You Don’t Know “Jack”

ISSN 2167-8812       Open Inquiry Archive       Vol. 2, No. 1 (2013)

You Don’t Know “Jack”:  Comparing the Heroes Jack Shephard of “Lost” and Jack Bauer of “24”  in the Tradition of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and the Historic “Jack Tales”

By Marla Cartwright


According to media scholar Mitchell Stephens, “Few inventions have had as much effect on contemporary American society as television” (2000). Stephens, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University observes, “Before 1947 the number of U.S. homes with television sets could be measured in the thousands. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of U.S. homes had at least one television set, and those sets were on for an average of more than seven hours a day” (2000). The continued upward trajectory in both the proliferation of television sets and the growth of the television programming industry has generated a wealth of television shows over the decades, some to be launched and quickly forgotten, while others enjoy a meteoric rise in popularity that captures the attention of not only the fan audience, but also of the population in general. What characteristics makes these popular shows so unique? How do these narratives create and sustain mass appeal on a grand scale?

In recent television history, two programs that have enjoyed blockbuster success would be “24” and “Lost”. The television program “24” enjoyed phenomenal popularity during its broadcast time from 2001 to 2010, winning 20 Emmy awards out of 68 nominations. In addition to critical success, the show also inspired legions of fans, thousands of whom volunteered their time to build a very extensive Wiki database currently boasting nearly 6,000 articles. The driving character of “24” is the heroic figure of Jack Bauer, a special agent with the fictitious government agency Counter Terror Unit (CTU) who routinely  fights threats to America with bravery, skill and cunning. The popular culture impact of the Jack Bauer figure was illustrated when he was named in the recent “The 20 All Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture” poll conducted  by Entertainment Weekly magazine. A second highly successful television program, “Lost”, was broadcast from 2004 to 2010 and quickly became a television phenomenon much like “24”. Fans quickly became intrigued with the compelling story line of strangers on a plane who crash land on a mysterious island, paying special attention to the evolution of core character Jack Shephard, a California spinal surgeon who was en route from Sydney Australia to Los Angeles, California, escorting the body of his deceased father. Viewers were also intrigued by the strong character development and the exotic Hawaii shooting locale, not to mention six years of intricate non-linear story lines of flashbacks, flash-forwards and side-flashes which encouraged fans to obsess over minute details in a quest to better understand the ongoing plot.

So why were these characters, Jack Shephard and Jack Bauer, so warmly received by the viewing public as well as by the critics? One way to discover the answers is to consider these two heroic figures from “Lost” and “24” through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s theoretical “monomyth” structure as it outlines the “Hero’s Journey”. Joseph Campbell, a scholar in comparative religion and philosophy, borrowed the term “monomyth” from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, creating the groundbreaking theory of the monomyth in his 1949 work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s monomyth consists of specific stages of a hero’s journey, including: the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, overcoming challenges (the ultimate of which is found in the “abyss”), then through atonement actions, the hero’s return to his or her previous world with boons to share with the community. Campbell’s book influenced many writers and artists, most famously George Lucas as he conceived and wrote the Star Wars movies. Using the key steps of Campbell’s framework as an analysis tool will reveal not only commonalities shared by the televised narratives of “Lost” and “24”, namely the key heroic characters, but this will also explore how they both continue an ancient, pre-technological storytelling tradition of the “Jack” fairytales.

Analysis using The Hero’s Journey

The two heroes, Jack Shephard and Jack Bauer, are both struggling against their circumstances, striving for their own personal survival (both physical and spiritual) as well as for their community’s survival against increasingly dire odds. These heroes share many commonalities, not the least of which are their individual journeys as they progress through the stages of their unique quests, precisely like monomythic heroes.  Campbell summarizes this type of quest in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

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 (1949).

This timeless story structure has been compelling for readers, listeners and viewers from time immemorial because, as Campbell rightly posits, this fundamental structure persists in stories and myths from a vast range of locales and time periods. It is the summary of a person’s struggle, not just personally for him/herself, but also for his or her community at large. Their success is the success of their family, village, region or nation. Therefore, an analysis of the dual heroic journeys Jack Shephard and Jack Bauer from their initial calls to adventure through their respective, cyclical journeys will illustrate either their successful (or unsuccessful attempt) to return to the known world bearing gifts. Campbell describes the first step as a departure point, saying:

This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the ‘call to adventure’—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight (1949).

