Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation--initiation--return . . . .

The last couple of months have been telling me to read Campbell's work: I read Storytelling for Lawyers, watched episodes IV--VI of Star Wars, and then after doing some internet research of Dan Harmon (while trying to guess whether there would be a Community movie), I found an entire series of articles by Harmon about story telling.  See here; here; here; here; here; and here.  All of these are heavily influenced by Campbell's theories.  (One might even say, these were my call to adventure!  Get it?  See what I did there?  Get it?).

In college I was introduced to Campbell's theory during a class on German myths.  It was interesting and straightforward, and obviously applied to a substantial number of stories.  So, since then, I did not think reading the book worth my time (I assumed the cursory treatment was good enough for my purposes).  I was wrong.

Campbell's theory is much more than a formula that applies to many myths.  It is a theory of human nature, and explains how myths illuminate our understanding of that nature.  That is, the monomyth parallels the human experience, the human journey; and so understanding the monomyth helps us understand ourselves.

This helps to explain why the monomyth has such universal application: by reflecting a pattern that applies to myths from all over the world and spread over different time periods, the monomyth reflects something fundamental about how we understand the human experience.  We begin in a status quo, we leave the status quo, we return to a changed status quo.  This parallels non-existence, existence, and then non-existence (i.e., pre-life, life, and death).  It also parallels the journey of trying to improve or change anything.

Although it is not a goal for Campbell, the book has a lot to offer to anyone who wants to understand story-telling.  This, I think, is why his work was so important to George Lucas in creating Star Wars and Dan Harmon: the formula that Campbell explains also explains what a story is.  And, although you can follow it step by step (see Star Wars), you can also just follow a basic version of the formula to create television (see Community).

Incidentally, I've found the work to illuminate even my legal writing because it's helped me conceptualize effective story telling as compared to ineffective story telling.

One last reflection: there is an eery way in which a lot of major anime I can think of follows Campbell's monomyth, almost to every single step.  I'm thinking specifically of Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Evangelion, and, a show I've been watching on Netflix, Magi.  Of particular note, these shows all include some sort of confrontation/interaction with the mother/father figures.  I don't know what to make of this, other than it's interesting.

Highly recommended.


Christopher said...

This stuff was the hot shit about sixty years ago, but my understanding is that no one really takes it seriously anymore. Probably for good reason. You should Robert Graves' The White Goddess, though, which is similar except that it is the work of a completely insane person.

Randy said...

Do you think no one takes it seriously anymore because psychoanalysis has fallen out of favor? Or do you think Campbell's theory is just substantively problematic?

Christopher said...

So, I can't really speak about Campbell, only Graves, who really thought about this as WAY more than a framework for telling a story; he thought of every religious myth and poem as telling essentially the SAME story. That's part of the problem: at some stage, it becomes way too reductive. Psychoanalysis is still around, but I don't think anybody really thinks about Jungian archetypes in a serious way--do they?

The other problem is that in practice, these theories lend themselves to cultural imperialism because they turn less visible religions and myth systems into pale versions of more visible religions and myth systems. Something happens to them like the round peg that gets cut so it can fit into the square hole.

Have you ever read Middlemarch? I think there's a good reason George Eliot gave Causubon the task of creating a "key to all mythologies," and that is that it is a fool's game.

Randy said...

Fair: I think Campbell's goals were similar to Graves then. I think for Campbell, the framework reflects the subconscious of the mind, and thus represents a universal story. However, to be fair to Campbell, I think he was really focused only on "myths," not all stories. I think the difference matters for him because myths more intentionally have moral lessons for their audiences.

I hadn't thought about cultural imperialism, but that makes sense.

For my purposes, Campbell's book has been helpful. I did not know it when I picked up the book, but what I'm really interested in is "narrative theory." This book served as a handy introduction. So...get ready for more reviews about story structure. I guess.

Christopher said...

SO there's lots of interesting stuff in narrative theory/narratology that people still use. Vladimir Propp made a really influential study of the narratives of folk tales that is still used to classify them today. The book I reviewed a couple of months ago, The Sense of an Ending, is basically about the relationship between narrative theory and the human fear of death. I know there's more and if I think of a good one I'll let you know.