By Fiona Conn
Most of the pop-culture literate have at least some recognition of Pokémon — the multiplatform series led by the electric rodent Pikachu with the slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”. All versions of Pokémon include a journey of a Pokémon trainer who travels around, collecting Pokémon creatures, frequently through battles with other Pokémon trainers.
What started as a videogame has spawned multiple incarnations, each with their own stories and characters. The most recent videogames to join the main series are Pokémon X and Y, and remakes of the Generation III games, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing Pokémon X and Y.
As with many other stories both ancient and modern, the plotline follows an arc known as “the hero’s journey”, or “monomyth”. This concept was codified by American mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, wherein he explains the arc as follows:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell, 1949)
So now we delve into the world presented in Pokémon X and Y, that we might better show how the game fits to the formula of the monomyth – and study the development of the (silent) hero of a dozen faces.
The first section of the monomyth is the Departure, the first stage of which is the Call to Adventure, described by Campbell as the hero learning of a task which must be undertaken, and leaving home to complete it, “as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city” (Campbell, 1949).
Likewise, Pokémon X and Y has the protagonist learning that they have been invited to join four other youngsters in the task of completing a Pokédex, extended by Professor Sycamore of the Kalos region.
It is in these first few minutes of the game that the Call to Adventure is laid out before the protagonist. The task at hand has been identified (completing the Pokédex), some form of aid has been rendered (a rare Pokémon), and the protagonist is expected to comply.
The protagonist must then cross the first threshold. Campbell describes this as continuing beyond the protection of parents, or society. It is the first steps into the unknown, and also into danger. For a young Pokémon trainer, this threshold may be the first encounter with a wild Pokémon in the tall grass of a nearby road.
Campbell goes on to point out that the hero will encounter a “‘threshold guardian’ … standing for the limits of the hero’s present sphere or life horizon.” (Campbell, 1949) Such “threshold guardians” are present in the Pokémon games as Gym Leaders, figures who are supposedly the most powerful trainer in their town. Often, a road block of some variety exists until the protagonist has visited the town gym, which contains puzzles to be navigated, and other trainers who must be battled before the protagonist can face the Gym Leader in person.
It is in challenging these Gym Leaders that our protagonist walks into what Campbell refers to as, “the belly of the whale”. In the myths cited by Campbell, a recurring element is that of the hero being swallowed by a large creature. This motif is not meant to be taken literally. Rather, to Campbell, it represents the annihilation of the self: an ongoing process of change, of rebirth, of becoming something greater.
Through the challenges presented in battling Gym Leaders, the protagonist affirms their commitment to the journey, becoming with each successive victory a stronger trainer, recognized for their accomplishments. In this way, with each battle and victory, the trainer is renewed in their purpose, and elevated to new heights of greatness.
From here, the protagonist continues on the Road of Trials. As Campbell notes, “the original departure … represented only the beginning … Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed.” (Campbell, 1949)
After the first gym battle, our protagonist finally meets Professor Sycamore and the purpose of the study is revealed. Sycamore is attempting to unravel the secrets of a phenomenon called “Mega Evolution”, a temporary power-up allowing a Pokémon to take a stronger form using a special stone and a deep bond of friendship between Pokémon and trainer.
It is also at this point that we first encounter the villain of the story, a man named Lysandre who is obsessed with the idea of creating a beautiful world. Here, he is presented as a powerful figure, although his villainous intentions are not yet fully shown. Lysandre was once one of Professor Sycamore’s students, and the inventor of a communications device — the proceeds of which, Sycamore claims, have been donated to help trainers and research. As such, despite Lysandre’s intimidating appearance, he seems to be a benefactor, rather than an antagonist.
Minutes later, we are also introduced to Diantha, who could easily represent Campbell’s concept of the Goddess, at least in terms of being all-powerful, and certainly beautiful. Her name derives from the Dianthus flower, the meaning of which comes from the Greek for “God” and “flower” (Bulbapedia, 2013), suggesting that this woman must be special.