It is by passing through this initial doorway that our heroic figure begins the first step of a physically arduous and mentally challenging journey. The doorway can be as presented as abruptly as a harrowing plane crash or as subtlety as a persistent cell phone ringtone.

Jack Shephard’s Heroic Journey

It is telling that one of the possible locations for entering the doorway into the unknown is, specifically, “a secret island” which is exactly where Jack Shephard of “Lost” finds himself after a series of seemingly unrelated events. And so, Jack’s initial call to adventure begins with his mother’s request that he fly to Australia and retrieve his dead father, Christian’s, body back to Los Angeles for burial. But what begins as a painful journey of unresolved father and son issues, now seemingly impossible with the passing of Christian, devolves into something much worse – a catastrophic plane crash. So when Oceanic Flight 815 crashes on an unnamed tropical island, this becomes Jack’s call to adventure. He initially wakes up, disoriented, in a field of bamboo but he quickly makes his way back to the crash site where chaos reigns. There he discovers dozens of shell-shocked survivors in various stages of disorientation, including a dazed pregnant woman, and a burning fuselage with screaming victims. Jack immediately takes charge. As Chief Surgeon for St. Sebastian, Jack shines in a medical emergency and becomes completely focused on saving those around him. Dozens of lives are spared because of his quick thinking and decisive actions.

Due to this, Jack becomes the de facto leader of the small band of survivors because of his clear thinking and quick action, resulting in the medical emergencies being largely resolved. It is because of his initial success during the series pilot episodes that he automatically becomes leader of this small band of survivors. However, as he moves on to facing challenges which are numerous and varied throughout the series, it becomes painfully apparent to the viewer that one over-arching theme emerges, namely that Jack suffers greatly from hubris; his great skill in the operating room does not automatically equate to skillful interpersonal negotiations, interactions or leadership. In fact, his ability to relate to other people seems to be in direct inverse to his nearly miraculous aptitude in the O.R. He is less self-assured leading people, judging character and making decisions. As part of his spiritual maturation process, the hero, Jack, is continually tested by “the road of trials” described by Campbell as, “a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where [the hero] must survive a succession of trials” (Leming, 1981). And, indeed the mysterious island presents a succession of challenges moving from basic survival (securing food, water and shelter) to understanding deeper mysteries like the underground Dharma Initiative hatches, meeting the mysterious “Others”, joining forces with the “Tailie” survivors, and moving through time-shifts as the complicated mythology of the island unfolds. Slowly, the viewer sees Jack attain the realization that he is imperfect (as are all the island survivors) and comes to accept the realization that he can, indeed, learn from valuable lessons from others. Even when he makes repeated mistakes, like distrusting those who prove to be his strongest allies, he eventually does learn from these challenging situations.

However, Jack’s ultimate “abyss” challenge is arguably the worst decision he has ever made. He chooses to detonate the twenty ton hydrogen bomb, nicknamed “Jughead”, in an attempt to regain control of his destiny. Through a complicated set of circumstances (included time travel), Jack has the opportunity to detonate this bomb, thinking that by doing so it will “re-set” the sporadic and uncontrollable time-shifts of the mysterious island he and the fellow survivors find themselves on. At this point, Jack believes that everything that has happened, to this point, is a mistake. He rejects the notion of “destiny” and instead believes that if he can take control and force them all back to their “starting point”, ideally their shared departure point at the Sydney airport, preparing to board the ill-fated Flight 815, then everything will be returned to its previous state; no one will have died, no plane will crash, and they can all continue on their original paths. Jack thinks that the bomb’s explosion will essentially erase everything that has happened and free them from their journey on the island . However, instead of the intended outcome for everything to be back to normal, where they are all strangers back at the gate for Flight 815 (and hopefully not boarding the fateful plane), Jack has failed miserably. All he has succeed in doing is causing wholesale destruction of their current environment and setting events into motion that result in a slow and excruciating death for Juliet who is battered and thrust down a mine shaft littered with debris, trapped, mortally wounded and unable to be freed. When Juliet dies, bloodied and broken in her lover Sawyer’s arms, all Jack has done is to alienate his closest friends, Sawyer and Kate.

