Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

As I wrote in last week’s post, a recent series of events caused me to consider again one of my favorite storytelling concepts, the Hero’s Journey.  In fact, I have long been fascinated by classic story patterns, so I felt like writing something this week about the eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell and his theory of narrative.

A diverse group of authors and scholars have written of the universal nature of human story patterns.  For example, in O Pioneers! (1913), novelist Willa Cather wrote stated: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”  Canadian journalist and literary scholar Robert Fulford echoed a similar sentiment, proclaiming in 1999: “If we ignore the technology for a moment and consider the stories and themes, mass culture appears to circle endlessly around the same trail, meeting on its path again and again the same characters in roughly the same stories.”

But it was Campbell more than anyone else who expressed the concept that the whole of the human race could be seen as reciting a single underlying story of great psychological and spiritual importance.  In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), he described a pattern that has dominated mass culture through the ages, from ancient theatre to modern-day sagas such as Star Wars: the Hero’s Journey.

Campbell was so convinced of the predominance of the one basic human story that he wrote extensively of the “monomyth”, a term he borrowed from James Joyce’s classic novel Finnegan’s Wake (1939).  We should note that Campbell used the word “myth” in its original Greek sense of “mythos”, or story.  As such, the monomyth refers to the “one story” whose pattern has dominated myths from all times and cultures.  Campbell employed the terms “monomyth” and “hero’s journey” interchangeably.

Originally a student of medieval English literature, Campbell’s thinking was heavily influenced by the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  One of his early discoveries was that the Arthurian legends followed a few basic motifs, and that these motifs were shared with the legends of American Indian folklore.  This finding led to Campbell’s first major work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he posits that the classic patterns of the monomyth will be found in the mythology of any culture, independent of historical or geographical circumstances.

The fundamental structure of the Hero’s Journey is elegant and simple.  According to Campbell’s concise description, a hero “ventures forth from the world of the 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.”

Similarly to the eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Campbell believed that the myths of all cultures are linked.  These myths and their archetypal characters are expressions of the universal need of the human psyche to explain and interpret the human condition.

In the Hero’s Journey, we observe the basic Arthurian legend cycle with its four phases: separation, descent, initiation, and return.  This structure is not only a template for the classic myths from all cultures; many modern tales, as well, replicate the monomythic story model.  Star Wars creator George Lucas, for instance, states that he was greatly influenced by Campbell and the Arthurian myth cycle.

An examination of many other films and novels of our time reveals that Campbell’s monomyth is alive and well.  For example, even a cursory reading of The Lord of the Rings trilogy reveals a story that follows the monomythic structure and portrays archetypal characters.  In the next blog entry, I will discuss the Hero’s Journey construction in more detail, using The Lord of the Rings as example.


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