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October 09, 2009

Van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" and the Monomyth

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Van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" and the Monomyth

by Liz Hardy

According to Joseph Campbell, every story has its structure and root in the cyclic journey of myths which he termed the “hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey, a step of concrete stages, shows the significant metamorphosis a character undergoes throughout the course of the given story. The hero’s journey is also found within the realm of science fiction; while not admirable in intent, the character known as Coeurl in A.E. van Vogt’s story “Black Destroyer” shows a clear progression through Campbell’s cycle.

While little is known about . . .

. . . the origins of Coeurl, his presence and overwhelming desire to destroy the presence of id within the men shows the reader where the crux of the story’s conflict will come from. When the men land on Coeurl’s planet, an innate and ferocious desire is birthed within him, and this serves as the first two steps of the hero’s journey: Birth and Call to Adventure. Coeurl is reminded of his relentless hunger for his precious id when the ship lands and he is absolutely driven in his pursuit to exterminate these men.

The curiosity of the men on the ship helps to facilitate the Coeurl’s movement through the next two mythic stages: the Crossing of the Threshold and Tests. The Crossing of the Threshold also symbolizes a journey into the extraordinary world. Coeurl leaves his known world for the “massive, rock-crushing thing of metal” ( Van Vogt 2) after the men discuss the best way to lure him onto the ship. However, once on the ship the Coeurl is immediately tested in his ability to comprehend his surroundings, and maintain his sanity/adherence to his plan, when the ship’s massive metal doors close around him inspiring extreme panic and rage at the thought of being trapped. The tests continue for the Coeurl as he is driven by his extreme desire to kill the men but must be patient in order to disguise his true intentions.

To continue his progression through the heroic journey, the Coeurl is aided by unlikely sources: the men themselves and the Coeurl’s unnatural abilities. Coeurl’s plans thrive because of the confusion that exists around his very existence among the men. The question of whether or not he killed Jarvey is immaterial to the men, their crisis stems from the debate over Coeurl’s right to exist because he is “a biological treasure house” (9). The men’s fascination with the Coeurl’s origins and dissension over how to punish him allow the Coeurl to continue with his ultimate plan of annihilation. Coeurl is also helped by his ability to change the atomic make-up of his surroundings, rendering him free when the men believe him to be securely trapped within the metal cage.

After the men discover the Coeurl’s ability to control vibrations, the cat-like creature is forced into the climactic battle of the story. When the Coeurl gains control of the engine room, the men must plan their responding attacks very carefully. As the Coeurl hurriedly creates a spaceship to save his race, he also has to defend himself against the atomic attacks of the men (22). By lowering his resistance fractions at a time, the Coeurl’s ability to withstand attack is lowered greatly. The battle ends as Coeurl gets into his ship and escapes into space believing he has won.

The sense of success is far from accurate for Coeurl, though. Coeurl is unable to complete his journey through Campbell’s stages because of something he never accounted for: the ship’s ability to stop acceleration in space compared to his own craft’s inability (24). The resulting panic of seeing the spaceship appear before him so confounds the Coeurl that he chooses suicide. Coeurl is then unable to bring the spaceship he created back to his home planet and secure the survivability of his race which signifies the end of his heroic journey according to Campbell; Coeurl will have no reemergence into his natural/ordinary world because he succumbed to hopeless and fear.

~LIz Hardy


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Princeton, NJ: Bollingen, 1987.

Hobbs, Lee. “The Hero’s Journey (or the Monomyth)”. Illustration and definitions of terms based on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. Partly adapted from: Warren, Liz and Alan Levine. “The Hero’s Journey: Summary of Steps.” Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI): Maricopa Community Colleges. 19 Nov. 1999. 10 Oct 2007.

Van Vogt, A.E. “Black Destroyer.” Astounding Science Fiction. July 1939.

Posted by lhobbs at October 9, 2009 08:06 AM

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