But thankfully for Jack Shephard, he does slowly learn through atonement, specifically the erosion of his hubris and automatic self-reliance, so that he willingly makes different choices in his journey on the island, choosing to accede control to others and beginning to lose the compulsion to always be the leader, regardless of his self-perception of having fitness to lead or feeling that he should lead. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell says that the stage of “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster” specifically the superego and the repressed id (130). This precisely describes Jack’s challenge, to overcome his flaws which include being self-centered and egotistical. As a well-respected spinal surgeon, Jack believes only in himself and his own abilities, which often triggers his aggressive reactions to fellow survivor John Locke’s more passive nature as well as Locke’s belief in faith, destiny and the “rightness” of their crashing landing on the island. This is illustrated in the episode, “Man of Science, Man of Faith”, where Jack and Locke find themselves diametrically opposed, each believing that his own construction of reality is unshakeable. But what happens when Jack no longer can save those he cares about because of his repeated poor judgment? Ultimately, he cannot even save himself and is driven to the brink of self-destruction with alcohol and drugs and, ultimately, an attempt at suicide.

But as Jack begins to grow outside of his egotistical existence, he begins to extend his reliance on his trusted community of peers: Kate, Sawyer, Sayid and Juliet. Each, in turn, acts as a spiritual guide for Jack with the female characters serving as what Campbell calls “the helpful female figure by whose magic the hero is protected” (131). His trusted male friends, Sayid and Sawyer, also serve to help Jack reconnect with this instinctual, primal male energy; both of these men are cunning fighters and keen judges of character, skills that Jack slowly learns from them over time. In fact, Jack’s trust grows to the extent that he becomes the biggest supporter of Hurley, a man who by outward appearances seems to be the character least likely to succeed. Hurley is spiritually child-like, physically obese, awkward, naïve and overly trusting. But because of Hurley’s effortless caring for others and consistently selfless acts, the opposite is actually true of him. Hurley is a natural leader because of his compassionate nature and dogged determination, and so Jack learns to become his biggest supporter, successfully and willingly acceding leadership to another.

If viewers were in any doubt about the successful completion of Jack Shephard’s spiritual journey, the indisputable answer comes in the final episode of season six where, by his agreement to “meet at the church”, he puts into motion the domino effect for all his friends to reconnect and they all literally meet at this spiritual place.  And thus, Jack Shephard achieves one of his greatest desires, atonement with his father. As Campbell describes in the monomyth, the hero “beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned” (147). This is depicted in the final episode in a touching scene where Christian warmly welcomes Jack by embracing him, a tender physical interaction that viewers have never before observed, not in fantasy sequences nor in flashbacks. Christian Shephard then gently tells him what viewers had suspected all along – namely that Jack and his cohorts were dead and had been dead since the initial plane crash. Father and son are now fully reconciled, both respect one another, and Christian urges his son to follow him, into the golden, sunlight door opening at the end of the church, into light, into the “next place”.  Jack Shephard has successfully completed his heroic quest for enlightenment and spiritual growth.

Jack Bauer’s Heroic Journey

While Jack Shephard’s heroic journey takes place over six seasons of viewing time, moving at a sometime glacial pace, Jack Bauer’s heroic journey takes place within 24 hours, one sole day in his life. While the narrative story structure of “Lost” sometimes played havoc with the notion of time with viewers searching for clues as to the setting (Is this a remembered flashback? Is this a future occurrence? Is this an alternate timeline?), viewers of “24” were never allowed to “lose track of time” because not only was a digital timepiece a major visual marker, but the characters are always acutely aware of time and how little they have, rushing to stop terrorists bent upon detonating bombs, unleashing biological weapons or assassinating presidents. Our heroic character Jack Bauer is always aware that one of his greatest enemies is time.  But while the storytelling device here differs from that of “Lost”, both characters’ spiritual expeditions are no less heroic. For Jack Bauer, his call to adventure is literally a call — a phone call — typically from the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) where he works, or from his trusted colleague Chloe, or from someone he loves. This call interrupts his intended activity for the day and sets him on a collision course for the next day of his life. In season six, his final call to adventure interrupts his dream of joining his daughter, son-in-law, and beloved grand-daughter back to Los Angeles where he dreams of living a normal life, where they can finally become a cohesive family unit, after years of estrangement.

