team in the Premier League. Quite simply, something had to change.
What of the Tests, Allies and Enemies? Probably self-explanatory as our protagonist takes his first unsteady steps out of his comfort zone and into the world of the unknown. Who can be trusted and who cannot? Let’s simplify it to the striking options as Rodgers puts his faith in the electric mobility of Raheem Sterling and dispenses with Balotelli. Lucas is recalled to help steady the defensive ship, Lovren (due to injury) is replaced firstly by Johnson away to United and then – and with steadying and cumulative aplomb – by Can. The tests are legion though and the embryonic system is given a battering by the old enemy; the result may be 3-0 to United but the manager senses a shift. The performance – for the first time in months – is vastly encouraging. There is a cave ahead and Rodgers must trust in his abilities to negotiate it.
The Inmost Cave beckons, the ominous fissure looms ahead and Rodgers must prepare for a leap into the unknown. This test seems to last forever. After the gut-wrenching blow to the stomach that was the United game, Bournemouth are ahead, lurking with intent, bristling with menace for a team shorn of confidence. They are swatted aside before Arsenal – another fixture which sees us fill with trepidation – are played off the park. For the first time in months, Liverpool fans are starting to feel optimistic. The Cave has been conquered but there is an infernal nemesis ahead.
In those months immediately after Christmas we played decent football, you could almost see the regeneration as the team went from fragility to seem to find inner steel coupled with a velvet touch. But just as Luke Skywalker had to cross swords with Vader, or as Harry Potter had to face Voldemort, or as Frodo had to feel the maddening fever of the eye of Sauron, so Rodgers had to face Mourinho (I know, we’re stretching credibility here; the Dark Lord of the Sith was never as diabolical as the Chelsea manager). The first real Ordeal of Rodgers’ new and blossoming system was the League Cup semi-final against the London club; a side riding the crest of a Fabregas and Costa wave, knitted in the image of their Machivellian manager, weaved from the depths of our darkest memories from the previous season. Though Rodgers’ Liverpool lost out to Chelsea and fell at the final hurdle, he passed the Ordeal. Only through some form of ‘death’ can the hero be fully reborn; the Chelsea defeat was like Agent Smith shooting Neo or Bane incapacitating Batman. It was not terminal and resurrection never felt closer.
The Reward that Rodgers procured from this performance was a return of swagger – the 3-4-3 system started to fully gel, the team’s confidence began to visibly swell, the players began to grow in front of our eyes. What looked like a collection of misfits in October became a Rodgers’ team. Verve, tenacity, nerve, pace returned. Markovic thrilled intermittently, Can was imperious, Coutinho began his own hero’s journey and started to really excel in the tactical framework that the manager had drawn. Mignolet, for so long a terrified rabbit facing a hurtling, incoming train, began to settle. Poetry in motion was whispered again. Results came thick and fast as the hero – Brendan Rodgers and his Liverpool side – began the Road Back.
Acclaim and some species of vindication followed as the team began the passage back to the world of the familiar. But the journey is not over and along this well-trodden path exist dangers at every turn. Tottenham Hotspur, hewn in their manager’s relentlessly fit image, scorers of annoyingly late goals, the seeming antithesis of the old Spurs, are faced and defeated. Southampton on their own patch, the misers of the league who make scoring goals against them an epic endeavour, are defeated by a combination of luck and Coutinho’s ever sharpening weapon of a right foot. Finally, with the end of the road in sight, come the gargantuan Manchester City, bloated and corpulent, cocky and arrogant to the point of indifference, we find the chink in their armour and, with our dying strength, thrust the sword into their gaping defence. Rodgers’ feet return to the almost hallowed ground of that which we thought we had lost for good; the ‘ordinary world’ of mesmeric football with the sheen of competitiveness returned.
There may be two of the most crucial stages left: Resurrection and the Return with the Elixir. The biggest challenges now lie ahead. The climax of the hero’s journey and the denouement of his personal voyage have yet to be determined. Campbell espouses that in the penultimate stage, it is not merely the hero that will suffer – there will be far reaching consequences for the rest of the Ordinary World if the Elixir of Champions’ League football is not secured.
But the hero will return to where he started, changed and transformed. The cocoon stage of October and November will never be forgotten but they can be viewed as that which they were; the manager’s struggles against titanic forces. That he made some of these obstacles himself merely adds to the myth.