Outlander, Oprah, and the Elusive Female Epic Hero

The mysterious stone circle, Claire’s call to adventure.

Like many who read (and loved) even just the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I’ll never forget when I first saw the TV promo advertising the recently-aired (and superbly rendered) first half of the premier season on Starz.  It was one of those moments when I wasn’t really watching TV as much as looking at it; I think the sound was even off.  There they were, riding on horseback through the Scottish highland mist, Claire in front, with Jamie’s plaid-wrapped figure bolstering hers.  I credit much of the series’ excellence to the fact that I could tell just by looking at Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan that they WERE Claire and Jamie, with no prior knowledge that a show was in the works.   Anyway, this was all it took to rekindle my romance with Outlander, and why I’m  finding refuge from new episode withdrawal in re-reading the books I read –and starting the ones I didn’t– until the remainder of the first season airs in April of 2015. I’ve just finished the first book, having expected to enjoy it every bit as much as I did so many years ago, and it didn’t disappoint.  What I didn’t expect though was its newest revelation.

As a rule, I never re-read books I originally read for pleasure. As a high school literature teacher, I don’t have the time.  I’m usually reviewing whatever text I’m teaching, and let’s face it, most “pleasure” books don’t offer much depth; that’s partly why I read them.  So my tendency is to keep the reading I do to preserve my sanity, like Outlander, separate from the reading I do to prepare my lessons.  It just happens to be that time of year in my World Literature classes though, when the “In the beginning” of our creation stories segues into the ancient epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf.  Anyone who has ever taught these texts, or who was forced to study them under the auspices of a less than inspired teacher, knows that they are not easy sells to students.  In the wrong hands, they can be dry, intimidating, and worst of all, wholly irrelevant–especially for girls.

Enter Oprah. One recent Sunday morning, when I was about halfway way through my re-discovery of Outlander, I turned on Oprah’s OWN network and sat in on a conversation between Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert (most famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love) on Super Soul Sunday.  Remarkably, the topic of legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey came up, as it does in my lessons, and they were lamenting that the questing literary epic hero is rarely a woman.  My first instinct was to disagree vehemently based on one female epic hero archetype I knew and loved, apart from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods of Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God.   I was taken aback because I knew Oprah loved her too,  having herself produced the TV movie based on the novel.  How, I thought, could Janie’s hero’s journey and subsequent status as an epic hero seemingly evade even Oprah?

Here’s a brief word from our sponsor for the Joseph Campbell monomyth uninitiated:  The hero, answering a call to adventure, embarks on a journey from the known to the unknown world, meeting (often supernatural) forces and mentors, and facing multiple challenges along the way.  Having faced and defeated myriad evil forces or dangerous obstacles, the hero ultimately makes a triumphant return, armed with a metaphorical elixir/ new sense of fulfillment.  Said journey is often physical/outward but it can be spiritual/inward as well.   Think The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which was directly inspired by Campbell’s monomyth.

Now, back to Janie. Didn’t her departure from the safety of Nanny’s bosom to marriage with Logan, her journey to Eatonville with Joe Starks, and ultimately to the Everglades with Teacake in search of (and finding) true love and God and herself count for anything?  Why, I thought, was Janie getting short shrift from two such brilliant women?  After all, if we didn’t recognize our own epic heroes, then who would?

My musings were peremptorily interrupted by THE commercial, and this time I was paying attention. There again emerged the onscreen Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser astride that horse.  In the novel’s context, I knew that this ride occurs just after she has been hurtled inexplicably back two-hundred years to 1743 from a peaceful post-WWII Scottish sojourn.  In her disoriented state, Claire has also managed to narrowly escape a rape attempt, and to MacGyver her way through doctoring Jamie Fraser, the first and most beloved of her many 18th Century patients.  I knew too that she would ride on from here to Castle Leoch to face the formidable Mackenzie brothers and the countless battles a modern woman must fight while trapped in the social mores of a distant past.  Traveling farther still, she would encounter and prevail against monsters of all kinds, some of them her own demons.  She would cross a border, meet a monastic mentor–and she’d get the guy to boot.  Suddenly Janie and Claire, united in symbolic name changes, yet separated by time, race, continents, and literary sub- genres, were starting to sound a lot alike, and certainly not unlike Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo.

I think perhaps Oprah’s Janie oversight, and my own failure to recognize Claire’s hero’s journey when Janie’s was so crystal clear says something about the way we read and interpret women characters. For the most part, no matter how progressive or how female we are, we’re not wired  to find the call to adventure and its subsequent quest in stories about women, so we often fail to see them when they’re there.  And viewed outside this primal and universal lens of human experience, which Campbell argued is open to anyone, regardless of gender, characters like Janie and Claire are reduced to the status of  fantastical, other-worldly  romantic heroines, rather than metaphorical blueprints for real women who long to go in search of their own bliss.

Watch Outlander, Episodes 1-8 here:

http://www.starz.com/originals/outlander

Watch Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert on Super Soul Sunday here:

http://www.oprah.com/video_embed.html?article_id=53660&width=574&height=321