Trained to Use the Light

I love the concept of the hero (male or female) and monomyth—the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell aficionados will recognize his stamp, thanks to his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I tend to gravitate to a work with a clearly defined hero on a mission. And Samurai Jack is a hero on a mission.


I’m too sexy for my shirt . . .

Who is he? The title character of Samurai Jack, an animated show created by Genndy Tartakovsky, which ran from 2001—2004 on Cartoon Network. Jack has an archenemy: Aku, the spirit of evil who continually sends assassins to murder Jack. Why? Jack has the only weapon in the world that can defeat Aku: a mystical sword. And Jack’s mission is to destroy Aku.

Okay, I see you rolling your eyes, so let me get to the point of this post. One of my favorite episodes of Samurai Jack, and one I saw again recently, is “Samurai Versus Ninja” (#4.1), a 2003 episode written by Bryan Andrews and Brian Larsen. I can’t avoid spoilers, sorry. In the episode in question, a desperate Aku sends a highly skilled ninja to kill Jack. For much of the episode, the ninja remains hidden in the shadows, watching Jack kick butt. To lure Jack into battle, the ninja kidnaps a child. When Jack rescues the child, he explains what he knows about the ninja:

Shinobi. Warrior of the night. Trained to use the darkness of the shadow. I know your arts as well. But I have been trained to use the light. (IMDb)

I love that quote! It makes sense in Jack’s case, since he’s the hero out to help those in need. I love the idea of a warrior trained to use light, rather than darkness. It shows the power of good, rather than the perceived weakness of it.


Clash of the titans: Jack versus the Ninja

I wrote a post before about how annoyed I get when heroes are portrayed as weaker than, and certainly less interesting than, villains. I realize I’m in the minority on that. After all, I keep reading about or hearing about actors who covet the villain roles in movies and on television because the roles are “juicier.” But I resonate with Jack’s methodology.

When darkness is total, light needs to be powerful enough to pierce through it. A weak light can’t do anything for you, except show you the cliff you’re about to fall from. But a strong light can show you the cliff’s edge before you reach it.

You know what? I get the fact that the world is messed up and times are hard. I get the fact that people suffer. I could tell you a story or two of suffering. But I’ve been trained to use the light as well—to use hope and encouragement even when I’m in the most need of both.

So yeah, I cheered when Jack handed the ninja his butt served on a platter. (Not literally. But it’s a more interesting way of saying “Jack beat the ninja.”) Jack fought against an extremely difficult opponent—a fight without shortcuts. He got knocked down, but got back up each time.

As I consider that fight, I can’t help thinking about Gandalf and Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf was the “servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.” If that’s not a description of someone trained to use the light, I don’t know what is. Saruman the White, the head of the White Council, was supposedly on the side of good. But his actions proved otherwise. He delved too “deep in the enemy’s council” and lost his effectiveness as a warrior of the light. When Gandalf and Saruman fought in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf lost at first. But ultimately, Saruman was the biggest loser.


Grumpy old men? Nope. Gandalf and Saruman chillin’

In times when darkness seems to win, we could use all the light warriors we can get. Warriors who know the struggle and the costs of the battle. Warriors who can say, “This is how you win it” without compromising or changing sides. I can’t help thinking of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or others today who have suffered greatly, yet maintain their humor and verve—like Maria, that sassy Brick House Chick many of us know and love.

How about you? What are you trained to use? How has that helped you fight the good fight?

Samurai Jack images from and

34 thoughts on “Trained to Use the Light

  1. Reminded me of the ‘dark side’ of the force. Sith v Jedi. Also monomyth-not heard that before. Your blog is very educational 🙂 what was that word last time…duology?

    • Ha. Yes. 🙂 I recommend The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I think you might like it. Or better still, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is about the hero’s journey.

  2. Telling stories is a way to use the light I think – reaching over the void and connecting with people, bringing them laughter or hope, or something to root for can be a powerful thing.

  3. You’re really battling with this, aren’t you? My take on it is that we’re all born with the potential for dark or light, good and evil, positive and negative, value and anti-value – call it what you will. That is why problems and difficulties and even suffering can be turned into something useful. The answer is embedded in the question. It’s also why we can so easily turn a victory into the cause for a future defeat! Everything exists in this state of flux. But what we choose is really important. And this is where it is important to have a good teacher. I can’t think of another film where this is portrayed so simply as Star Wars. Yoda teaches Obi-wan who teaches Luke. Yoda had a master and Luke will become one, carrying on an unbroken chain. ‘Evil people’ cause others to awaken, which in turn strengthens ‘Good’. In the constant struggle between the two, we are enlisted on either side, wittingly or unwittingly, by our choices. And lest we not forget – there would be no Lucas franchise without this struggle. So, let’s rejoice and all buy action figures to celebrate this holy war!

    • Very true! And it’s funny that you should mention Star Wars, because I’ve been revisiting the movies. So true about the Lucas (now Disney) franchise. 😀

  4. Interesting. Thinking about the question for myself, I would say that I have been trained to use the Real. My battles have always been on the side of reason and evidence against feelings. I am a knight of the Order of the Quotidian. Which sounds strange because I write speculative fiction, but my protagonists deal with the world as it is and are pitted against antagonists who thing that the world is, or should be, something different.

