“Zero to Hero, in no time flat … Zero to Hero, just like that!” The Muses’ song from the Disney film Hercules could apply equally well to the sudden, spectacular rise of Hercules in pop entertainment of the late 1990s. Those proved lively years for the hero in American film and TV, spearheaded by the 1997 Disney animated movie and by television’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, starring Kevin Sorbo (1995-99). The two quickly spun off more TV series: Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series (1998-99, 65 episodes of 30 minutes each) and Young Hercules (1998-99, 50 episodes also of 30 minutes each) starring Ryan Gosling.* Both spinoffs reimagined the mythological hero specifically for younger viewers and gave him unprecedented exposure in children’s weekday TV.†
In terms of the target audience, grade school and middle school years are very impressionable times for encounters with cultural influences. Every spring I teach a large myth course, and my students often reminisce about their first contact with mythological stories: it almost always comes at that age and in the form of entertainment geared for children—books and, increasingly, film and television.§ These early interactions are often formative for how young people perceive and relate to mythological figures, so with that in mind, a closer look at Hercules: The Animated Series and Young Hercules becomes an illuminating excursion into often-unappreciated aspects of classical reception in children’s entertainment.
Both shows focus on the education of teenage Hercules before he becomes the famous hero of myth. Ancient sources mention his adolescent training, but there he mostly trains one-on-one with Chiron or a number of different tutors, each teaching a particular specialized physical skill.‡ Some accounts also note a moral aspect to Hercules’ education; the story of his choosing between a life of Pleasure or Vice and a life of Virtue is the most famous example, but again Hercules is on his own.** The animated series and Young Hercules reimagine the demigod in a different context entirely: readily recognizable school settings with courses, classmates, teachers, and modern campus events like Homecoming. The narrative emphasizes the challenges of being an awkward teenager; they are as much emotional, social, academic, and moral as physical.†† The “Hercules in high school” context imposes certain limitations on storytelling: he can’t complete his most famous canonical Labors, for instance, because he must perform them as an adult. On the other hand, the showrunners are now free to create new stories that creatively adapt Hercules to modern concerns. As he faces challenges, the audience learns with him: he is never presented as an infallible hero, and it is his foibles and struggles that make his moral education relatable and relevant.
Occasionally the lessons to be learned are literal. Hercules: The Animated Series and Young Hercules both devote time to academics and the importance of studying. Clearly in the ancient sources the mythological hero never has to worry about homework and exams, but his modern counterparts, like his audience, do. The cartoon series regularly notes classes in session (e.g., geometry with Mr. Euclid, history with Mr. Herodotus, theater arts with Ms. Thespis, shop with Mr. Daedalus, art with Mr. Pygmalion, gym with Coach Physedippus), including the hero-to-be facing the all too common student fear of public speaking, when he must give a class presentation in “Hercules and the Epic Adventure.” The academic theme culminates with a cautionary tale in “Hercules and the All Nighter.” During exam week, Hercules wants more time to cram, so he asks Morpheus, here the god of sleep, to make him impervious to sleep. The plan backfires, giving everyone in Greece insomnia with catastrophic effects. There is no substitute for good old-fashioned time management and honest diligence in studying, as Hercules and his audience learn. It’s a lesson similarly depicted in the live-action episode “Cram-ped,” in which Hercules helps his friend (and reforming juvenile delinquent) Iolaus study for finals and resist the temptation to cheat.