Through each of Jack Bauer’s 24-hour days, his challenges are numerous and varied, much like his parallel Jack Shephard. Externally, Bauer battles overt threats like terrorists, criminals and corrupt officials as well as covert threats like deep-sleeper agents such as Nina Myers and high-placed traitors like President Logan. Bauer’s ultimate goal is remains fixed and altruistic for each journey – successfully protecting American lives. However, Bauer also suffers internal challenges as well including the tremendous guilt he feels for the death of his wife Teri (at the hands of Myers), prolonged alienation from his daughter Kim, and the deaths of several of his trusted colleagues. Rightly or wrongly, Bauer blames himself.

So within each 24-hour cycle of these climactic journeys in Bauer’s life, there is a time (or even several times) when he hits rock bottom and encounters the abyss that Campbell describes as the key turning point in the heroic journey. But while Jack Shephard experiences only one cataclysmic abyss challenge with the bomb, Jack Bauer is battered over and over again by experiencing these within each of the 24-hour story frames. These abyss moments for him have included watching his wife Teri die in his arms, being taken prisoner, enduring torture and preparing for a suicide mission. However following his descent into the abyss experience, Bauer remains steadfast and loyal to his ultimate cause and unswerving moral compass, traits which help him endure monumental pain, both physical and mental. In fact, this strength contributes to his repeated successful atonements where he willingly offers his own suffering in exchange for the well being of someone he cares about or for the safety of American citizens and so he prepares for the final step of the return.

His return is heralded by averting large-scale disaster (such as nuclear threats and biological weapons) and securing of thousands of innocent lives; his gift to society is in ensuring security to citizens who can now safely go about their daily lives: to work, to their homes and to their families. Ironically, Bauer provides for others what he, himself, can never enjoy – a normal, routine life, making him a tragic hero. In fact, according to the LA Times reporter Mary McNamara (2010), “’24’ is nothing more or less than an epic poem, with Jack Bauer in the role of Odysseus or Beowulf” (2010). And, Jack Bauer is just that – a heroic Beowulf figure who wrestles fearlessly with horrific monsters (including his own father), only to tragically lose everything in the end. And so despite Jack Bauer’s valiant, persistent efforts he is thwarted in his attempt to complete his heroic return. In the last moments of the final episode of the last season, viewers see Jack Bauer, alone, wrongly accused, beaten and bloodied but still alive and determined as he walks away, back to the camera. This ambivalent ending is in sharp contrast to Jack Shephard’s satisfying final moments of reunion and fulfillment. Instead, Jack Bauer’s success can be measured in his many successful battles, much like King Beowulf, rather than by a happy ending. In fact, the Jack Bauer figure functions to reaffirm that “the mighty hero of extraordinary powers is each of us; not the physical self visible in the mirror, but the king within” (Campbell, 365). Jack Bauer’s strength, persistence and determination serve as a reminder of these attributes within us all.

The Importance of Names

Not only does Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, then, provide structure to analyze the journeys of these resonating figures of Jack Bauer and Jack Shephard, but it also provides the impetus to examine these characters, side by side, to discover additional commonalities they may share. One striking fact is that they share a common first name, linking them to a long tradition of ancient folk heroes. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell says, “It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers” as indicated in commonly-shared stories of tragedy and comedy (29). Campbell believed strongly in the power of both myth and fairy tales to contain kernels of essential truths that speak to generations of audiences and touch upon common experiences, desires and dreams. And so it is telling that both of these strong heroic figures share a name that is steeped in fairy tale lore, linking them both to the tradition of the “Jack Tales” which are, generally-speaking, a collection of English folk tales that center on a character named “Jack” who faces fantastical trials and is typically depicted as something of an underdog, someone not generally expected to succeed therein.

As noted folklorist Charles T. Davis explained in his article “Jack as Archetypal Hero” the character of Jack is a “a changing, dynamic hero…a typical Märchen hero” (1978). The German term Märchen, universally used by folklorists, also embraces tall tales and humorous anecdotes. Richard Chase’s landmark 1943 anthology The Jack Tales presents Jack as the  “everyman”, a uniquely American hero, a figure evolved from roots in England, Scotland and Ireland, becoming a favored folktale hero who proves that a combination of traits like charity, unselfishness, and cleverness (with a pinch of luck thrown in) results in an engaging central character that readers and viewers care about. According to research conducted by Stephen D. Winick, of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and editor of “Folklife Center News”, the name of “Jack” has special significance. He says:

Jack is especially English, and deeply embedded in the psyche of English-speakers. The very name ‘Jack,’ for example, is English (and most likely) comes from the Middle English “Jankyn,” a diminutive form of “John.” The name has taken many forms and many meanings in English and Scots, coming to mean a man in general (“man-jack,” “jack-of-all-trades”), a worker (lumberjack, Jack Tar), a useful tool (jackknife, hydraulic jack), and a fool (jackanapes, jackass). As a diminutive of one of the most often used English names, it suggests both commonness and humility, and is thus a name for Everyman. However, “Jack” combines its commonness and humbleness with clearly Anglo-Saxon ancestry; after all, his most famous opponent, the giant, smells the blood not of an Everyman, but of an Englishman (n.d.).

