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In Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces,he describes the three stages of the archetypal hero: separation, initiation and return. He then talks about different heroes such as Odysseus, who leaves home, has many adventures and is tested in many ways, then comes home wiser; and usually, the returned hero can help his fellow citizens by what he learned while on his quest. Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings, is another hero archetype because he fits this definition of separation, initiation (quest) and return.
This progression is also reminiscent of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in which a philosopher must get out of the cave in order to see some Absolute Truth. He is then to return and teach or help others. In fact, the story of Rip Van Winkle does deride the archetypal hero. It also shares a quality with the returning adventurer in "The Allegory of the Cave" because the hero might return to find nothing recognizable and he might be met with hostility rather than thanks for attempting to enlighten others with what he'd learned while on his quest.
Unlike Odysseus and Frodo Baggins, Rip Van Winkle does not have a triumphant return. He is not greeted as a hero. In fact, even after Peter Vanderdonk confirmed Rip's story, the townspeople just shrug it off. "To make a long story short, the company broke up, and returned to the more important concerns of the election" (23). Rip is a mock hero because he follows the structure of a hero's separation from the world, quest and return. It's just that his quest is less than heroic.
A lot of questions have been asked about the relation of this story to the American Revolution and the American Hero. One interpretation is that Rip is kind of a Romantic hero but the new, real heroes in America are groups of individuals, the collective (united) states of America which won their independence while the Romantic hero, Rip, was asleep.
However, there is something quietly heroic about Rip. He seemed meek and inconsequential, especially in those descriptions as being a "hen-pecked" husband and generally lazy. "The great error in Rip's composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor" (9). But, he never hesitated to help others. "He would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil . . . (10). And yet, as for his own family duty or in terms of a larger social role, he did very little.
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