In Campbell’s writings, women represent knowledge that the hero must face trials to discover. The Goddess, “lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters,” that they may, “be released from every form of limitation”. At every meeting with Diantha following this encounter, she tells the protagonist that she would like to battle with them at some point, and then leaves.
These expressions of the desire to battle could be interpreted as a lure used by this Goddess character, as if to incite the protagonist to break their fetters, to continue to grow and become stronger, seeking out the knowledge and wisdom that Diantha represents.
Every hero has their temptations. While Campbell presents this as a woman acting to distract the hero, the face of temptation does not necessarily have to be female. It may be suggested that Lysandre’s cynicism is tempting to adopt, and thus, this may provide a distraction from the protagonist’s journey that is equal to the temptations faced by classical heroes.
“War and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance,” Campbell warns as he discusses the concept of temptation. “Regrets are illuminations come too late.” (Campbell, 1949).
In the course of the protagonist’s journey, they meet a group named Team Flare, and so the uncovering of the villain plot begins. Following an encounter with this group in a power station, the protagonist once again meets Lysandre in a café, talking to Professor Sycamore. It is here that Lysandre’s cynicism starts to truly show itself.
“People can be divided into two groups: those who give… and those who take,” Lysandre tells the protagonist. “I want to be the kind of person who gives… But in this world, some foolish humans exist who would show their strength by taking what isn’t theirs.” A pause, and then: “THEY’RE FILTH!”
It is certainly an extreme way in which to view the world, and this cynicism prompts Sycamore to point out – following Lysandre’s exit – that it is “only one way of looking at things. It’s not necessarily the truth…!”
This cynical worldview seems to be attractive enough to some in Kalos that Lysandre has developed a following – the aforementioned Team Flare, who believe themselves to be a fashionable elite to whom the world truly belongs.
Given this attraction, perhaps Lysandre might represent the face of temptation in this instance. Temptation to believe that there is very little good in the world, and that the ignorance and temper tantrums mentioned by Campbell are wise and righteous.
Nonetheless, the journey continues. Meetings with Team Flare become more frequent. Eventually, this comes to a head after the protagonist receives their seventh gym badge, in the city of Anistar.
In this stage, the protagonist has reached “the atonement with the father”. As mentioned before, Lysandre is initially almost a benefactor, monitoring the protagonist’s journey. In this way, he is perhaps almost a paternal figure in the protagonist’s life.
The full extent of Lysandre’s villainy is revealed by means of a broadcast received by the protagonist and rival: Lysandre has uncovered the weapon once used by the ancient king of Kalos, and intends to use it to wipe out all but the most devoted of his followers. While Campbell’s father figures are wrathful and terrible, what could be more terrifying than a world-weary, angry father figure with access to an ultimate weapon, and the will to use it?
Campbell’s commentary indicates that the “atonement” being sought is not that of repentance and sorrow. He spells it out as, “at-one-ment”: to become one with the father and understand him.
It is in following after Lysandre that this “at-one-ment” takes place. The origins of the weapon as an expression of grief are explained, along with Lysandre’s justification for its use. It is as terrifying as Campbell suggests, and yet – the heroes must transcend this terror, “to understand how the … tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated…” (Campbell, 1949)
Questioning and battling with Lysandre brings this understanding. While he might have a point about the finite resources and possible struggles, the answer is summed up to a defeated Lysandre in a moment of brave honesty:
“Even if there’s only a little bit of something, it’s still best to share it.”
In facing the horror of Lysandre’s cynicism and intentions, in their prevention of mass destruction, the heroes found their own understanding of the tragedies described in-game, and of the universe in which they live. They have also overcome Lysandre’s tempting vision of the world. In so doing, they have attained the “at-one-ment” that their journey demanded of them.