The shows’ new mythmaking also engages a topic that is evergreen for young students: relating to classmates. Hercules has his friends, but he is not a ringleader as much as he is just one among peers. In the live-action version, Hercules’ companions at Chiron’s Academy include Jason the Prince of Corinth, Iolaus, and Lilith, a sometime Amazon and the only female cadet. Accepted by his peers yet feeling out of place, Hercules finds himself often in the role of being a peacemaker. In the animated series, Hercules is the socially awkward, physically strong but hopelessly clumsy youth who had appeared in the film; his friends at the co-ed Prometheus Academy are Icarus, rather the worse for wear after surviving his wax-wing disaster, and Cassandra, here not a Trojan princess but a quietly sardonic girl given to unpredictable visions. The three are oddballs and outcasts, constantly disparaged by the popular elite (e.g., the posh, condescending Adonis, Prince of Thrace); their experiences reflect the social anxiety and adolescent alienation of high school (“the Underworld on earth,” Cassandra says) even as they consistently emphasize the importance of friendship. Hercules and his friends may bicker and argue, but they always reconcile. The lesson appears most clearly in episodes (“Winner Takes All” in Young Hercules and Disney’s “Hercules and the Poseidon’s Cup Adventure”) with Hercules letting selfish ambition get the better of his allegiance to his friends. In both instances, he abandons his friends’ athletic team and joins another that he thinks will win; disaster, with the realization that his new teammates are not his true friends, drives home the lesson about loyalty, and Hercules learns to apologize and patch things up with his buddies.
The recognition of social anxiety takes center stage in other episodes as Hercules tries to make himself someone else for the sake of being popular. In the live-action “Forgery,” Hercules, stung by classmates’ remarks that he worries too much about responsibility and so is “no fun,” decides to turn himself into the careless, flashy life-of-the-party by means of a magic flame. It works, but only for a while, and ultimately it would have destroyed him if not for his friends’ intervention. In the animated “Hercules and the Complex Electra,” he pretends to be a cynical hipster in order to impress a countercultural Goth girl who hates the very idea of heroes. This creates an existential impasse, and Hercules learns not only to embrace his own identity but to resign himself to the fact that some will reject him for it. Popularity is a fleeting goal, he learns in a lesson for modern teens, and true friends accept you for who you are.
In another nod to contemporary schools, both shows offer episodes featuring Parents’ Day / Weekend. According to my students, the prospect of parents visiting campus can be utterly terrifying, and Hercules and his friends must cope with relating to parents and guardians and the weight of their expectations. Even so filial a son as the live-action Hercules is mortified to see his mother on campus, and Iolaus’ desperate gambit of hiring two actors to be his “parents” because he is too ashamed to face the real ones dedicates the plot to this quintessential source of student stress. In the cartoon series, Hercules is embarrassed when his humbly rustic mortal parents Amphitryon and Alcmena arrive instead of Zeus, prompting cruel jibes from Adonis and his royal clan. The lesson in appreciating one’s family, warts and all, soon becomes clear as the monster Ladon abducts Amphitryon and Alcmena and Hercules races to save them. At episode’s end, Zeus himself makes an appearance to declare his approval of Hercules’ recovered regard for his mortal, loving family.
On a related note, both series also depict the challenges of stepfamilies, especially the emotional difficulties of parents’ divorce and remarriage. There is no precedent for such narratives for Hercules in mythology, but this is a clear adaptation to the experiences and concerns of the modern audience. In Young Hercules’ “Home for the Holidays,” Hercules is dismayed, angry, and jealous to find that his (divorced? separated?) mother Alcmena is seeing someone. In the animated “Hercules and the Green-Eyed Monster,” a jealous Icarus has difficulty dealing with his father Daedalus’ impending remarriage, and Hercules must save him—and everyone else too—when Icarus opens Pandora’s Box in an attempt to break up the wedding. Both episodes ultimately trace an arc of understanding and reconciliation among all parties, with Hercules and others working through their complicated emotions to model a resolution.
The late 1990s versions of Hercules occasionally engage in narratives that are unmistakably in sync with modern trends, such as wildlife conservation and environmentalism. In the Young Hercules episode “Hind Sight,” the Golden Hind is not only a magical creature sacred to Artemis (as in the apparent source myth of the Ceryneian Hind), but also a member of an entire endangered species. Initially Hercules joins his peers Jason and Iolaus in the hunt, but Kora, a follower of Artemis, explicitly warns him off, underscoring the point that Hinds had been nearly wiped out. The animated “Hercules and the Caledonian [sic] Boar” takes the same tack. Hercules and his satyr trainer Phil join a number of famous warriors to go hunting, but the boar is not the one-off monster of myth. Instead it is a member of an endangered species, and Artemis herself tells Hercules that he can (and should) be a new kind of hero—“an eco-hero,” she says—who protects the wilderness and does not need to hunt a species to extinction to prove his worth. (Hercules and his friends finally decide to go bowling instead.) Both episodes also make the explicit distinction between hunting for food and hunting for sport and trophies.
