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I Need a Superhero


The idea of the hero is something that even very small children understand at some level. Many perennially favorite picture books feature heroic characters (such as Max in Where the Wild Things Are — a retelling of Homer's Odyssey). As children grow, their exposure to different manifestations of the hero broadens. They encounter heroes in television, movies, books, magazines and music, and on the pages of their local newspapers.

The heroic archetype features prominently in literary analysis at the high school level. A clear understanding of, and the ability to manipulate and apply, this idea is critical to any approach to world literature for the high school student. Unlike most of the Mensa Foundation's lesson plans, this one includes the reading of a long novel as its culminating assignment.

This lesson plan was designed to tie into the Mensa Hero Bracket Challenge that began in the October 2010 issue of the Mensa Bulletin, with the results announced in the March 2011 issue. It is not necessary to read the article, however, for students to benefit from the lesson plan. If you are a member of Mensa, you (or your students) may read about the Hero Bracket Challenge in the October 2010 issue.

Guiding Questions

  • What makes a hero?
  • Where do we find heroes?
  • How are heroes in books different from heroes in real life?
  • What is the journey of the hero and how does the archetype manifest itself?

Learning Objectives
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:

  • Explain what makes a hero and the elements of the heroic journey.
  • Recognize heroic figures in multiple media.
  • Analyze a literary work for the heroic archetype.
  • Analyze a piece of literature for elements of the hero and the heroic journey.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting heroes in two works.


  • Ensure Internet access to look up relevant sites.
  • Get a copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
  • Print out copies of this plan as needed.

Lesson1: The heroic archetype

Joseph Campbell

To begin your own heroic quest, read through the following information about the heroic archetype and how Luke Skywalker fits it!

Stanley Kunitz, former Poet Laureate of the United States, once said, "Old myths, old gods, old heroes have never died. They are only sleeping at the bottom of our mind, waiting for our call. We have need for them. They represent the wisdom of our race."

The idea of the hero is a theme in all media — books, music, art, even video games! American author Joseph Campbell is best known for his work with the myths of the world and how they connect us. Borrowing from James Joyce, he applied the term "monomyth" to refer to the pattern that myths around the world typically follow. His basic argument is that heroes in all cultures share a pattern that is predictable and recognizable.

A pattern that is followed by all or nearly all things of the same kind it is called an archetype, a concept developed by psychiatrist Carl Jung (the word comes from the Greek word for "model"). Campbell outlined the steps taken by heroes in virtually all cultures in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Other authors have modified Campbell's 17-step pattern, and that's what we'll do as well. We'll look at nine steps and find examples of them in movies, books and history. Keep in mind that heroes do not have to follow all of these (or Campbell's 17) steps in order to be a hero. You can be a hero and only experience some parts of the pattern. Once you become familiar with these ideas, you will see them everywhere.

So let's march a hero through the steps… How about Luke Skywalker? He's a good one to look at because the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, deliberately modeled the story on classical mythology.


The Heroic Archetype
adapted from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other sources

The heroic archetypeThe heroic archetype

Lesson2: Heroes in art

Hercules and the Hydra painting

As you've seen, you will find examples of the heroic archetype in many places. One of these is art. Look at the image and answer the questions that accompany it.

  • In this painting, what part of the heroic journey is portrayed?
  • What else do you see in the painting that hints at the heroic nature of the subject?
  • Traditionally, heroes have been associated with physical strength and prowess. Sometimes this strength was a gift to them or associated with a special weapon that gave them uncommon strength or protection. Why do you feel this is the case? Do you think it is still true? What do you feel is the one characteristic that truly defines a hero?

If you want to read more about Hercules, read The Lernean Hydra.

Lesson3: Real heroes

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Read the following quotes about heroes and respond to the questions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer." In what way is this true?

Can you think of an example in real life?

Robert Louis Stevenson said:

"The world has no room for cowards. We must all be ready somehow to toil, to suffer, to die. And yours is not the less noble because no drum beats before you when you go out into your daily battlefields, and no crowds shout about your coming when you return from your daily victory or defeat."

How is this similar to Emerson's idea?

Umberto Eco said, "The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else." Do you think a reluctant hero is any less a hero than someone who embraces his/her heroic mission? Why or why not?

