The Hero’s Journey
A hero, a person admired for achievements or noble qualities, doesn't just start out leading others; it takes time, people, and experiences to shape them. The same can be said for Jonathan and Siddhartha in Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Siddhartha respectively. These characters go on journeys, both spiritually and physically, to achieve their goals. Despite their differences, both stories follow to relatively ordinary people as they make extraordinary journeys to find not only greatness, but to achieve the unachievable.
Many heroes start from humble beginnings, unaware that their seemingly normal lives will be completely turned upside down. In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jonathan lives in a world where they fly to eat and that’s it. Jonathan, however, believes that there is more to his world, constantly yearning for more despite the harsh words of his peers and parents. Jonathan decides that despite the naysayers, he will try to achieve top flight speeds, a feat which no gull has ever done. During the night, he practices for hours and hours, trying to get the perfect combination to reach top speeds. Eventually he comes to the conclusion that gulls can “lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!” (Bach 30-31). Beyond proud of his compliment, Jonathan tells his fellow gulls of this new skill. Unable to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to have a purpose in their life, Jonathan is then publicly shamed for his choice. The “ Center of Shame,” where gulls who have acted out or broken rules are publicly chastised, is where the leader gull informs Jonathan that he is officially kicked out and shunned from the flock, never to see his parents or fellow flock members again. Similar to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Siddhartha follows Siddhartha, the son a a Brahmin, loved by all, and with nothing stopping him from achieving greatness, Siddhartha believes that there is more to this world. He wants to achieve Nirvana, or ultimate peace, by going with Samanas and his friend Govinda to try and learn from those who are holier than himself. He asks his father to leave, but he is originally denied. Siddhartha tells his father that those are his wishes, and that although he won’t disobey, he will stand until the answer has changed. Fortunately, his father allows his son to go with the Samanas to learn, but if his plans fail he s welcome to come back to his father. Siddhartha embarques on his journey to not only attain wisdom, but to find his “self.”
Throughout a hero’s journey they are tempted, guided, and most importantly they face numerous life altering struggles. Jonathan, after his banishment to the far cliffs, tries to hone his flying skills, which eventually lead to his death. Jonathan hates the limitations his body and on his success, but after two pure white gulls take him to a heaven like place, all of those limitations he hates so much are gone. Chiang, the elder gull, teaches Jonathan new tricks and skills that he couldn’t have even thought of in his past life. Chiang tells Jonathan, “You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, and in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfections doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there,” reinforcing the idea that perfection is limitless, just like Jonathan (Bach 64-65). Jonathan, once in the greater place being guided by his mentor, realizes he can achieve perfection, but only with help, the only limitation now being his mind. Unlike Jonathan, Siddhartha finds his mentor in many forms like a prostitute named Kamala, who teaches him about love; a childhood best friend, Govinda, who helps Siddhartha come to understand his true purpose; his father, whom always kept him grounded; the Samanas, who aided him in the first steps of his journey, and so many more. Throughout Siddhartha’s Journey, Siddhartha has numerous individuals supporting him wanting him to succeed. Jonathan, however, only had Chiang to support him for much of his story. His entire family shunned him after the incident, causing him to be isolated for much of his journey. Siddhartha is showered with love, even at one point the affections of Kamala, the gorgeous prostitute. Jonathan is utterly willing to fully dive into any new teachings he possibly can, while Siddhartha is often questioning his teachers, not necessarily out of disrespect, but to find his own Nirvana. Siddhartha is not trying to gain mastery of a skill like Jonathan did, but rather a full grasp of an idea.
All good stories, much to our dismay, must come to end, many times leaving us questioning what it really means to be a hero. Jonathan, after his benevolent guide Chiang disappears into thin air, decides to teleport to another flock to try and teach it’s members of the new flying techniques he has learned. Just like Chiang taught him not too long ago, Jonathan decides to teacher others. He begins to fly on the outskirts of a flock, showing off his skills, despite knowing the fate that came to him the first time he attempted to fly “without purpose.” Jonathan not only chooses to teach theses gulls, but decides to teach anyone to fly, without acknowledging their overall ability to fly. Eventually, Jonathan has created his own flock, devoted to not only flying, but doing tricks and other skills. The top student, Fletcher, soon becomes almost as good as Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to leave to go to another flock, as Jonathan has already taught these birds everything he can. Much like Jonathan, Siddhartha returns to his roots, the river that he crossed at the beginning of his journey. Therefore, he meets Vasudeva, a ferryman, who teaches him to listen to the river. Vasudeva teaches Siddhartha that his most valuable skill, listening to the river, has taught him everything he knows, “ You will learn it, but not from me. The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it” (Hesse 105). This lesson becomes extremely valuable after Siddhartha reencounters his mistress and a son that is previously unknown to him. Kamla falls ill and dies due to a snakebite and Siddhartha is now responsible for the son he has just met. The son runs away, as he isn’t used to Siddhartha's lifestyle, causing Siddhartha to question his beliefs. He returns to Vasudeva to deal with his struggles, ultimately realizing the error of his past ways and finally letting go of all the weight that has been holding him back. This realization leads to the fufullied enlightenment of Siddhartha, bringing a close to this story. Siddhartha realizes that life is like a river, constantly flowing and apart of something greater than just himself.
Despite their many similarities, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Siddhartha share mostly differences. Jonathan believed in reaching a goal and paving the way for others to achieve things other than the status quo. Siddhartha, on the other hand, choses to reach a goal unlike anyone else had before, choosing to listen to others, but not let them monopolize their thoughts. Both works, however, preach the importance of going against the grain and the impact our choices have on our individual journeys. A hero’s journey is not only defined by what they’ve gained, but how they’ve changed the lives of those around them.
Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Avon Books: HarperCollins, 1970
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Bantam Book: Bantam Book, 1971