The Hero’s Journey

23 Mar

The Hero’s Journey is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many myths, legends and fairy tales from all over the world. This widely distributed pattern was described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the ‘monomyth’ (a term that he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake). Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as follows: “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”. This sounds like the basic structure of virtually every fantasy story ever written but what is particularly interesting is that Campbell goes one stage further and ascribes this same structure to the religious narratives of Buddha, Moses and Christ and argues that classic myths from many other cultures follow this basic pattern.

First published in 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a seminal work of comparative mythology in which Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. Campbell’s theory has been consciously applied by a wide variety of modern writers and artists, the best known of which is perhaps George Lucas, who has acknowledged a debt to Campbell regarding the stories of the Star Wars films. In laying out the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, he must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, he may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon). It has to be said that very few myths contain all of these stages, which are instead usually conflated into three sections. These are: Departure, which deals with the hero venturing forth on the quest; Initiation, which deals with the hero’s various adventures along the way; and Return, which deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.

In his book Campbell refers mainly to early 20th century works of fiction as well as folk tales, myths and legends but what I find fascinating is the influence that The Hero with a Thousand Faces has had subsequently. There are a number of artists, musicians, poets and film-makers, including Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and even Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who cite the book as an inspiration on their work. In the world of film, Stanley Kubrick famously introduced Arthur C Clarke to Campbell’s book during the writing of 2001: A Space Odyssey; while Hollywood film producer Christopher Vogler, after reading it, wrote The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers – the bible for genre films – which has been used as a template for everything from Disney animated features to the Matrix trilogy. In Watership Down, novelist Richard Adams uses extracts from The Hero with a Thousand Faces as chapter epigrams, while Neil Gaiman’s work is frequently seen as exemplifying the monomyth structure, despite his protestations that he has never read the whole of Campbell’s book. In common with Gaiman, J K Rowling is seen has having adhered closely to Campbell’s pattern in her Harry Potter novels – in spite of the fact that she has never publicly admitted any debt to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Of course, it is entirely possible that there are a number of fantasy authors, artists and film-makers out there who do not even have a passing familiarity with the monomyth. Even when The Hero with a Thousand Faces was first published back in 1949 it did not say anything particularly new, it simply put a new spin on a theory which had been around for some time and had previously been aired in such works as The Golden Bough and the Bildungsroman literary form. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as another powerful contemporary example of the monomyth but J R R Tolkien began work on this decades before the publication of Campbell’s book. It also has to be said that many have questioned the very validity of the monomyth, its usefulness as a tool for critical investigation and interpretation of narrative, and its male bias. Feminist critics have rejected the idea of a ‘monomyth in which women appear only exceptionally, and then as indistinguishable from men. Others have found the categories Campbell works with so vague as to be meaningless, as well as lacking the support required of scholarly argument.

Personally, I find it hard to argue against the pervasive influence of the concept of “the hero (or heroine!)’s journey” in fantasy fiction. The evidence is overwhelming: Frodo journeys into the land of shadow to save Middle Earth from the dark lord Sauron; Harry Potter seeks Horcruxes and Deathly Hallows to save the wizarding world from the dark lord Voldemort; Luke Skywalker seeks to learn how to use the force to save the galaxy from the evil emperor and his own dark father; Simon Mooncalf seeks three swords of power to save the world of Osten Ard from the Storm King; Rand al’Thor seeks to learn how to use the One Power to save the World of the Wheel from the Dark One. I’m sure that anyone reading this article could come up with dozens, if not hundreds, more examples. Whether you can credit the creation of the monomyth structure to Joseph Campbell is, however, a different question entirely…

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3 Responses to “The Hero’s Journey”

  1. Folding Mirror Poetry March 23, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Thanks, nice clear and comprehensive explanation.

    I had read of this before, and took it into consideration for my newly published on Amazon Kindle ‘Werewolf of Oz’ book, which follows the quest theme.

    http://www.amazon.com/author/marclatham

  2. Tamara April 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    The hero journey is best understood via the great videos at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

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  1. Fantasy Quest, Heroes and Anti-Heroes, Magnificent Seven Quote | Free and Equal Green Writing - April 15, 2013

    […] it’s the Greenygrey. I was reading about the fantasy literature heroic quest on the Fabulous Realms website, and it reminded Grey of its epic […]

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