The Monomyth: You’re Doing It Wrong

For decades now, pop culture – especially geek culture – has been focused on the hero’s journey. Every epic needs an amazing “origin” that fits Joseph Campbell’s monomythic mold – only, no such mold exists, and the ideas weren’t even Joseph Campbell’s to begin with.

(That cool art above, and another way down below, by the astounding Tom Gauld.)

What are we talking about?

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For the record, I love Joseph Campbell. Well, not the man so much – I never even heard of him until after he passed, so I could hardly get to know the guy – but I love his writing. The man had the soul of a poet, the rhetoric of a master, and an eye for what worked (more on that in a bit). There is a reason he is the first name many think of when they think of hero legends, folklore and cultural anthropology.

His book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is cited again and again as the go-to source for what the true “hero’s journey” should be (the amazing above comic by Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente). The chapter titles and subheads of his book are taken as a specific and ordered list of what a hero should and should not do.

Some of the most successful novelists and filmmakers of the past 40 years have either directly or indirectly been inspired by Campbell’s work, even using it as a template or guide for their stories.

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· The hero is called on an adventure.

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· The hero is trained by a mentor.

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· There is a great son-father conflict.

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· The hero dies or sacrifices much to bring some great thing to society.

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· The hero is reborn or returns in some way.

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· Roll credits.

That’s the plot to Star Wars, the Matrix films, Eragon, Harry Potter, the Star Trek reboot, and so, so many others.

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But it was never meant to be that way.

Joseph Campbell didn’t come up with the Hero’s Journey.

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(Above art from XKCD, of course.)

Of course, nothing I’m saying is news to students of anthropology, film theory or literary criticism, but there are some universal truths out there in the internawebs: Tesla was the greatest scientist ever. Teddy Roosevelt was the greatest bad ass. Joseph Campbell’s hero myth is everywhere.

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There are, of course, elements of truths, half-truths and fanciful falsehoods about each of those guys, but addressing Joey C for a minute: Joseph Campbell didn’t create the hero’s journey whole cloth.

Although the field of anthropology was still forming around the turn of the last century, concepts like the hero’s journey had already taken root while Campbell was a wee babe. Otto Rank’s Myth and Birth of the Hero set a lot of the classical myth stuff straight in 1909. Vladimir Propp tied it all to fairy tales (Russian ones, anyway) with 1928’s Morphology of the Tale (the villain tries to befriend the hero before betraying him, a mentor gives the hero special gifts, the hero receives a significant wound or mark, and so on). Lord Raglan (man, it’s cool to be known mainly by a title) published The Hero, A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama in 1936 laying out a lot of the rest (the hero was son of significant parents, raised by unimportant people in a faraway land, destined for greatness, etc.).

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Heck, even with his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, Campbell heavily borrowed the symbolism concepts from prior works by Carl Jung (who, it must be said, was not focused squarely on hero mythology). Campbell himself said the word “monomyth” came from James Joyce (which is kind of silly, as Finnegan’s Wake was full of a thousand made-up words, so it’s not like the concept came from Joyce. Maybe someone could turn “Sourdanapplous” into some major theoretical concept…). (Also, I don’t actually know where the above comic strip comes from, but I like it - anyone know the artist?) (The comic above by Sebastian Hardy. Thanks, Guano Lad!)

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And he did not create an origin story checklist (but that doesn’t stop people from trying to see it that way).

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Okay, so Campbell breaks down his book with the chapters “Departure,” “Initiation,” and “Return,” with memorable subheads like “The Call to Adventure,” “The Belly of the Whale,” “The Road of Trials,” and “Crossing the Return Threshold,” but if you read the book, this is not a list of how to write a hero story, it’s a description of what could be in a hero story.