  5. Love that show and episode. I’m not sure how to answer your question though. Guess I’m kind of neutral in a way. As an author, I operate the light and the shadows of my stories, so I can’t play favorites. I do like it when a hero starts out weaker than the villain and sometimes a ‘weaker’ hero defeating a powerful villain is entertaining. Though if they win then they were stronger in some way. While not a popular movie, ‘Snow White & The Huntsman’ kind of had a weak hero/strong villain thing in terms of power. The final battle was really one-sided and I’ll stop before spoilers while it plays out on the TV next to me.

    I think I’ve lost my train of thought all of a sudden. Toddler’s bus arrived before I could finish. I think it was along the lines of there being more cynicism and pessimism in the world. People claim this as realism, but it comes off as ‘doom, gloom, & acceptance’ whenever I hear it or see it on forums. Yeah. Don’t read Internet forums if you want to retain any hope for humanity.

    • I don’t mind a hero going through a growth period where he or she (like Luke Callindor) trains to be a hero and makes mistakes. I get irked when I see episodes like the Mortis episodes on Clone Wars where among the godlike creatures who are supposed to be equal the good character is clearly the weakest and most ineffectual. I can’t help referring to the Entertainment Weekly article on villains where the studio head discussed Die Hard. If you have a great antagonist, you need a hero who is a good match for that antagonist. I can’t help referring to Avatar and the final battle episodes. Those are great examples.

      • Good points. Though I wonder if it differs slightly depending on a reader/viewer’s definition of effectiveness and strength. Mostly, I’m thinking of a future series I’m doing. The hero has potent magic, but he’s rather odd. Not stupid or slow, but rather naive and oblivious. Yet, I put him up against some really powerful creatures and villains. Is he effective? Power-wise he can get the job done, but his mentality can be easily seen as ‘weak’. Almost a permanent underdog. So I wonder how he would be accepted by those who want heroes/villains on obviously equal footing.

      • Sounds like a good series to me. I like an odd hero. And by weak, I don’t mean weak in some areas. I mean I don’t like the fact that good is seen as weaker than evil.

  6. I don’t think I could make it through each day if it weren’t for my faith and hope, Linda.
    Yes! Maria is a prime example of a shining light, even when she has darkness in her world…she’s an inspiration!

  7. To write a villain, I usually fall in love with him. That’s not to say I prefer darkness to light. But I don’t think one can effectively paint a person in caricature. I have to like everyone I write……and I don’t want bad guys to win. I hope that’s clear in my writing. The bad guy may have the upper hand for a while, but not forever. I’m sick of reading books where everyone is unlikeable, where there’s no one to root for. It may be that way in the world, but we read to escape that world.

    • I agree with you, Andra. I have a sympathetic antagonist. He doesn’t seem himself as “the villain.” I understand his motivation and his pain. That doesn’t mean that he’ll triumph. But I understand and like him. And yes, I probably would have fallen for him as messed up as he is. But who isn’t to some degree?

  8. I’m contemplating a post on the Flawed Hero and Sympathetic Villain, growing out of my LEGO stories. The reason I have a Flawed Hero, with weaknesses that can be exploited by the villain, is that the outcome needs to be in doubt. The readers/viewers have to believe that the hero can be taken down, or else there’s no reason to keep going with the story. People will just think, “The good guy’s gonna win in the end.” As far as the villain, I also want readers/viewers to struggle with their allegiances, so I had a villain who was himself a victim of a crueler and more cunning villain and who chose the dark side because he believed it was his only way to survive. In that way, the hero, for all his flaws, is still the hero because he faces threats and challenges but never sells his soul.

    • Do it, Lyn! That will be a good post. I like a flawed hero and a sympathetic villain. My book’s outcome is in doubt since both are my main characters.

  9. Trained to use the light, but it doesn’t always stick… When it does though, at least I can sleep soundly. Samurai Jack sounds awesome by the way. I need to see if that’s on Netflix.

  10. I think I’ve been trained a bit more to fight fire with fire, but I definitely think there are interesting ways to write about both methods of fightings – light and dark. This wants me to read some Joseph Campbell again!

  11. Whoo! *stands for ovation* I love a good light vs. dark. I think the typical villain role seems juicier these days because many heroes are written more or less the same way. It used to be that the heroes needed to be cleverer or more creative than the villains. Now, they just have to have some superpower. :-/ I enjoy superhero stories, but I still pull out the old books from time to time.

    (And yeah. Samurai jack rocks. 🙂 )

  12. Wow, Linda. I was so riveted by this post and continued to read along nodding in agreement with your wise words. Suddenly I see my name! Whoa! That completely caught me off guard. That you mention my name in the same sentence as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. & Gandhi is incomprehensible and quite humbling. As incredibly kind as these words are, I am not at all in the minority. So many people out there use their bright light to overcome struggles and suffering. We are all much stronger than we think we are. 🙂 Thanks again for such generous words. xo

  13. Pingback: What I Learned from Charles and Erik | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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