Applied to the fictional figures Jack Shephard and Jack Bauer, this description fits perfectly. Both men alternately serve in the roles of a “jack-of-all-trades” because their circumstances require that they maintain physical and mental agility to stay alive and they must learn to be adaptable, acquiring new skills as needed. They can each also serve in the role of “jackanape” where their miscalculation or misjudgment results in dire consequences.

Winick also says that, “Jack’s luck is helped along by skill and cleverness” and this is clearly demonstrated by Jack Bauer who is an excellent judge of character; he knows how to get answers out of people and how to move a situation to his advantage, both strategically and psychologically. Jack Shephard uses his extensive (and sometimes “magical” medical skills) to his advantage – not only to heal his wife Sarah’s nearly impossible spinal injury, but also to gain an advantage over nemesis Benjamin Linus who, oddly enough, requires spinal surgery. An analysis of three “Jack” fairy tales will help reveal how these contemporary Jack characters actually fit the mold of their ancient forefathers and continue this storytelling tradition, despite modern times and means of story transmission.

Jack Shephard and the Beanstalk

In The Jack Tales, different types of Jack portrayals emerge, one of which is the underdeveloped child, the ego-centric character who expects everything to revolve around him. In connecting our contemporary fictional Jack characters to their historic folklore heritage, it is useful to examine the original story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” a story which, according to Bruno Bettelheim, is “the odyssey of a boy striving to gain independence from a mother who thinks little of him and yet who, on his own, achieves greatness” (1976). This depiction of the beanstalk hero is echoed by Charles Davis, saying that, “Jack is a small, weak, impotent being, archetype of the child savior, the preconscious, instinctual-animal impulses in the human personality” (1978). These descriptions fit the early Jack Shephard character perfectly because our first perception of Jack is of the spoiled only child, a respected professional in his field who is otherwise a failure, unable to maintain successful personal relationships with his family members or to potential mates, a sign that his maturation process has stalled.

First, as mentioned earlier, his mother is the major motivation for him to be on Flight 815. A grown-man, a professional in his field, allows the wheedling of his mother to override his own better judgment. And so, he finds himself on a mysterious island, surrounded by strangers, chasing the figure of his dead father through the dense, jungle undergrowth. In fact, there are many instances where the viewer clearly understands that Jack is struggling to overcome the external struggle of the fantastic tropical growth. He continually climbs hills, hides in banyan trees, cuts through vegetations and in a key scene from the episode “White Rabbit”, is seen literally hanging onto a massive vine.

In the fairy tale, Jack climbs the beanstalk of his own initiative and uses his own body strength to skillfully climb the beanstalk; he risks his life three times to gain the magic objects.  The Ogre’s wife allows him to hide in the protection of the womb-like oven to escape the wrath of her husband. This is echoed by Shephard’s discovery of the womb-like caves which provide safety as well as life-giving fresh water. As Bettelheim points out in discussing the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story, Jack seeks resources to satisfy this family’s short-term needs, i.e. stealing the bag of gold (1976). And this is just what Jack Shephard has done; the needs of his small community of survivors are met with the discovery of safe shelter and fresh water.

Again in the fairy tale, Jack’s second trip up the beanstalk, he steals the hen that lays the golden egg. Here Bettelheim says “with the hen, Jack could be content since now all physical needs are permanently satisfied” (1976). For Jack Shephard, this means he has more permanently provided for his community with the discovery of the nearly “magical” hatch with it packed provisions of food. Interestingly, in the Appalachian version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story, one of the items Jack steals is a knife (Chase, 1943). This image has powerful meaning on “Lost” because it represents the discovery of Locke’s case of knives and his subsequent hunting prowess, as directed by Jack. Therefore food is never a concern again in this narrative.