Lesson4: Huck and you

Huckleberry Finn book cover

Now that you are familiar with the heroic journey, your own quest begins.

Read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Just one little line for such a big challenge!) Ernest Hemingway wrote of this novel, "It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." It's long and challenging, but it's worth it.

Where to find it

  1. It will be available at your local library.
  2. Here's a site where you can read and listen at the same time.
  3. A favorite edition is a paperback edited by Fischer, Salamo, Smith and Blair. Based on the original manuscript, it has the wonderful illustrations by Kemble and Harley. It's cheap, too! (Find it on Amazon*)
  4. It's also available as an ebook. Search Amazon's Kindle Store*; some versions appear to be free!
  5. 5. Amazon* also has it in Manga format.

* It may be worthwhile to note that, while Amazon has scores of versions of this story available, reviewers report that some are abridged and not well marked as such. Surf with care!

Although we are focusing on the heroic archetype in the novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a fairly complex novel to read, particularly if you are not used to novels written in dialect. If you need some guidance in reading the novel, here are some sources for you.

  • l Study questions: You can find study questions to guide you at many of the usual sites that generate summaries, questions and quizzes:
    1. Cliff's Notes
    2. Spark Notes
    3. Cummings
  • Getting into it: Here are some great resources to help you get the feel for the novel:
    1. Geography
    2. Video of Hal Holbrook as Twain
    3. Check out one of the movie versions:
      1. Like Frodo? Elijah Wood has also been Huck. Search Amazon Movies & TV for ASIN: B00005TPMM.
      2. Amazon also has an older version with Mickey Rooney as Huck; search for ASIN: B002EAYDM0.


  1. This site has a number of archival documents that are interesting if you are curious about Mark Twain. It also hosts a number of student projects.
  2. Home page of the Mark Twain House.
  3. If you decide that you have discovered a new career as a Twain expert, you will want to read the autobiography of Mark Twain.


Trace Huck's path through the heroic archetype on the chart below. Remember that he may not have all of them, and some of them may be quite figurative (as opposed to literal). As you're reading, use sticky notes to mark places you see evidence of the heroic archetype.

Huck assignment

After reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, write an essay in which you compare and contrast the heroic journeys of Luke Skywalker and Huck. In your essay, be sure to include the following ideas:

  • In what ways you feel each character's heroic claim is strongest? Weakest?
  • Does Huck have an equivalent to Luke's connection with the Force?
  • Who is Jim's counterpart in Star Wars? Is it Obi-Wan or Yoda or Han? All three?
  • What is one change you could make to Luke's heroic journey to make it more like Huck's? Likewise, what is one change you could make to Huck's heroic journey to make it more like Luke's?
  • The name Luke means "bringer of light." Explain why this is or is not a fitting name for the Star Wars hero.
  • In another Twain novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, he uses the word "huckleberry" to refer to someone of no worth or insignificant. Knowing that, what reason could he have had for choosing this name for his protagonist in Huckleberry Finn?

Your argument is only as strong as your evidence: Be as specific as possible in your use of examples. From the text, quote specific words and/or lines.

Know your goal: Make sure to look over the rubric below carefully so that you completely understand the level of expectation.

Show what you know: To adequately analyze the ideas, your essay's length should be about 1,000 words (three pages). Your spelling, syntax and grammar should be excellent so as not to distract from your ideas.

Huckleberry Finn assesment


If you would like to challenge yourself even more, read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and march Frodo through the heroic archetype. Who do you think fits the pattern better, Frodo or Luke?

More reading

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • Star Wars: The Magic of Myth by Mary Henderson
  • The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
  • Gods and Heroes in Art by Lucia Impelluso (Read a sample on Amazon)
  • More about mythology:

Watch it!

The American Film Institute ranked the top 50 film heroes of all time on a list. Watch some of the movies and think about whether the heroes in them match what you know about heroes.

This series of lessons was designed to meet the needs of gifted children for extension beyond the standard curriculum with the greatest ease of use for the educator. The lessons may be given to the students for individual self-guided work, or they may be taught in a classroom or a home-school setting. Assessment strategies and rubrics are included at the end of each section. The rubrics often include a column for "scholar points," which are invitations for students to extend their efforts beyond that which is required, incorporating creativity or higher level technical skills.