For Writers

The Myth of the Monomyth

Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?

The Myth of the Monomyth by Greg R. Fishbone asks, "Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?"

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?

The Catalyst

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.

Star Wars beats mapped onto Hero's Journey beats

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.

Mourning the Middle Grade Years and Finding Them Again by Donna Galanti

It struck me recently that I couldn’t remember the very last time I read a goodnight book to my son, Joshua. I asked him if he knew. As a teenager now, he couldn’t remember either.

“There was probably a night where you couldn’t read to me, Mom, because you were busy,” he said. “And then the next night we forgot about it. And the next.”

“So, it just faded away?”

“Yup.” *Mom choke-up*

Since then, I’ve been bothered by the fact that:
1. I desperately want to remember when and what that last goodnight book was.
2. If I’d known it was the last time, I would have cherished it.
3. Bedtime reading to my son is forever gone and I’m just realizing the significance of this now.

I mourn something now long disappeared that I had not even known was gone.

Along with bedtime reading gone of current children’s books with my son, so has the reading of books to him that I received as a child over 40 years ago. My mother wrote my name in mine, the year I received it, and who gave me the book. The Tooth Fairy brought me books from Beatrix Potter to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Roald Dahl. These books have now long been collecting dust on my son’s shelves.

“Mom, can we pack these books up now?” he asked, pointing to his bookshelf of old and new.

“Never!” I protested and gently dusted of books, taking them to my office where children’s books will never die.

These included my son’s best-loved books like Wonder, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Warriors, Flat Stanley, Goosebumps, Genius Files, Joshua Dread, Captain Underpants (the lunch signs are the BEST!), and Charlie Bone (Mom, this is THE best series EVER! You have to read it). And I’ll never forget my son’s excitement when he found out that the Charlie Bone series author, Jenny Nimmo, was blurbing my first middle grade book, Joshua and the Lightning Road.

All too soon for me, my son left the middle grade world. He moved on to reading dark, dystopian young adult novels.

And I realized, sadly, he also moved on from all of our kid shows: iCarly, Big Time Rush, Good Luck Charlie, Pair of Kings, Drake and Josh, Sponge Bob Square Pants. Watching them with him made me nostalgic for my own shows I grew up with like Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, Benson, Greatest American Hero, and re-runs of The Carol Burnett Show and Leave it to Beaver.

Occasionally, I bring up our shared favorite episodes to him of middle grade shows buried in tv-land dust.

“Can’t we just watch a Sponge Bob episode tonight? How about the Frankendoodle one or Pizza Delivery or Best Day Ever?” I asked.

“No, Mom,” he laughed. “That’s kid stuff.”

“What about iCarly where Spencer pranks everyone and does the prank song?” I started bopping around.

“No, Mom.” He gave me an eye roll.

“Okay,” I said with a sigh.

It’s true that I’ve grown with my son as he’s grown, but in doing so I’ve also relived many of my own childhood paths through his middle grade books and shows – and I don’t want them to end. I’ve returned home to a place where I will always be young, laughing myself silly, on magical adventures, and experiencing so many wondrous ‘firsts’.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t books categorized “middle grade” and so I downed Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Jack London, Paul Zindel, and V.C. Andrews (all soooo not kid-friendly). They were my “middle grade” then, but now I have my son’s books, too (and age-appropriate!). And someday, I hope he’ll come back around to them just like I did. Maybe with his own children. He doesn’t need to relive his childhood now. He’s living it. And I realized, my son and his book world set me on my own journey as a middle grade author. What a wonderful legacy he gave me, even though he’s moved on.

He also doesn’t need me to be home anymore after school. He has his own business and drives to his restaurant job. He doesn’t need me to read him bedtime stories or cut up his meat. He doesn’t need me to do his laundry. He can do that simply fine (good!).

Don’t misunderstand me; I am enjoying the new phase of things. Watching him go to work, open a bank account, clean his room because he wants to (faint!), and calm his frazzled mom down when writing deadlines loom.

“It’ll be okay Mom,” he now says. “You’ll get it done. You always do.” He even helped me years ago in writing my first book when I got stuck on plot and character.

He may have said goodbye to middle grade for now, but I love sharing in the continued new wonders with him. I just won’t ever stop loving middle grade, not since I fell in love with it again through my son. I’ll keep writing it and reading it—and waiting for the day he comes back to it. *fingers crossed*

Have you ever mourned moving on from a phase in your child’s middle grade life? What were some of your favorite books as a child? What are some new favorite children’s books now?

 

Interview with Mark Lester, Oliver in the 1968 movie

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

We are in for a real treat today!

For those who don’t know, I’m a huge fan of musicals, and perhaps my favorite of all time is Oliver. Even better, my daughter has recently become in love with it as well.

So, I have to say that it was an absolute thrill to get a chance to Zoom with the star of that movie about his experiences filming it. And let me tell you, he couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious. So, please help me welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Mark Lester!