Then, in the fairy tale, during Jack’s final trip up the beanstalk he steals an item of beauty, traditionally the golden harp and as Bettelheim describes, “it is not necessity which motivates Jack’s last trip, but the desire for daring and adventure, the wish to find something better than mere material goods; the gold harp which symbolizes beauty, art, and the higher things in life” (1976). This fits into the “Lost” narrative when in the final season, Jack Shephard initially resists this final adventure in sideways world, but ultimately lets of go his desire to control and direct and so in the final episodes of season six he finds himself at the Widmore Benefit concert where Charlie Pace’s band “Driveshaft” is playing music, a key element that directly triggers his memory of Kate and all that has happened before. The final realization leads up to his ultimate reward of going into the light with his now reconciled father, and his beloved friends. Even his final, unknown journey will not be taken alone, but with his trusted comrades and extended “family”.

As Charles T. Davis (1978) has recognized, the fairy-tale Jack is an “archetypal hero”, saying:

Like Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, Jack finds a magical giant in the sky and brings back his treasures. The first time, he brings back only a finite bag of gold, but on his subsequent raids he carries off apparently limitless resources: a goose that lays golden eggs and a harp that sings beautiful music. These gifts clearly represent limitless physical and spiritual nourishment for his community (1978).

It is in these endeavors that Jack Shephard has succeeded in the modern “Lost” narrative, demonstrating that the tale of a hero taking risks to better his companions remains a powerful story for contemporary audiences.

“Soldier Jack” Bauer

The hero Jack Bauer fits into a different version in the tradition of the folk Jack Tales. Rather than the immature mother’s boy who must grow beyond egocentric desires, this version of Jack is more sly and daring. According Winick,  “Jack is the provider, protector and defender of his community, using luck and cleverness, kindness and trickery, to improve the lives of his people”. We see this expressed in “24” where the Jack character is not only the hero, but also seen as the mythic “trickster” character, famously described by Campbell in “Hero”: one who achieves his ends by using his wits and persuasive personality. Because the time-critical missions Jack Bauer finds himself in involve thousands of lives hanging in the balance, he resorts to nearly any means possible to achieve success; sometimes he relies on high-tech slyness to gain an informational advantage on his foes. At other times, however, Bauer relies on decidedly low-tech solutions such as effortlessly taking on convenient personas, wearing disguises and tricking enemies to divulge more information than they ever intended. For example, in “24” Jack Bauer adopts various aliases in the course of his duties with the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) including that of Frank Flynn, a construction worker, a street thug, as well as a drug cartel kingpin, among others and he uses these guises to gather information and achieve his ultimate goal of protecting the country he loves. By utilizing the  “trickster” aspects of his personality, Bauer continues the tradition of the character who is cunning, plays tricks or otherwise disobeys conventional and expected behavior in order to overcome demanding obstacles.

In Richard Chase’s story of “Soldier Jack”, we have a man who has faithfully served in the king’s army for many years. Battered, wounded and tiring of war, Jack desires only to return home however, he receives no wages, only two loaves of bread. As he journeys down the road, he chooses to halve his possessions with an old woman and an old man, in turn and he is rewarded with a “magic sack” which allows him to triumph over challenges and gain honor and re-entry into society (1943). Like his fairytale counterpart, Jack Bauer wants only one thing, time after time: to return to his “normal life” with his family, an idyllic image seen only in the first few minutes of the show’s opening episode. In that show, we see Jack at home, leisurely playing a game with his teenage daughter Kim, his wife Teri in the next room. As time goes on, however, a return to this domestic serenity becomes more and more difficult as Jack’s myriad adventures remove him further and further from the possibility of normalcy—especially after Teri’s death and Kim’s prolonged estrangement from him. However, toward the end of the series, Jack begins a tentative reconciliation with his now-grown daughter, begins bonding with his family and decides to move in with Kim, her husband and their baby girl, Teri. So Jack Bauer (formerly of Special Forces and definitely a “soldier”) shares this goal, of having a normal family life, with the fairy tale “Soldier Jack”.

