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 Pirates, Pearls, and Profit (an English essay)

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PostSubject: Pirates, Pearls, and Profit (an English essay)   Pirates, Pearls, and Profit (an English essay) Icon_minitimeThu Oct 30, 2008 5:05 am

This is a rough draft of an essay I have to write for my English class, about how archetypal and mythic patterns, particularly a retelling of the hero's journey, explain the success of a film -- in this case, it's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. I also need to discuss what aspects of our society or cultural evolution this film appeals to, as well as show if it deviates from the universal forms (discussed in an essay in our textbook) and explain the significance if it does. Yay for essays at 2 in the morning!

For as long as there have been people, there have been myths, and for as long as there have been myths, there have been heros, villains, and themes which are present in some way in all of them. These mythic tales have taken many forms over the years: first in songs and stories, then in books, and in modern times, movies. Though they are not specifically called ‘myths’ anymore, movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl have every traditional part of a classic myth: a hero on a journey, a trickster, a damsel in distress, and a force of darkness acting against the hero. However, there is a twist to these characters: the damsel is able to hold her own against the villain, the villain is sympathetic and his true adversary is the trickster; the hero is an impulsive rebel, and the trickster gives strong life lessons to the hero. It is these variations on a classic story that have made Pirates of the Caribbean one of the most successful movies of the past five years.

Though there is a general consensus as to what a myth is, the definition of a myth varies from source to source. Princeton University defines a myth as “ a traditional story accepted as history [that] serves to explain the world view of a people” (Wordnet 1), Karen Armstrong, a British scholar, defines myths as “ essentially a guide; [they tell] us what we must do in order to live more richly...” (Armstrong 12), while Linda Seger simply says that “A myth is a story that is ‘more than true’” (Seger 318). However, all myths rotate around common stories and themes, such as coming-of-age tales, sagas of Good vs. Evil, and the journeys of a hero. Pirates is a combination of the good v. evil and hero’s journey stories.
The hero of Pirates is Will, a young blacksmith who is in love with the governor's daughter and his childhood friend, Elizabeth. When Elizabeth is kidnapped by a group of cursed pirates, Will becomes so desperate to get her back that he frees another pirate, ‘Captain’ Jack Sparrow, from prison and joins forces with him. Along the way, his ideas about pirates -- the idea that they are all soulless criminals -- changes when he learns that his own father was a pirate while staunchly defending him as “a good man!” (Pirates). Will also meets some ‘good’ pirates face to face, reenforcing this new idea.

William Turner, played by actor Orlando Bloom (of Lord of the Rings fame), is an embodiment of the archetype of the outlaw hero. This is the hero who is still a hero, and fighting for the side of good, and yet they are at the same time not afraid to break the rules of society and play by their own rules to achieve their ends. This also happens to be the type of hero most appealing to American movie audiences (Ray 315). This in part is a major factor of the success of Pirates, along with the comedic antics of Will’s companion, the colorful and eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow.

Jack, who is played by actor Johnny Depp, is an odd character whom no one seems to be able to figure out. He seems to have a goal, but no one quite knows what it is except him, and insists on being addressed as “Captain Jack Sparrow...” (Pirates). Adjectives used by the other characters to describe him include “daft” (Pirates), “mad” (Pirates), and paradoxically, both “...the worst...” and “the best pirate I’ve ever seen...” (Pirates). Though often in a wild, roundabout, and risky way, Jack always manages to get his hands on whatever it was he is after, and seemingly against their better judgement, the other characters in the movie -- from his crew to Will and Elizabeth and even to the upstanding Commodore Norrington -- come to respect him. In short, he is the classic archetype of the Trickster, “whose job it is to outwit” (Seger 324). Linda Seger’s definition of the Trickster archetype is defined further as being “a mischievous...figure who is always causing chaos, disturbing the peace, and generally being an anarchist” (Seger 323). It is exactly these qualities which Jack embodies, and also what Will, as his companion and sort of ‘apprentice pirate,’ use to their advantage in their quest to save Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Swann, played by actress Keira Knightly, is the daughter of the newly-appointed governor of the British colonial city of Port Royal, Jamaca; she also happens to be the childhood friend as well as love interest of William Turner. When they were children and Elizabeth was coming with her father to Port Royal, the ship passed the wreckage of a pirate attack, and Elizabeth noticed Will floating among the debris. When the crew pulled him aboard, Elizabeth noticed a strange medallion around his neck and, thinking it meant he was a pirate, took it and hid it from both Will and her father so that Will would not be hung. As they got older, they appeared to remain friends, despite their obvious difference in social status. This is hinted at when they both make their first appearance in the movie as adults; Elizabeth greets Will as an old friend, yet Will is very stiff and formal, sparking the exchange of “Will, how many times must I ask you to call me Elizabeth?”/ “At least once more, Ms. Swann, as always.” (Pirates). Elizabeth’s expected archetype would be that of the ‘damsel in distress,’ the love interest of the hero who’s only purpose is to be so. However, for much of the movie, her character seems to wholly reject this fate. Elizabeth proves time and again when she is kidnapped by Barbossa’s cursed crew that she is not the average damsel in distress; she realizes the danger that she is in, and does not hesitate to lie in telling them that her name is Turner, instead of Swann, and also has many tense exchanges with Barbossa himself, demonstrating her wit.

Captain Barbossa, the mutinous commander of the ship The Black Pearl and leader of a band of pirates cursed to be forever undead, turning into animated skeletons in the moonlight, is another character who is rather paradoxical. Played by actor Geoffrey Rush, on the surface, he appears to be the classic ‘shadow figure’ villain. Yet once he has Elizabeth on his ship, he becomes downright hospitable towards Elizabeth, in his own way, giving her clothes, a good meal, and her own quarters. All the while, however, he knows the fate he has planned for her: using the blood he thinks is in her -- Turner’s blood -- to break the curse he and his crew are under. So even his hospitality is two-faced, though at times, like when he is describing the nature of his curse to Elizabeth, he truly appears to pity her fate, which he sees as inescapable.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a movie who’s story takes the traditional archetypes of myth and dares it’s viewers to question their face value. Is Jack Sparrow a hero or a villain? Is Elizabeth a damsel in distress, or is she actually a shrewd, manipulative strategist who will lie and steal without a care if it will help her achieve her goal? Are Barbossa and his cursed crew desperate victims, or are they in fact reveling in the immortality and power that the curse gives them? Yet even with all these questions, the underlying story is that of a classical myth. The hero undertakes a spectacular journey under the guidance of another, more experienced individual, and is faced with daunting and seemingly impossible tasks in order to win the heart of his beloved. This story is familiar and comfortable, yet it’s variations have allowed it to become a permanent icon in our society.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of Myth. New York: Canongate, 2005

Ray, Robert B.. “The Thematic Paradigm.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Ed. Karen S. Henry. Boston, Mass.: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 308-315

Seger, Linda. “Creating the Myth.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Ed. Karen S. Henry. Boston, Mass.: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 317-325

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Johnny Depp, Geoffery Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly. Walt Disney, 2003.

Wordnet. Version 3.0. Princeton University. Oct. 28, 2008. <>
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