Analyzed as far back as the philosopher Plato and examined by others in between, it is to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to who most credit the term “archetype.” Archetypes – symbols that surface in our dreams as well as in various forms of fiction – come in numerous forms including Tricksters like Loki and Mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Among the keys to individuating and making ourselves whole is not to combat and defeat these entities, but to instead assimilate them into our psyche. After all, there are times in which we too must be sly as a fox or as composed as a Jedi. Oftentimes, in order to work alongside these archetypes it is compassion which must be displayed. And at no time does it appear more difficult to demonstrate that benevolence then when encountering the most intimidating archetype of all – the Shadow.
Often presented as the literal opposite of the Hero, the Shadow has been depicted in some of history’s oldest mythology and remains among the most recognizable archetypes in pop culture still today. In the Zoroastrian legend of Ahura and Ahriman Mazda, we are introduced to a pair of twins whose struggle against one another was proclaimed to have been responsible for much of the world’s composition. While Ahura was the spirit of truth and light, Ahriman represented darkness, and was said to sow seeds of doubt in the hearts of people with faith. Without darkness, there can be no light, which only further complicates the relationship between the Hero and the Shadow. Many times, the destinies of these two individuals are tied together from the start such as in the case of wizards like Harry Potter and Voldemort. In J.K. Rowling’s popular book series, we learn that the soul of the infamous Voldemort has been shattered into several pieces and that each fragment – having been stored in objects dubbed Horcruxes – must be destroyed if the power of the Dark Lord is to be weakened. Placed primarily in inanimate objects, it is revealed later on in the series that Harry himself acquired a piece of Voldemort’s soul the night his parents were killed.
The Shadow is a frightening entity, and it makes sense why so many people choose to repress it rather than face it. It is in this urge to evade the Shadow that we find the motif of a villain’s name alone being enough to strike fear into the hearts of others. In Greek mythology, many proclaimed that any mention of Hades could also bring with it bad news, and for quite some time in the world of Harry Potter, Voldemort was referred to simply as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Sometimes we are provided with three strikes to avoid the villain’s name before being forced to face him such as in the cases of Rumpelstiltskin and Beetlejuice. But as we will find throughout our exploration of The Hero’s Journey, success only comes when traveling the most intimidating of paths.
A perfect example of this struggle between ourselves and our Shadow can be found in King Théoden, a character out of The Lord of the Rings. A once worthy ruler, it is revealed in the book series that Théoden has been corrupted by his chief advisor Gríma Wormtongue – a spy for the villainous Saruman. Wormtongue attempts to corrupt both the internal and external kingdoms of Théoden by whispering misleading thoughts into his ear, but his efforts are eventually exposed by Gandalf. In the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Gandalf boldly approaches the throne of Théoden and explains to Wormtongue that no longer will the king sit in the shadows.
The comic book medium offers up a number of distinct examples of this archetype from Spider-Man’s nemesis Venom to Green Lantern’s arch enemy, Sinestro. Not every example may be as on the nose as Bizarro Superman or Reverse-Flash, but each of these supervillains helps demonstrate that our Shadow should not be ignored. After all, can you imagine the amount of damage scoundrels like these could do if allowed to run rampant? The objective is to instead acknowledge this entity’s existence before attempting to shed a little bit of light on the matter. Although this confrontation is guaranteed to involve some temporary discomfort for the Hero, if not addressed, the dark fog known as the Shadow only grows thicker and stronger – hence more difficult to deal with – as time goes on.
When accepting and perhaps even going as far as displaying compassion towards the Shadow, the Hero often discovers that things may not have been as black-and-white between them and their antagonist as they once believed. Luke Skywalker removing the black helmet of Darth Vader and looking into the eyes of the monster he once feared is perhaps the most famous example of this in fiction. More recently for Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, we find the Shadow of the Hero coming in one of her fiercest Hunger Games opponents, Cato. Raised in District 2 with a silver spoon in his mouth, Cato has spent nearly his entire life training for the annual Hunger Games tournament in which children are forced to fight one another to the death. Katniss on the other hand has been raised in District 12 (the district considered the furthest from the Capitol), where it was sometimes a battle just to make sure she and her family had food on the table. But while Katniss hates Cato in the early going of the competition, she ultimately comes to sympathize with him and accept that it isn’t necessarily Cato that she hates as much as the system that has encouraged him to become the way he has.
In the “real world” we must also psychologically confront our Shadow, but can take solace in knowing we don’t necessarily need to be an expert in wizardry or the Force in order to do this. Most of the time all it takes to combat the Shadow’s dark and oppressive perspectives is a bit of positivity. As Dr. Shad Helmstetter has discussed in books including The Power of Neuroplasticity and What to Say When You Talk to Your Self, when we optimize our outlooks in life, we stand a far greater chance to succeed at whatever endeavors we’ve set our mind to. Just like a ruler must take responsibility for their external kingdom, we must declare it our responsibility to tend to the internal kingdom we inherit at birth. And as J.R.R. Tolkien illustrates in The Lord of the Rings, what we hear and what we choose to take as gospel can truly make all the difference in the world.