Myth and the 'Now' Part Twenty Two: The Monomyth
I’ve always liked simplicity.
To me, when examining any area in any detail, if my mind is asking questions such as ‘But why is this so?’ or ‘How does this work?’ then I haven’t gotten to the bottom of something.
In addressing the subject of Myth and its role in fiction one inevitably encounters the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. First published in 1949, it is a work of comparative mythology in which Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. Such was the theory’s power that it has been applied by a wide variety of modern writers and artists, including, perhaps most famously, George Lucas, in the Star Wars films. The book itself has been acclaimed: in 2011, Time placed the book in its list of the 100 best and most influential books written in English.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces is so prevalent in the culture that as soon as I mention that I am looking at Myth in literature, the first response is usually 'Oh yes, Campbell.’
Campbell’s theory claims that important myths from around the world all share a fundamental structure. Campbell called this the monomyth:
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.
There are a number of stages or steps along this journey: the hero starts in the ordinary world, then receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). In accepting the call, the hero sets off in a stage known as Departure or Separation, and then faces tasks and trials which he or she may have to face alone, or with assistance from companions. A severe challenge is faced, called the Initiation, and if the hero survives this, a great gift (the goal or ‘boon’), can be obtained which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. A decision must then be made whether or not to go back to the ordinary world with this boon (known as the Return). If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used beneficially in some way.
Some myths contain many of these stages; others contain only a few. Often both the focus and the sequence is different. Mythic stories used as examples include the tales of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus, among many others.
Campbell uses Freudian concepts of the 1940s and 1950s (particularly the Oedipus complex) as well as a mixture of Jungian archetypes, unconscious forces, and other philosophic sources to support his theory.
The trouble with all of this, from my point of view, is that it is all too complicated.
It’s a fascinating and worthy study, of course. But my mind asks continually ‘Why would this be so?’ If there is an underlying basic pattern in fiction which follows this theory, why does it follow the theory? Who is this ‘hero’? Why does he receive a ‘call to adventure’?
Why should he Depart or Separate, and what exactly from? What is the meaning of the tasks and trials that the hero faces, and why are there companions in some stories? What is the underlying meaning of the Initiation, and the gift?
It is possible that there is a pattern here and it is certainly clear that many myths resemble each other. But until one arrives at the basic unit or bedrock or foundation of the thing, then there is more to discover. One should be able to get to the point where one can no longer ask ‘Why is this so?’ or ‘How does this work?’ There should come a moment of epiphany, when one sees the answer, rather than more questions.
In this series of articles about Myth and its relation not only to fiction but to society and the individual human being, that unit, that bedrock, that foundation has been revealed.