A distinctly contemporary sensibility appears in episodes that consider gender roles, expectations, and relationships. Young Hercules devotes a number of episodes to the Amazons, along with Lilith’s quest both to fit in and be herself. Perhaps the most striking example in the Disney series is “Hercules and the Dream Date,” when Hercules can’t find a date for a school dance (“Fighting monsters is easy; getting a date is hard!” he moans) and reenacts the Pygmalion myth by sculpting a clay girl in the art classroom. When Aphrodite brings the statue to life, she asks what personality Hercules would like for her, and he says, “Just make her crazy about me.” As the episode progresses, Galatea turns into a violently obsessive clay monster, and resolution comes only when the chastened Hercules asks Aphrodite to give her a mind of her own because she “deserves to be her own person.” At this point, he, the goddess, and his friends all agree that he has been "stupid, selfish, shallow, sexist" (and the final comeuppance comes when the now-independent Galatea leaves him for Ajax).
Even in this brief survey, it is clear that the education of Hercules in children’s TV takes on a contemporary cast that yet adheres to the ancient idea of his standing as a hero and helper of humanity. Episode by episode, Young Hercules and Hercules: The Animated Series take creative liberties, some small and others sweeping, to reimagine the ancient hero as a young student who faces other kinds of labors in school—labors teaching valuable life lessons. His struggles and growing pains set an example for his audience and involve it in his story by analogy to modern childhood concerns. Though often departing from mythological sources in terms of details, these often-humorous 1990s reinventions of Hercules adhere to a deeper, consistent feature of the hero: his endless adaptability and applicability and his enduring ability to capture the imagination of both the young and young at heart.
* Disney’s animated series aired new episodes from August 31, 1998, to March 1, 1999. Young Hercules aired first-run episodes from September 12, 1998, to May 14, 1999. Accordingly, from September 1998 to March 1999, three different concurrently airing U.S. television programs featured Hercules as the protagonist (i.e., the two children’s shows along with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). I can’t recall another time in recent TV history when this kind of mythological concentration has happened.
† The Disney animated series has an FCC rating of TV-Y, i.e., suitable for all ages. Young Hercules is not rated but has content consistent with the TV-Y7 rating, e.g., suitable for children age 7 and above. Its main competitor during its run was Power Rangers, rated TV-Y7.
§The two TV series in question first aired fifteen years ago—when current undergraduates were part of the target audience—and both series are now readily available streaming online and reaching new viewers.
‡ See, for instance, Ps.-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.4.9: “Hercules was taught to drive a chariot by Amphitryon, to wrestle by Autolycus, to shoot with the bow by Eurytus, to fence by Castor, and to play the lyre by Linus. This Linus was a brother of Orpheus; he came to Thebes and became a Theban, but was killed by Hercules with a blow of the lyre …” (Loeb translation)
**Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.10: “Heracles, in his rearing and education and especially in the thorough instruction which he received in physical exercises, came to be the first by far in bodily strength among all the rest and famed for his nobility of spirit. Indeed, while he was still a youth in age he first of all restored the freedom of Thebes …” Hercules’ choice appears in Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.1.21-34.
††The animated series makes an explicit distinction between Hercules’ schoolwork at Prometheus Academy and his physical “hero training” with Phil the satyr that he pursues before and after classes.
Angeline Chiu (email@example.com) studied classics at Baylor University, the University of Vermont, and Princeton University. Having published articles on Euripides, Lucan, and Silius Italicus, she is finishing her first book, a study of Ovid’s Fasti (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2015). When she isn’t teaching Shakespeare, mythology, and all levels of Latin, she is watching too much TV in the name of research.