From this “at-one-ment”, our heroes have come to see the world differently, thus also fulfilling the terms of the “apotheosis”. Campbell writes that, “instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world,” (Campbell, 1949), and if that is the case, then the hero – our protagonist – has sought peace through understanding, transcending the temptations offered by Lysandre, and moving on with a renewed vision of the world.
It is from here that our protagonist goes on to seek the “ultimate boon”. For the protagonist, this means going on to challenge the region’s Pokémon League. Campbell describes this boon as, “the elixir of Imperishable Being… Its guardians dare release it only to the duly proven.” (Campbell, 1949) While making such a challenge to the league may not render one functionally immortal, this “elixir of Imperishable Being” can be understood as having one’s name and team displayed for all eternity upon the walls of the league headquarters following a successful challenge, which could be certainly thought of as a form of immortality, for even when one’s life has ended and the body perished, our names and deeds live on in infamy forever.
So it is that a new set of threshold guardians appear: the Elite Four, a group of powerful Pokémon trainers, acting as the guardians who must be defeated before the protagonist can challenge the Champion. The final guardian – this Champion – is none other than the Goddess-figure, Diantha, who had lured the protagonist with promises of battling one day.
Upon meeting this Goddess character on her own ground, elevated to her domain, the last battle takes place. After defeating her team, Diantha bestows the ultimate boon – the immortality of their name living on in infamy, and the title of region champion. This is the reward for all that the protagonist has faced, and the rebirth achieved.
Empowered by the boons bestowed by the Goddess, the hero-protagonist departs from the Pokémon League and returns home.
Along the way, the hero must proceed by “crossing the return threshold”. This takes the form of a parade held in the city of Lumiose, to celebrate “the heroes of Kalos” – the protagonist, and their friends – all of whom are given a medal, “the Honor of Kalos”, for their bravery in facing and defeating Team Flare.
In crossing this threshold, there is one more guardian to face. Campbell notes that the point of this threshold is to make sense of the knowledge obtained on the journey and integrate it with one’s mundane life. “The returning hero … must survive the impact of the world,” Campbell writes, “to accept as real … the passing joys and sorrows … of life.” (Campbell, 1949)
Our protagonist must also bestow their newly-acquired wisdom as a boon to their fellows – and to this last guardian, a long lost king of Kalos seeking redemption for his original construction and use of the ultimate weapon.
His sole request: “I want to know what a ‘Trainer’ is.”
In this last battle, the protagonist validates the king’s sorrow, releasing him from it by bestowing the wisdom acquired through their journey, which is rooted in acceptance of the world and reality.
With this threshold crossed, the hero-protagonist has become a “master of two worlds”, the exceptional, and the mundane. Intertwined with this concept, is the “freedom to live” which comes from this mastery. Obtaining wisdom and making it a part of their outlook, our hero can draw upon this experience as a guide, and go between the world overseen by the Goddess, and the world of mundane, everyday life.
Thus, through being “the very best, like no-one ever was” (Bulbapedia, 2008), the protagonist is freed from the earlier temptations and ego, and lives as a guardian in their own right of all that is true, and just, and good.
Bulbapedia. 2013. Diantha – Bulbapedia, the community-driven Pokémon encyclopedia. Bulbapedia, the community-driven Pokémon encyclopedia. [Online] 11 September 2013. [Cited: 05 November 2015.] http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Diantha#Names.
Bulbapedia. 2008. Pokémon Theme – Bulbapedia, the community-driven Pokémon encyclopedia. Bulbapedia, the community-driven Pokémon encyclopedia. [Online] 12 March 2008. [Cited: 05 November 2015.] http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Pok%C3%A9mon_Theme#TV_version.
Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1949, pp. 28 – 225.
Game Freak. 2013. Pokemon X and Y. s.l. : Nintendo Co., Ltd / The Pokémon Company International, 12 October 2013.
Fiona Conn is a graduate of Glasgow Kelvin College and University of Glasgow, holding degrees in theology and television production. Other works can be accessed via her site at fionaconn.com