The Classic Myth of Disney’s Hercules

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Let’s talk about Disney’s “Hercules.”  The first time I saw it I laughed and thought, “Oh man, so inaccurate!”  But… which tradition am I holding it accountable to?  Anachronous elements have crept in, such as the gospel-singing Muses and references to modern merchandise like tennis shoes and action figures.  But this isn’t new to myth!  Iliad was full of anachronous detail—descriptions of battle techniques, temples to the gods, and codes of conduct reflected the 8th century BCE, when the text was arguably written down, and not the mid-13th century BCE, when the war allegedly took place.

Because of its oral origins, classical mythology is characterized by this sort of flux.  The stories we know today are just the final result of a long, long game of telephone.

So Disney is well within the pre-existing precedent to update a myth and present it to a modern audience with modern pop culture references and morals woven in.  And Disney’s version, in turn, could be adapted by later generations without reference to earlier versions.

Well, Disney, this means that a gauntlet has been thrown down, and I am that gauntlet!  I bet you didn’t realize I majored in Pre-and-Early Modern Literature, did you?  Two can play at this game.

Without further ado, I present:

The Classic Myth of Hercules as Retold by Disney, as Retold as Classic Myth.

Book I:

Heart!  Sing, Muse, of the man called Hercules, half mortal, half God, who did thus rise from Zero to Hero, and discover that strength of heart outweighs size of strength.

Many a monster fell beneath the blade of the lion-hearted Hercules in his quest to regain his position amongst his brethren upon Mount Olympus, but no monsters more dire than those of pride and fame.

Which of the gods caused his fall from grace?  It was Hades, dread god of the Underworld, who felt envy toward his brother Zeus, flinger of thunderbolts, and wished to take his kingdom.  He thought the dead were dull and uncouth.  He was mean as he was restless, and that is the gospel truth.  He had a plan to shake things up.

For back when the world was new, it was a nasty place where giant brutes called Titans ran amok.  And then along came Zeus.  He hurled his thunderbolt and locked those suckers in a vault.  Hades knew of these Titans, and their long-harbored resentment toward the great god Zeus.  He planned to use these brutes against him.

Shortly after the birth of Hercules, the hero also known as Hunkules, Hades consulted with the Fates.  Those three women control the threads of human life (over five billion served thus far).

Hades desired to know the outcome of his bid for power against the great god Zeus.

First, the small one with a single eye predicted, “Indoor plumbing, it’s gonna be big!”

Then, together, the Fates prophesied thus:

“In 18 years the planets will align, ever so nicely,
The time to act will be at hand, unleash the Titans, your monstrous band,
Then the once proud Zeus will finally fall, and you, Hades, will rule all!”

To which the dread god of the Underworld replied, “Yes!  Hades rules!”

But the thread-cutting Fates had more to add.  Said they, “A word of caution to this tale, should Hercules fight, you will fail.”

So Hades formed a plan in his mind.  He knew there was no way to kill a god, and therefore he must first turn the little sunspot mortal.  He plucked a glowing vial of liquid from a wall of smoke, and sent his minions Pain and Panic to kidnap the son of Zeus.

The minions succeeded in their kidnapping plot, and forced the vial of liquid upon the babe.  In the last instant they were interrupted by an elderly couple, Alcmene and Amphitryon, and the child did not consume the final drop of the dread potion.

Zeus led the gods on a search, but when they located Hercules it was too late.  Young Herc was mortal now, but since he did not drink the last drop, he still retained his godlike strength, so thank his lucky star.  Zeus and Hera wept, because their son could never come home.  They’d have to watch their precious baby grow up from afar.

Book II:

Hercules grew up among humankind, but his great strength was coupled with clumsiness.  He was shunned by the urn-maker and the discus-throwers, and called Destructo-Boy and Jerkules.  He caused the destruction of the marketplace forum, and the people voted to exile Hercules, the boy who could not control his strength.

Alcmene and Amphitryon revealed to Hercules that they found him with a medallion around his neck, impressed with the seal of Mount Olympus.  Hercules journeyed to the temple of Zeus, and prayed before the great statue.  The great statue grew animate, and Zeus the lightning-bringer spoke through it.

“By thunder!” he cried, “You’re old enough now to know the truth!”

And Zeus explained how Hercules had been kidnapped and turned mortal, and how Hercules could only regain his godhead by proving himself a true hero on earth.  Zeus recommended that Hercules find Philoctetes, the trainer of heroes, and he gave his son the winged steed Pegasus, the magnificent horse with the brain of a bird.

Hercules found Philoctetes spying upon the woodglen nymphs.  Philoctetes explained that he had trained Jason, Odysseus, Perseus, and many other –euses, but every one let him down flatter than a discus.  Achilles had the footspeed, the fighting tactics, the strength, but he had a furshlugginer heel.

The lion-hearted Hercules convinced Philoctetes to give it one more chance, and thus Philoctetes put him through formidable training exercises, such as balancing eggs on spoons, and running across logs.  Hercules grew in strength and mightiness.

Soon thereafter they journeyed to Thebes, to test Hercules’ might against the tough problems, and to build his rep.  There Hercules completed his first great deed.  He defeated the great beast Hydra, also known as Amscray.  He then proceeded to fight every monster in the land, raising his rep and bringing great wealth and fortune to his foster parents.

And bless my soul, Herc was on a roll.  When he smiled the girls went wild, and they smacked his face on every vase.  He went from zero to hero in no time flat.  He went from zero to hero, just like that.
The story, of course, goes on from there, and grows complicated with the addition of the sarcastic love interest, Megara.  But you get the idea.  Take that, Disney!

arnold hercules

NEXT WEEK ON THE PHENOMENAL COSMIC MOVIE COLUMN: I believe we are due for another daring B-Movie review.  See you then!

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Author: Sam Wood-Mills

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