An iconic fable that appears in various guises across the ages demonstrates quite effectively the power of excellence in challenging authority. In this recurring narrative, a young man travels to appear before the king to offer his services. The king has sometimes called for help, but just as often the hero arrives unbidden. He may be included in a rite for the amusement of elites. The quest that follows is well known as the hero’s journey, which dominates our culture’s narrative as well as our inner self-hood. Less familiar are we with the circumstances surrounding the hero’s departure and return and what this implies.
Whether the king has summoned him or not, there is resentment. There is some menace threatening the kingdom, and the skill, strength, and courage to answer it are lacking. The king’s own men have failed, and the hero usually comes from outside the kingdom’s bounds, or at least from the periphery. There are endless formulations, but the kingdom and the king’s daughter are usually into the bargain.
The king is explicitly acknowledging that the one who is able to perform this task is the true king.
The hero is sent by the king on an impossible quest, one he hopes will cause the challenger’s death. Presumably the kingdom’s best and brightest have similarly been delivered up to answer the king’s immense insecurity. Fully aware of his own unfitness and incompetence, the king has intentionally degraded the people, and the skills and knowledge to cope have been lost through the king’s intentional carelessness. Now even if he truly wishes to cope with the problem he cannot. If the kingdom has been adversely affected, the people may be angry and demanding action. Now the problem has become a challenge to his authority. The king’s double desire, for the hero to succeed and fail, creates additional tension.
Though much emphasis has been placed on the supernatural elements found in many of these tales, there is plenty to point to a more prosaic explanation: the hero is able to perform on his quest because of superior strength, skill, and knowledge. Living outside the kingdom’s bounds he has not been subjected to the psychological tyranny of the king. He does not realize his limits and has attained excellence. Living among people of the land, he may have indigenous knowledge. His understanding and perspective are different–healthier.
Though supernatural motifs dramatize the great forces arrayed against the hero, including the traps and tricks of the people who also view the hero as a usurper, this is not to suggest that his struggle is otherworldly. The problems that the people face are real enough. There is a crisis in the kingdom, arising from or complicated by the king’s incompetence. Droughts, famines, mysterious deaths, general decline, and lawlessness may prevail. The kingdom is not well, not whole. There is sickness in the body politic.
Excellence is the most legitimate and effective challenge to institutional authority. Moral and historical arguments can ultimately never be settled, but excellence cuts a path straight to the throne.
In the end, the king will bow down before excellence. He has no choice.