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A wide-ranging discussion of the monomyth (with a bonus Star Wars aside)

(Written by Pete R.)

This is going to be a bit of a wide-ranging blog post. I’ve been deeply interested in Campell’s idea of the monomyth since college, where I read both The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, a series of interviews he did with Bill Moyers. What captured me almost immediately was an idea that I mentioned briefly in the episode: the idea that cultures around the world developed myths independently from each other that still map roughly to this one general story structure. I’m interested in comparative mythology, and Campbell uses a wide variety of cultures and myths to illustrate his ideas.

But, I think it’s fair to at least mention a few of the criticisms of the monomyth. First, it’s deeply steeped in Jungian ideas. If that’s not your cup of tea, you might have a hard time with the more deeper esoterica of what constitutes the Apotheosis or Attonement with the Father. Since the Initiation phase of the journey so often takes place in strange and magical lands––the Underworld is a common location––there is often a heavy layer of symbolism that could be ascribed to the actions that take place during the phase. You can take them at face value, or delve into Jungian analysis of them; Campell does the latter in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

The second is that the Hero’s Journey is often more accurately the Male Hero’s Journey. Campbell is able to use a number of female heroes in his analysis––the Ishtar myths from Mesopotamia form the backbone of a lot of the book––but Campbell himself was aware of this issue. Late in his life, he wrote:

All of the great mythologies and much of the mythic story-telling of the world are from the male point of view. When I was writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces and wanted to bring female heroes in, I had to go to the fairy tales. These were told by women to children, you know, and you get a different perspective. It was the men who got involved in spinning most of the great myths. The women were too busy; they had too damn much to do to sit around thinking about stories.

Myths_and_legends_of_Babylonia_and_Assyria_(1916)_(14801964123)
Ishtar/Inanna was a Mesopotamian goddess. Her myth of descending to the Underword is a major myth analyzed in The Hero With a Thousand Faces,

When introducing students and young adults to the idea of the Hero’s Journey, keep these criticisms in mind. Select examples that portray women as the heroes––which we mostly failed to do in the episode, although Lúthien somewhat fits the bill––is critical to providing a wide representation AND showing that the Hero’s Journey can be more than just the Male Hero’s Joruney. And encourage students and young people to think critically about the structure. Does it still work in media like comics, or do we need a new myth structure to engage with the quintessential American Myth?

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Can Superman be mapped to the Hero’s Journey, or do we need a new story structure?

Finally, encourage students to use the Hero’s Journey as a schema to think of stories, rather than a template that needs to be followed. As Neil Gaiman wrote:

I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true—I don’t want to know. I really would rather not know this stuff. I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.

Exposing young people to the ideas of Campell is good stuff; letting their minds construct the stories they want to construct is even better.

Here’s the part where I talk a little too much about Star Wars.

In the episode, we briefly talked about how Star War: A New Hope is a pretty canonical adaptation of the Hero’s Journey. I want to point your way to a book/museum exhibit Star Wars: The Magic of Myth (Amazon for the book). I saw the original exhibit when it first premiered at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in the late 90s, when I was deeply in the thrall of all things Star Wars (some things don’t change). I bought (aka: convinced my parents to buy for me) the companion book, which I didn’t really get at that age. But it was my first exposure to the monomyth and Joseph Campbell, and it’s left an indelible mark on me. I still think of the journey to the Death Star through the lens of In the Belly of the Whale phase of the monomyth cycle. This work, combined with Star Wars itself, would make an excellent one-two punch for introducing students to Campbell’s monomyth.

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That’s no moon… it’s a whale. Or maybe a dragon.

And to address something that came up in the episode: Luke IS a reluctant hero. He SAYS he wants to leave Tatooine, but when the Call to Adventure is presented, he balks and Refuses the Call. He tells Obi-wan that he can take him as far as Mos Eisley, where the old hermit can find passage to Alderaan. It is only after his aunt and uncle are killed by Stormtroopers that he begins his journey by Crossing the First Threshold and entering that wretched hive of scum and villainy that is Mos Eisley. This is his––and the audiences––first entrance into the strange world that is the wider Star Wars galaxy.

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Sometimes, all you need is some Stormtroopers to destroy your home and murder your adopted family to put you on the path to become a Hero.

That’s all I’ll mention about Star Wars in this post. Suffice to say that it is often heralded as THE example of the monomyth for the modern era. If you’re interested in follow-up reading, Salon had an article in 2015 that further expands on these ideas. And honestly, a quick google search for “Star Wars monomyth” or “Star Wars Hero’s Journey” or “Star Wars Joseph Campbell” will net you far more than you need.

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