Heroes and antiheroes play a prominent role in Arabic literature. From the writings of Antarah ibn Shaddad and Al-Harriri to Mahmoud Darwish, the figure of the hero looms large. Reading literature in translation, much less pre-modern literature, can feel like an exhaustive task. But the idea of the hero transcends culture and language. Heroes serve an interesting societal function, as representations of desirable qualities like bravery, strength, courage, etc. We can all identify with heroic acts, but only the figure of the hero itself allows us to commune with these qualities in their purest form. Anti-heroes, though not heroic in the traditional sense, allow us to identify with their moral failings, struggles, and triumphs as they undergo a similar heroic arc. NBA superstar LeBron James is a modern day example of a hero, and going through his career arc using Joseph Campbell’s framework for the hero’s journey allows us to relate to Arabic literature in a fresh and impactful way.
James Phelan, a literary scholar at Ohio State, heard it on sports-talk radio on the Tuesday after LeBron James brought a championship to Cleveland, even if fans and hosts weren’t saying it outright. The nature of the discussion about LeBron James conveyed that no matter what happened next, after he led the Cavaliers to their first N.B.A. championship Sunday night, his legacy had been definitively chiseled.
There was “implicit recognition that narrative culmination has already occurred,” Phelan said. James’s career, as inadvertently reflected by the radio banter, was now the stuff of bildungsroman.
The hero chafes at the comfort he knows, so he leaves home, believing adventure will give him both spiritual fulfillment and a livelihood. He gains knowledge but comes to realize something is missing. He stumbles back home, where he realizes the key to happiness was right under his nose all along.
If even those without Cleveland connections found themselves feeling warm and glad when they watched James drop to the floor at Oracle Arena on that fateful night in June 2016 and weep with joy, it might have been because the arc of his endlessly scrutinized career resembles a tried-and-true story, and this was its completion.
He grew up in Akron, Ohio, near Cleveland. In the early stage of his career with the Cavaliers, when a Nike billboard in downtown Cleveland declared, “We Are All Witnesses,” his incredible gifts and the opportunity to write a storybook ending left him feeling pressured and stifled.
In 2010, James beat a path for Miami — trailed by burning jerseys, a nasty letter by the owner Dan Gilbert of the Cavaliers, and a book labeling him “The Whore of Akron” — and won two N.B.A. titles with the Heat.
“Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today,” James wrote in a Sports Illustrated essay upon his return to Cleveland in 2014, confirming the necessity of the Miami part of the tale.
But James clarified that merely returning did not close the loop. “What’s most important for me,” he wrote, “is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
As with every other stage of James’s career, this was achieved as dramatically as possible. On a recording breaking night in 2016, that vintage chase-down block was reminiscent of his scampering youth and physical brilliance. His unrivaled game control — a teammate, Kyrie Irving, compared him to Beethoven composing a symphony — was the signature of so much experience.
Like the hero at the close of every novel of growth, James completely fulfilled society’s expectations as well as his own. No matter what comes next, he will never again have a moment as charged with meaning. That part of his life is over.
It is sublime. It is also bittersweet.
“They’ve found their place in society,” Joseph Slaughter, an English professor at Columbia, said, referring to the heroes of such stories. “It reaffirms natural ideas of home and society,” he added, “that everybody will find their place.”
The genre frequently featured a fatherless man. In “Great Expectations,” Pip searches for the father figure who provided him with his inheritance. Huckleberry Finn flees his drunken father and heads for the Mississippi River. And Lazarillo de Tormes, the young antihero is sent to live with an old tutor by his single mother.
James was raised by a single 16 year old mother in Akron, finding father figures in basketball gyms and siblings in his teammates, to whom he always preferred to pass the ball and whom he always kept close. After his triumph over the Golden State Warriors, James reportedly insisted on three portraits: one with his mother, Gloria; one with his coterie of close friends, some of whom he has known since childhood; and one with his wife and their three children — on Father’s Day.
James could still win another championship or three for the Los Angeles Lakers, although he probably won’t. He could clinch an N.B.A. finals on Cleveland’s home court. He could even return to Cleveland once more to pass on the torch to his son, who is projected as a top pick in the NBA draft.
But what he cannot do again is play quite as poignant a role, in his life or in ours. Having won a championship for Northeast Ohio, he is now the fully formed person he will be for the rest of his life.
“If he wins more, it’s denouement; it’s not climax,” Phelan said. “It’s epilogue or sequel.”
For someone to find his place so completely, in such triumph, is a wonderful thing that allows us to transcend the boundaries of culture and language that are sometimes present when reading Arabic literature in translation. And even for those who haven’t been exposed to the genre, it is no small consolation to be able to say that we can relate to people who lived and wrote so long ago and so far away.