JR: Hi Mark, and thanks for joining us! To start with, I was reading your bio, and saw that you came from a theater family, and got your first roles at the age of six. The movie The Counterfeit Constable and the TV series, The Human Jungle. At any point were you aware of how different that was from what most kids experienced, or did you just think that was what everyone did?

ML: I guess I thought that’s what everyone did. We were always going up for auditions, all the kids for commercials or TV parts, so we thought that was a normal thing. I was in Drama school, so I was okay with the auditions.

JR: I’ve read that there were thousands of kids auditioning for the role of Oliver. Were you nervous or it didn’t really faze you?

ML: I didn’t see thousands of people, I was only in small groups of people. So, I kept getting asked back, asked back, and asked back, and in the end, I obviously won the role.

JR: And I’m certainly glad you did! What was your reaction when you found out that you won the part?

ML: I think I was just like this is great, I’ve got time off school.

JR: That’s funny. Yes, I think that would’ve been my reaction as well. Had you read the book or watched other versions of Oliver Twist prior to filming?

ML: I hadn’t read the book, and I haven’t read it even until today.

JR: Really? That seems almost sacrilegious!

ML: No, I’m not a big Dickens fan. I had seen the previous movie with Alec Guinness. It was quite dark, and it wasn’t a musical. So, I knew the story, but until I got involved, I hadn’t known anything other than the movie.

JR: Now, you were 8 years old when you started filming Oliver, which is amazing to me, considering how incredible your performance was. The cast was perfect. So saying that, how was it for you to come into a production with such seasoned actors such as Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis, Harry Secombe, and Jack Wild who had already done the play on the West End? Were you intimidated at all?

ML: No, not really. Everyone was really supportive. The director, Carol Reed, was very good at getting everyone together. It was quite easy, really. Oliver Reed was a bit frightening. A method actor who got into the role of Bill Sykes, so he was a bit terrifying. Everyone else was pretty amazing to work with.

JR: Let’s go through them a little. What can you tell us about your experiences with Jack Wild the Artful Dodger?

ML: Jack was great. He was about five or six years older than me. So, he kind of took me under his wing. And right until the very end, when sadly, he died very young, we were still in contact with each other quite regularly. It was the same with Ron Moody. Fortunately with Ron and Shani, we did a couple of Comic Con things in the states. We did one, I think it was called the Hollywood Show in Los Angeles, and then we went to Chicago.

JR: Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble? 

ML: I didn’t really get to know him, even when we worked together afterwards, since I was a kid, and these were adults. I didn’t really get to hang out with anyone other than Jack and a few of the guys from Fagin’s gang, who I still keep in touch with.

JR: Oh, you still keep in touch with them? That’s great. Any anecdotes about Ron Moody as Fagin?

ML: Ron was great. He was very nurturing and very easy to work with. He was a very kind man, very gentle. He gave us a lot of encouragement.

JR: Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes?

ML: He came on the set as Bill Sykes. He held Ron up by his throat. And he dragged me around the rooftops of London.

 

JR: Oh my gosh. Were you scared during that time for real?

ML: No, people ask were you scared, but we were about two or three feet off the ground. I think the highest we got was three feet.

JR: That’s some great movie magic, then. Do you still have contact with Shani Wallis who played Nancy?

ML: Yes, in fact, we do. She emailed me a few weeks ago. She lives in LA. Her husband, sadly, died. Her daughter lives out that way, and looks after her. It was really nice seeing her again at the Oliver reunion. The last one I did must’ve been around a couple of years ago.

JR: Oh, I wish I could’ve seen that. What was your favorite number from the film?       

ML: Who Will Buy.

JR: It’s one of mine as well. I read that Who Will Buy took six weeks to film. It was a stunning sequence. What can you tell us about that particular number?

ML: I liked it because of the way it built up from one rose girl and developed into this huge musical routine. The set was amazing. The whole square was built. The fronts of all the houses were held up by plywood. A lot of people ask me, was that filmed in so and so and so and so? I say, No, it wasn’t. It was filmed in Shepperton Studios on a set. It was an incredible feat to make that, and that was only one of the sets. It took a long time, we filmed over the summer. We were really lucky and had really good weather for it. I was most of the time on a cherry picker, holding me up behind the window.

 

JR: That’s incredible. I never thought it was a set. Any other anecdotes that you can share from the filming?

ML: Harry Seacombe who played Mr. Bumble, they decided to play a joke on him. He has to pull Oliver around by his ear when I asked for More. So, the make up department made me up this little plastic ear to go over my ear. I think it was his birthday or something. So, when Harry got a hold of me, the fake ear came off in his hands. He just didn’t know what to do, and obviously, everyone fell about behind the camera.

JR: I love that. I can imagine his face. How often do you go back and watch the movie? And can you just watch it as a film or are you too invested in it?

ML: I don’t think I’ve actually watched it since maybe ten or fifteen years ago. My youngest daughter, Olivia, watched it when she was about three, and she thought it was actually my childhood.

JR: So funny! A couple of years later you reunited with Jack Wild for Melody. How was that experience to be back together again?

