An earlier version of this article appeared in the Mythoversal Newsletter.
The Status Quo
I grew up on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and imprinted on the Hero’s Journey as the definitive storytelling template, but my enthusiasm has been tempered lately by mythologists and folklorists who absolutely loathe this theory.
The monomyth has been called sexist, racist, colonialist, and harmful to the expression and appreciation of world cultures. But why? And is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for creating and understanding stories in the context of our 21st Century world?
I was six when I saw the original Star Wars movie, and I was hooked. From then on, I measured all other stories using Star Wars as my personal yardstick.
Acceptance and Action
I began to notice that a wide variety of stories would often start with a Luke Skywalker character called to an adventure by a Ben Kenobi character. The Luke Skywalker character would often undertake a quest to save a Princess Leia Organa character from a Darth Vader character, often with help from a Han Solo character and one or two C3P0 and R2D2 characters. I filled notebooks with every example I could find and engaged friends with my evolving theory that Star Wars could explain the story structure underlying a huge portion of the movies and books we all enjoyed.
Encounter with the Guru
What I’d independently reconstructed was the monomyth theory of Joseph Campbell, building upon the archetypal figures of Carl Jung, as adapted and applied by George Lucas and other filmmakers who sought to emulate his success.
Trials and Tribulations
Campbell summarized the monomyth as:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Campbell’s theory was that this story template resonated with the human psyche, and had been present in the storytelling of diverse world cultures from humanity’s earliest days.
Friends and Foes
The monomyth theory was presented in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell’s 1949 book on comparative mythology. In the 1980s, with the success of the monomyth-fueled Star Wars original trilogy, PBS aired a discussion between Campbell and Bill Moyers in a program called The Power of Myth, which brought the monomyth to an even greater level of notoriety. Since then, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, and others have refined the monomyth and extended it to the novel-writing and screenwriting process.
The Edge of the Abyss
At a workshop during the 2021 Arisia conference in January, I joined fellow panelists in a discussion of the more troubling aspects of Campbell’s work. These fell into four main categories:
First, while there are many myths that generally fit into the model proposed by Campbell, there are as many or more that do not, including such foundational stories as the myths of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Therefore, the monomyth should always be presented with a caveat that it is not as universal as Campbell claimed it to be.
Second, the Heroine’s Journey is not accounted for. The Hero’s Journey has been called a masculine myth, based on traditional stories of male protagonists, generating new stories that best fit male protagonists, and appealing more strongly to male audiences. Other templates are required for more feminine storytelling. These include 45 Master Characters, a writing guide by Victoria Lynn Schmidt based on the theories of Campbellian psychotherapist Maureen Murdoch.
Third, the monomyth has been described as a hammer in search of a nail. Some stories and characters can be mangled into the stations and archetypes of a Hero’s Journey only at the cost of better understanding the essential distinctions that make them unique and special. An overreliance on monomyth-inspired movies has made it harder for audiences and critics to appreciate the stories that don’t fit into that mold, increasing and perpetuating the dominance of the monomyth to the detriment of other forms of storytelling.
And fourth, the adaptation of non-European mythologies to a Eurocentric lens has been seen as a form of cultural appropriation or cultural colonization. The Hero’s Journey is based on those Jungian archetypes closest to the surface in the collective consciousness of Western cultures, while other world cultures may emphasize different archetypes. When we remove a story from the culture that created it and view that story through a Eurocentric lens, or even through a lens that falsely purports to be “universal,” we shortchange the story’s culture of origin.
The Way Through
So is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for writers in our 21st Century world?
I’d like to think so, but only by first recognizing that the monomyth is just one tool of many in a storyteller’s toolbox. The monomyth can be used to build and analyze story structures, but how much better could it be if we were using the entire toolbox, and looking at our stories through all available lenses?
Return to the Normal World
I still use the Hero’s Journey in my writing, but with an awareness of its problems and limitations. But perhaps the real Hero’s Journey requires throwing away all of our preconceived maps entirely and following each story wherever it leads.
