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.