ML: It was great. Jack and I always got on really, really well. That whole movie was fun. It was just a bunch of kids having a good time, having to do a bit of work in between, which wasn’t really that difficult. Lots of guys who I knew from my school were involved in the film. It was great fun.

JR: The last full movie you made in the 70s was the Prince and the Pauper, or Crossed Swords here in the states. You reunited with Oliver Reed, and the film also had more big stars such as Ernest Borgnine, Raquel Welch, and Rex Harrison. Any anecdotes from the making of that?

ML: Oh my God, yeah. I remember cause I was seventeen, but I turned eighteen during the making of the movie, so I had to have a chaperone by law. She was with me when I turned seventeen, but when I turned eighteen, they sent her home. After I turned eighteen, Ollie invited me out for a meal with around a dozen other people. He got really, really drunk, as usual, so we decided to eat the meal in reverse, so they started off with brandy and then, and the dessert was some sort of chocolate pudding. And then someone flicked some around, and someone flicked some back, and it turned into a massive food fight, and we were asked to leave the restaurant in Budapest. And we were all still covered in chocolate. So, we go back to the hotel, and because of the brandy, I couldn’t do very much, and just fell asleep.

The next day, I had to get up early for filming, and later when I came back to the room, I noticed the maids hadn’t made the room up. I asked what was going on, and the maids said, “You’re a disgusting man, you’re a disgusting man.” I asked, “What do you mean?”

They thought I pooed in the bed. So, I explained to them and put my finger in the chocolate, and they started to scream, “No, you can’t do that!”, but eventually, they realized that it was chocolate pudding.

 

JR: That is hysterical! That scene is like something out of a movie. According to your IMDB page, you’re in two upcoming films? Fighting Talk and 1066, is that true?

ML: Fighting Talk was a project to help a mate out. We filmed about three days and it was pretty rubbish. It would’ve gone straight to DVD. So, that never really happened. I can’t even remember where we filmed, it was around three years ago.

There was another movie called 1066, which was on the cards for a bit, but I don’t think they can get the funding for it. It was a good idea and would’ve been quite a bit of fun to make.

JR: Are you open to doing more roles in the future?

ML: Yeah, if the right thing came along. I really enjoy it, it’s fun. I mean, it’s probably a little bit different now than when I was making them. There’s more freedom with using CGI and you can do more things on screen. Like, I just saw that movie Tenet and it was great. There’s no way they could’ve made things like that back then. There’s an awful amount of CGI in that, but it worked. It’s a very clever film, and it’s great. We used it a bit in Prince and the Pauper, but it was new technology. It would be fun to do something if the opportunity arose.

JR: Well, I would love to see you in more roles. We’ll have to get some casting directors on it! You currently have a successful practice, The Carlton Clinic, can you tell us about that, and how you got started doing it?

ML: I’ve been practicing as an osteopath and acupuncturist for about twenty-five, twenty-six years. I got into it through sports injuries. I did a high level of karate. I trained starting back in the late eighties. I used to have a practice in the town where I live, but now since Covid, I built a log cabin on my property, and I’m working from here, and it’s working out pretty well.

CARLTON CLINIC

JR: Other than it being a bad time for it, do you still do conventions and meet the fans?

ML: I’ve done a few in the states, and one in Japan. I do like the American ones, though, because I love your country. It’s a great country.

JR: So, come move!

ML: Well, my girlfriend is from Dallas. We go back and forth a lot. I was in New York, actually, when Covid kicked off. We saw the last Broadway show, before they shut everything down. Tragic.

JR: That’s sad. What’d you see?

ML: We saw the Bob Dylan show, Girl from the North Country. It’s kind of based on his songs. It was a fantastic show, but sadly, the next day they closed everything down, so we saw the last show.

JR: How often do fans reach out to you?

ML: Maybe three or four times a month. Usually sending photographs for me to sign and then I send them back.

 

JR: That’s really nice of you. I need to do that! Since we’re a site devoted to children’s books, what was your favorite book as a child?

ML: I used to read a lot of action books. I loved the author, Alistair Maclean, who wrote The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, those types of books. Where Eagles Dare was one of his popular books, and I loved reading that kind of stuff. And then, comic books.

JR: I grew up reading comics. Who was your favorite?

ML: I used to like the DC stuff. Flash.

JR: That’s my daughter’s favorite.

ML: They had really good stories, as well.

JR: And so many people love Oliver, what was your favorite childhood movie?

ML: Good question. I remember being taken to see The Exorcist when I was like twelve years old.

JR: That was your favorite childhood movie?

ML: Terrifying. I couldn’t sleep for around a week and had to go to bed with the lights on. I also saw The Godfather, which was a fantastic movie.

JR: You liked heavy movies as a child.

ML: I was never into Disney stuff, really, I was more into these.

 

JR: How can people follow you on social media?

ML: I have a Twitter account @MarkaLesterMark, but I’m not really active.

JR: Well, you might be getting some new followers now, so you might need to change that.

Mark, I thank you so much for your time today. It was a real pleasure!

 

That’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers! Hope you enjoyed reading that as much as I enjoyed doing it. Until next time . . . 

 

Jonathan