I’m so pleased to shine the MUF spotlight on Donna Gephart’s new novel Abby, Tried and True, which releases next week from Simon and Schuster. Kirkus Reviews calls it, “A touching story about finding inner strength during a challenging time” and educator, Colby Sharp, calls it “phenomenal!”
(Donna has generously offered to send a signed copy of Abby, Tried and True to one lucky winner–US only. See details at bottom.)
All About the Author
Award-winning author Donna Gephart’s previous middle grade novels include: The Paris Project, In Your Shoes, Lily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper and others. Her first picture book, Go Be Wonderful, comes out March 30th from Holiday House. She’s a popular speaker at schools, conferences, and book festivals. Donna lives in the Philadelphia area with her family and her canine office assistant, Benji, a sweet retriever mix. Visit her online at www.donnagephart.com. Autographed copies of her books are available from Inkwood Books.
All About the Book
Please tell us a bit about Abby, Tried and True.
Abby is an introverted 12-year-old whose best friend moves to Israel and she’s sure it’s the worst thing that could happen to her. She’s wrong. Her beloved, hilarious older brother is diagnosed with testicular cancer and everything changes. Abby and her two awesome moms have to help Paul get through surgery and treatments. It’s hard on everyone. Meanwhile, Abby tries to navigate seventh grade without her best (and only) friend by her side in a world that feels too loud and too busy. One of the things that brings Abby joy during this difficult time is the mysterious new boy who moved in next door. Abby explores her feelings for this boy while she also tries to figure out who she is and how she’ll manage the challenges in her life. Colby Sharp did a terrific video review of the book here.
What was the inspiration behind this book? You’ve mentioned it took you seventeen years to figure this book out. Why was it so difficult to write?
About 18 years ago, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Getting through surgeries and week-long treatments in the hospital were some of the most challenging experiences of my life. I wanted to find a way to translate those experiences and emotions into a powerful story for young readers. It took many, many attempts to find my way into telling a deeply meaningful story that would resonate with young readers without it being too overwhelming. I think I managed to do that by telling the story from the sister’s point of view. I also included humor and the hopeful budding new romance between Abby and the boy who moved in next door.
All About Being an Introvert
I think a lot of people have wrong ideas about what being an introvert means. Did you do research on introverts, and if so, were you surprised at anything you learned?
The biggest aha moment I had from my research was recognizing that I am an introvert. I always love traveling and meeting new people, so I thought I was an extrovert. But it’s more about the environments in which one thrives. I thrive in a quiet environment where I’m able to be very interior. I can’t stand shallow conversations. I want to talk about things I find meaningful. Some people think being an introvert is the same thing as being shy. It’s not. Being shy means you have a fear of social judgement. Being an introvert means you thrive in a quieter environment, you don’t need a jumble of people around all the time. Solo projects are more appealing than group work. Much of what I learned came from Susan Cain’s research, which she shares in this illuminating TED Talk.
What would you like readers to come away with after reading the book?
I never write books in hopes of imparting a lesson or moral. I want readers to feel less alone in the world and more emotionally connected with each other. I hope my books cultivate empathy and remind us to be a bit kinder, a bit more understanding because really, we never know what someone else might be going through.
A Tip for Writers
What is your best tip for aspiring middle-grade writers?
I write middle grade because that’s the period in my young life I remember most clearly. I write middle grade because it was a challenging time for me and I felt alone; I don’t want my young readers to feel so alone as they go through their own challenges. I write middle grade because at bookstores and at the library, those are the books I’m most drawn to. If you’re an aspiring middle-grade writer, ask yourself WHY you want to write middle grade? Why does it matter to you on a deeply personal level? Your answers will be the foundation of your journey.
For more writing tips from Donna, click HERE for this archived MUF post.
Good advice! What are you working on now?
I’m trying my hand at writing funny chapter books and, of course, I’m writing my next middle-grade novel. After writing about a girl whose brother is diagnosed with cancer, my new book is funny. I think we can all use a little more funny these days.
I totally agree, Donna. Thanks so much for sharing!
Please click the giveaway link below BEFORE SATURDAY MIDNIGHT and comment, retweet, follow MUF, etc. for a chance to win a signed copy of Abby, Tried and True. The winner will be announced on Sunday, March 7.