In addition to his desire to return to his family, Jack Bauer also shares another commonality with Soldier Jack in that both owns and carries a bag. For Jack Bauer, this bag typically signifies that he is in loner mode because when he is affiliated with C.T.U., he has access to their tremendous resources, including an office building, myriad computer banks and dozens of staffers. But when Jack Bauer goes “off grid”, he is visually on his own, with only his wits and his canvas bag. In the fairy tale, Soldier Jack uses his magical bag to his immense advantage, to trap turkeys (for food) and to trap ghosts (so he can win a “haunted” house to have a place to live, as well as demonstrate his bravery and cunning) (1943). Jack Bauer uses his bag to demonstrate his self-sufficiency outside of the normal government and CTU supplied tools and equipment he usually has access to. When Jack carries his bag, he throws it on cross-shouldered and he is usually dressed plainly in earth tones, signifying his role as “Everyman”. Tellingly, at 7:25 on Day 5, Jack stops and spends precious minutes to gather his belongings, despite the urgency of the emergency situation, and then rushes away from his cover identity of Frank Flynn in order to help his CTU colleague and confidante, Chloe, who is in danger.

In the fairy tale, the final use Jack has for his magic bag is to save the King’s daughter; he uses the bag’s magical abilities to trick Death and capture it, thereby saving her from a terrible sickness and certain mortality and he, of course, falls in love with her and they are married to live happily ever after. Jack Bauer does, indeed, save his true love, the “king’s daughter” Audrey Raines who is beautiful, pampered, but also resourceful and resilient (but only to a point). In their touching reunion at the end of Season 5, viewers learn that Jack has actually been abducted by Chinese terrorists. In the next storyline, Season 6, viewers then find out that love has motivated Audrey to follow Jack Bauer to China to secure his release. But instead, she has been abducted and tortured to a point of no return. She is physically alive, even after Jack Bauer successfully finally locates and rescues her, but mentally she is broken and destroyed. Unlike his folktale counterpart, Jack Bauer does not live happily ever after; as McNamara indicated, Bauer is the tragic hero (2010). In the fairy tale, Jack finally realizes that he must release Death so that the natural order can be restored and Death enters the world again for everyone. For Jack Bauer, he realizes that even he cannot defeat Audrey’s death of the mind and spirit, even his superior skills are no match for this challenge. However, as Bettelheim explains, the absence of a “happily ever after” ending can also be instructive for the audience because the story can illustrate “that which alone can take the sting out of the narrow limits of our time on this earth: forming a truly satisfying bond to another” (10), a bond that Jack Bauer has benefitted immeasurably from because this emotional connection opens the way for him to repair his relationship with his daughter and restores balance to his psyche.


Analyzing how each of these heroes successfully navigates through the monomyth validates their recognized position as the key figure in their respective narratives. Additionally, both of their stories follow a pattern, a tradition of “Jack” Tales that began as medieval oral traditions but continue to weave themselves into narratives that resonate with audiences to this day. We  can clearly see how both Jack Bauer and Jack Shephard function as that important “Everyman” figure, destined to grow spiritually beyond their original bounds and demonstrating for us, as audience to their tales, how heroic acts can be accomplished in uncommon circumstances.

According to scholar Janet Thompson at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “In the tradition of folklore, the stories will vary and the elements may be reinterpreted, we may see the tale from another point of view, but the cycle will persist” Here we see that the cycle of heroic, monomythic journeys taken by the faceted “Jack” figures continues in a healthy, vigorous and highly imaginative re-telling. In fact, Time Magazine recently included in their 2007 list of Top 10 Graphic Novels an interesting title – a graphic novel, “Jack of Fables” series by Bill Willingham, another indication of how the heroic Jack has emerged in yet another new storytelling format. So these popular culture narratives represent an additional facet of the endless “Jack Tales,” the vibrant and popular re-telling through the multiple media streams, a natural extension of their purely oral storytelling beginnings. A Jack Tale is still a good story, after all.


Marla Cartwright earned her M.A. in English from Middle Tennessee State University and has been teaching at the college level for nearly 20 years, encompassing composition, literature, developmental ed and faculty training. She is currently a Faculty Developer at Kaplan University Online after having served as Assistant Chair of the Composition department, Director of the Kaplan University Writing Center and Chair of the Department of Student Success. In addition to teaching, Marla has had a life-long interest in science fiction and fantasy novels and movies, particularly as they relate to the Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Prior works include a study of science fiction heroines using the monomyth, analyzing both Locke and Sawyer from “Lost” as heroic figures and editing the book, “Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files”. She is currently working on a project analyzing the heroes from the AMC television series “The Walking Dead.”

Email her here.  



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Text ©2013 Marla Cartwight