Why I Tell Hero Stories

Arthur C Morgan AvatarEvery so often a person comes along who alters the course of your life and you can honestly say, "Had I never met him, I wouldn't be who I am today."

For me, Joseph Campbell was such a person.

A little background is in order—

The summer of '64 I sprained my ankle playing basketball and the doctor ordered me to stay off my feet for a week, the equivalent of solitary confinement for a boy of twelve.

To help me pass the time a friend loaned me Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi Martian trilogy, and I escaped my sofa prison for the world of John Carter, a Civil War veteran who was inexplicably transported to Mars where he became a renowned warrior and fell in love with the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris.

It was the best week of my young life.

From then on I couldn't get enough of hero stories. I devoured sci-fi and fantasy novels and comic books — The Lord of the RingsThe Chronicles of Narnia, Superman, Spiderman, Flash, Green Lantern.

By this time it was the sixties and early seventies, a time of anti-heroes, and my friends in high school were reading Catcher in the Rye and watching movies like Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Graduate. Heroes were out of vogue.

Besides, I was of the age when young men were supposed to put away childish things, so I trashed my comic books and sci-fi novels. But the craving to walk with heroes never went away.

Then, in my early twenties, to get my hero story fixes I turned to literature. Don Quixote. King Arthur and the knights of the round table romances. ParzivalThe Green Knight. But even then, reading about quests and holy grails and courtly love wasn’t something a young man who was just starting a family could talk about openly without people saying, “O, grow up.”

In 1977 Star Wars premiered and going to the movies was fun again. It was while reading an article on the making of Star Wars that I first heard of Joseph Campbell. Director George Lucas credited Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, with shaping the Star Wars storyline.

The basis of the book is that for thousands of years mankind has been telling and retelling virtually the same hero story and that the telling has shaped nearly every culture in the world.

Here’s what I heard: “Hero stories aren’t just for kids.”

I became a self-enrolled student of Joseph Campbell, reading his books, listening to his lecture videos. And while figuratively sitting at the feet of this respected academic mythologist, not only did Joseph Campbell teach me about the world’s need for mythical heroes, he became my hero.

It happened while watching the PBS production, The Power of Myth, a series of interviews with Bill Moyers. Not only were the interviews informative, but Campbell’s passion for his subject and his spirituality burst from the screen. I went from wanting to learn what Joseph Campbell taught to wanting to be the kind of man Joseph Campbell embodied.

Now, I’m approaching my sixth decade on this earth and I tell hero stories for a living. I’m following my bliss because Joseph Campbell taught me that walking with heroes is a time-honored and noble lifestyle.


Tebow and Tebowing

Washington Tebow

This post appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed page, Sunday Jan. 1, 2012. 

A man on his knees in prayer is a powerful image

SO WHEN FOUR STUDENTS at Riverhead High School in Long Island, N.Y. were suspended after Tebowing in the hallway — striking a pose for which Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is known — their suspension gained national attention.

What are we to make of Tim Tebow and the young men who are emulating him?

If you were a friend or parent of one of the four suspended students, what would you say to him?

Photos of Tim Tebow bowing in the end zone have sparked a nationwide debate. Let’s put it in perspective. Reporters, analysts, commentators, sports figures, educators, and apparently young men in high school, are not talking about last Sunday’s sermon. They’re talking about what Tebow did in the end zone. It’s the picture is worth a thousand words proverb come to life.

Personally, I don’t care much for end zone celebrations. I like what former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz used to tell his boys about end zone behavior — act like you’ve been there before.

But Tebow has chosen the end zone as a place to project an image of his faith and I respect his choice. It’s a powerful image.

Images shape our identity

When I was growing up, Norman Rockwell’s paintings graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Month after month his paintings stamped on my mind images of everyday public displays of personal courage and acts of piety. Norman Rockwell’s America became my America.


At Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, there hangs an iconic image that is sacred to many Americans. The Prayer At Valley Forge by Arnold Frieberg is viewed by millions of Americans every year. It was recently appraised for $12 million.

In the painting, General Washington is down on one knee, similar to the pose Tebow assumes in the end zone. There is one striking difference between them. Washington is alone. Tebow is in a stadium surrounded by thousands of people. Which begs the question—

Should a person’s personal beliefs be kept private?

Washington didn’t think so. His presidential speeches make unapologetic references to our nation’s dependence on God for our existence. And when he took the oath of office, he struck a pose with his hand on the Bible, a pose emulated by most presidents after him.

What Washington did after he took the oath is not as well known.

He kissed the Bible.

Now there’s an image that would make the front pages today.

While I’m not suggesting that we equate the accomplishments of a rookie NFL quarterback with those of a founding father, Washington and Tebow have this in common — they are both men with deep personal convictions.

And I would add this: Tim Tebow’s actions off the field have demonstrated that his end zone behavior means more to him than six points in a game.

What would I say to the four suspended high school students?

I would impress upon them that assuming a public posture of prayer is a powerful statement of faith, and that what they do after they get up is equally important. People will be watching to see if the man matches the image.

According to the Old Testament, while living in exile Daniel was widely known as a man who bowed his knees in prayer three times a day. The biblical account also states, “Then this Daniel was preferred above the presidents and princes, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king thought to set him over the whole realm.” (Daniel 6:3, KJV)

What would I tell the suspended students and others who would follow their example? I’d tell them when it comes to bowing in prayer, “If you’re not doing it in private, don’t do it in public.”



Standing on the Threshold

Medieval door with text smaller Threshold

The Times They Are A-Changin'


Who would have guessed a few short decades ago that storytelling would take such a momentous leap from bound pages to electronic books? Yet, here we are.
In his 1992 autobiography, storyteller James Michener said, "I cannot foresee what form the book, which has been so precious to me, will take in the next century. . . but I am positive that regardless of how the narrative is circulated, the men or women who can create it will continue to be invaluable."
Truth is, every society since the beginning of language has had its storytellers. And while the delivery system has varied over time, our craving for good stories remains constant.

 But with so many ways to communicate these days, which venue is best for me? While devices that use video and audio and pop-up links are currently the rage, I choose to tell stories with books—both bound and electronic—that engage  people in the reading experience that has been most dear to me.

These are my stories.


You stand on the threshold to the worlds of Jack Cavanaugh

Each page is a doorway to a different world

Enter and enjoy the adventure



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