An archetypal initiation story involves a protagonist, of a specific culture, sorting through a personal battle of good versus evil. In order to combat unethical or immoral practices, the protagonist must find, within himself, a way to make the change. “The Battle Royal” by Ralph Waldo Ellison is an archetypal initiation story told by the protagonist, an African American male narrator. In his late teen age years, he must complete a speech, and then live up to his grandfather’s dying wish. Telling the story twenty years later, the narrator remembers the cultural journey he made to become the man he is today.
Mordecai Marcus has said that an initiation story will “show it’s protagonist experiencing a significant change of knowledge…or a change of character…and this change must point or lead him toward an adult world.”(219). The “Battle Royal” taken from the book, “the Invisible Man”, is the most conclusive of any initiation stories, showing the protagonist “embarked toward maturity” (219). First, the narrator must attend an unexpected battle, fighting his fellow classmates, then suffering electrocution, in order to say a speech. Saying the speech is very important to him, and after making the speech, he receives a briefcase containing a scholarship. Knowing that his grandfather would be proud, after receipt of the scholarship, the narrator went to his grandfather’s photograph. He “stood beneath his photograph with [his] briefcase in hand and smiled triumphantly into his stolid black peasant’s face” (218). By completing the speech, the narrator has faced what most archetypal initiation stories consider rules of culture and heroics. Participation in the battle and the subsequent scholarship form a “most decisive” (219) protagonist. According to Marcus, this type of protagonist is the most important of any initiation story.
In order to fit into the most important category of initiation stories, as described by Marcus, the narrator must be launched toward maturity. In his explanation of battle, 20 years later, the narrator has matured. He recalls a dream that he has after the speech, which haunts him “for many years after” (218). Immediately following the battle, he is unable to decipher the dream, or able to connect it to his grandfather, but he hears his grandfather laugh eerily in his subconscious, even after awakening. He is is aware that he must first begin college to eventually find the answer, which is inside him. He eventually does, but it takes twenty years.
The narrator finds the answer, which is that he is invisible because he is black. He realizes what his grandfather expected of him. He must work to break the mold of the average African American, and not sit around waiting for the stereotypes to be changed by someone else. As an archetypal hero, the protagonist is a hero who must continue on towards a goal and, “not until the hero sorts out the corruption in his world and in himself can vitality and health be restored to his world” (1519). The narrator in “The Battle Royal” knows that his world will be turned upside down and he will lose everything that he has been working toward for his entire life, if he does not complete his speech and obtain his scholarship. To his surprise he “was stopped and told to go back” (216). The narrator is given a chance to complete his speech, and to decipher the dream that haunts him.
The narrator now understands what his grandfather intended when on his deathbed saying to him: “Overcome ‘em with yeses” (209), meaning that the he must fit in with the white people, in order to start changing the rules, so that eventually blacks will have the equality they deserve. The narrator becomes an adult, and is able to understand his grandfather’s wishes: “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (208). The questions are answered twenty years later.
When the narrator admits that he does not feel ashamed for his grandparents being slaves, only “ashamed of [himself] for having at one time been ashamed” (209), he achieves realization of what he needed to do to fulfill own life For this reason “The Battle Royal” is an archetypal initiation stories, and categorized by Marcus as the most definitive of all types of initiation stories.