Campbell was even nice enough to include a handy-dandy chart for those who think it’s too long, and don’t read:

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Raglan made a point of using his 22 points in a hero’s life to describe how much of a “hero’s journey” a character had. King Arthur had 19 of 22, Hercules had 17 of 22, and so on. These didn’t determine how much of a “hero” someone was or even show the order in which events were supposed to occur (for the most part… birth usually precedes death, except in those Benjamin Button cases). Similarly, Campbell was describing basic archetypal concepts common throughout hero narratives.

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A lot has been made of the “seven archetypes” from Campbell’s monomyth, except he does not list any such seven in Hero, instead he describes various archetypes as they come up, so the “shapeshifter” might get his or her own section in the epilogue to the cosmogonic cycle (“The what, now?” I hear you ask), the “herald” will actually be mentioned as part of the hero’s “Call to Adventure.” There are dozens of archetypes (here’s that other piece by Tom Gauld).

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That includes my personal favorite: The Tyrant Holdfast.

Holdfast is the big boss the hero has to fight. The polar opposite or old guard that resents whatever the hero stands for and wants to either a) keep things the way they are, or b) return things to an older time. He’s Darth Vader, the Red Skull, Lex Luthor, He Who Must Not Be Named.

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What Campbell and the others were trying to do was describe what makes various stories stay with us in our collective culture and stay so popular over the generations. They weren’t telling new writers what to write, they were saying what worked from older storytellers.

So how can the monomyth be used, if it isn’t a recipe?

It’s too easy to take a set of descriptions and use it as the be-all-and-end-all of a topic, but don’t fall into that trap. (This art from SMBC.)

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Simple: Don’t go creating a story by following step-by-step instructions, look back at stories after they’ve been created to see what works.

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Here’s a few examples.

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The reboot version of Star Trek shoe-horned the monomyth into Kirk’s life. This forced him to be the hero: call to adventure, check, mentor, check, conflict involving his father, check. It’s all there. But the hero’s journey already existed for Spock – it just wasn’t created on purpose.

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Some hero stories seemed written with the monomyth in mind, everything was laid out in order and the story is a bit flat because of it, but Superman’s hero’s journey took decades to realize. When he first appeared, his origin was all of a few panels. Within a few years newspaper strips and radio serials fleshed out his Kryptonian heritage. In the 50s they added his childhood training and mentors. In the 70s the film gave audiences that “call to adventure” that was missing before. Zod gave him the “brother-battle” Campbell described, and he certainly died only to return and bring order to his world.

The big difference here is that the hero’s journey was designed to describe legends that began as oral tradition – no single writer is credited with creating King Arthur or Hercules or Robin Hood. These legends built up over time.

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So does that mean your story can’t be good unless it has gone through dozens of different creators? No, of course not. It just means that the hero’s journey is a window through which the story can be viewed, not a ladder that it must climb.

So why is Joseph Campbell so well-remembered?

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Poetry. Simple as that. (Above image by Zac Gorman. Also: Wow.)

See, unlike those other great anthropologists and cultural historians, Campbell was not classically trained. He was mostly self-taught and his writing shows this.

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Hero with a Thousand Faces is difficult to follow, meanders constantly, and has more opinions than citations, but it reads beautifully.

When describing where the hero dies, Campbell includes this short but succinct sentence:

“Someone at this point discovered eternity.”

Seriously, I want that on my tombstone. It’s eloquent, it says everything that needs to be said, and – unlike Propp or Raglan or Rank – it isn’t filtered through clinical, analytical language.

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Describing the great villain the hero must face:

“Holdfast is the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps.”

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Instead of merely describing what a mythic hero must do, Campbell describes these concepts as universal:

“And so it happens that if anyone – in whatever society – undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolic figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous …”

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Campbell’s language – his rhetoric – was so well-crafted that it imbedded itself in the reader’s mind. Those who were inspired by his work took it to heart, others read summaries and thought “hey, neat.”

If you plan to write a great story, or just enjoy great stories, you owe it to yourself to read some of Campbell’s work, just be careful to remember it describes hero stories, and shouldn’t prescribe them.

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