Archetypes, Heroes and Highlander

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Title: Archetypes, Heroes and Highlander
Creator: Jeffrey Sutherland
Date(s): December 12, 1999
Medium: online
External Links: ESSAY: ARCHETYPES, HEROES AND HIGHLANDER, Archived version, Wordsmiths - on line publishing: List of Essays, Archived version
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Archetypes, Heroes and Highlander is an essay by Jeffrey Sutherland.


In my view, part of what made HL such a unique and interesting show was that the writers and producers used mythological archetypes in creating many of the characters, but they also allowed them to have flaws and imperfections -- that is to say, allowed them to be "human," instead of just a cardboard cutout. As Greco-Roman mythology (as well as Celtic/Norse mythology, and others) show us, the most interesting hero or protagonist has special skills, qualities or abilities that will help him in his life (or particularly in an important quest); but he also has certain weaknesses, character flaws, or blind-spots which will periodically trip him up.

The story (the myth) requires a hero as our main character; he must be basically good and he must have friends who support him, evil enemies who oppose him, and various strangers whom he will encounter along the way. This is not to say that the protagonist and other characters cannot change -- they can and in the better stories the hero or another character often experiences change or growth.

But our hero must remain "a good guy," he might occasionally be led astray or make mistakes, but his essential character must become or remain good. So for this very basic reason, it is highly unlikely that Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was ever a mercenary (one who fights for money only, rather than for a cause). This is not to deny that he has been a warrior and a soldier but as DM tells Darius upon their first meeting, "I fight for causes that I believe are just." DM will only fight for causes he thinks are just or on behalf of those who he believes to have been unjustly wronged. He would not fight for leaders whom he perceives as cruel or evil, no matter how much they might offer to pay him.

In a similar vein, it is even more unlikely that DM (our HL hero) would ever be a rapist, in war or in any other circumstance. Almost by definition, a hero must uphold the values of society -- and in Western society, decent, upright men do not commit rape. There are several instances in the televised episodes where DM stops or attempts to stop other people from committing violent or antisocial acts (he will often do this even when outnumbered). At no time does he seem tempted to join in gang or vigilante violence. Just because others are behaving a certain way, does not tempt DM to participate. We need to keep in mind that a hero must have a "moral centre."

As for the very interesting question of "Is Methos an Evil Character?" I think we need to acknowledge that there is a difference between a character being immoral and amoral. I do not think that Methos is "evil," but one could certainly make a fairly convincing argument that he is amoral. He does what is best for him, whatever is necessary to ensure his own survival. Methos does not strive to be a shining moral example to others (as Duncan does). He does not seem to obsess about past mistakes or indiscretions , at least until they reappear to threaten him in the present -- like Cassandra, the Horsemen, and Morgan Walker. And from all appearances, Methos does NOT feel any sort of constant or ongoing guilt about past evil deeds; he really does feel that "the past is the past," and he lives in the present (or at least tries to do so). Maybe, he feels that he has changed for the better (by choice or via personal growth, not from any external force like a light quickening) and there is nothing to be gained from agonising over past mistakes; better to just move on to new things.

Methos says he is "just a guy," but obviously (just by being who he is) this is not true, yet what I think he is really trying to tell Duncan is "Don't put me on a pedestal. I'm not a paragon of virtue. I'm not another version of Darius." Despite the age difference, Methos wants to be Duncan's friend, not a father-figure or mentor.

As Methos later tells Duncan, he has "been many things;" not all of them nice -- but even early on in their friendship Methos anticipates that Mac will eventually discover this and in an indirect way he wants to prepare Mac for this knowledge. It's possible that this is also one of the reasons that Methos rarely relates any details of his extensive past. Mac's opinion of him does matter to Methos and obviously Mac's friendship is very important to Methos -- despite the sarcasm and supposed nonchalance, it is clear that Methos is very fond of Mac, after all he keeps voluntarily reappearing in Mac's life (hard to argue that he had any other reason for his visits to Seacouver).

IMO, when fanfic writers try to make excuses for Methos' time with the Horsemen (by saying he was coerced, brainwashed, somehow entitled to revenge or whatever) or by saying that he didn't really enjoy the killing or that he is now racked with neverending guilt -- what they are really saying that THEY (the fans/fanfic writers) are uncomfortable embracing such an amoral character. This is a character who was unequivocally evil in the past, who enjoyed murder, rape, and destruction; a character who (still) tells lies, might act in a cowardly fashion, enjoys his material comforts, puts himself first, will not necessarily do the right thing. What does it say to the fan about him/herself, if he/she can readily embrace such a character?

IMO, some fans are uncomfortable acknowledging that they can like such a character. Most of us have been raised by our parents "to do the right thing" and conditioned by society to believe and behave in certain accepted ways. We like to think we are basically good people -- and I believe most of us are. Yet, even good people can be fascinated by evil or amorality -- it doesn't mean we would ever actually behave this way ourselves in real life. However, some people are not comfortable with even the idea that they are indeed fascinated by these things. I personally see nothing wrong with an intellectual interest in the darker aspects of human nature; it's only when we confuse fantasy with reality or idle thoughts with actual actions that this becomes dangerous to both ourselves and to others.

Despite the fact that mendacity seems to be second-nature for Methos, I think there are many instances when we should take what the character says (in the aired episodes) at face value. In CAH/Rev when Methos tells Mac that he did kill all those people (and probably plenty more besides, 10,000 over a 1000+ years only works out to an average of 10 people a year, not really all that impressive for a raider/marauder calling himself "Death," maybe 100,000(?) is a better number) and he killed because he liked it -- I think this is probably the literal truth. Yes, Methos murdered a lot of people and yes he enjoyed it. Of course, he is telling Duncan this in this manner in order to shock him and drive him away for his own safety.

IMO, Methos is trying to protect Mac (from Kronos) by ending his friendship with the Highlander and it obviously costs Methos a lot to do this when he holds both Mac and their friendship so dear. But because of his feelings for Duncan, he puts Duncan's safety above his own desire to save the friendship. He cannot ask Duncan to trust him or to stand by him. I do not think Methos has any real desire to rejoin Kronos or to recreate the past, but IF Mac had lost his fight with Kronos, then being the ultimate survivor I think it's very likely that Methos would have placated Kronos and stayed with him. So despite our fascination with this oldest of Immortals, the character remains morally ambiguous. Perhaps this unpredictability adds to our fascination?