On Writing: Thoughts on the “Hero’s Journey” or Monomyth

I’m currently watching Netflix’s Myths and Monsters, and quite enjoying the first episode which dives into Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Monomyth

For those of you who’ve managed to avoid mention of this theory, its a hugely influential and popular literary theory that most myths and stories follow a particular pattern of character and plot – shown above.

It’s an intensely controversial theory, that on the one hand provides structure and insight into story telling, but on the other hand can be seen as a sort of Barnum Statement or Zodiac type structure (e.g. the reason that the monomyth applies is because its vague or flexible enough to apply to any story rather than genuinely being the basis of stories).

Personally my thoughts are somewhere in the middle. There are certain tautologies when it comes to storytelling that would be pretty ridiculous to oppose, for example its rarely works in a story to not have an MC learning and changing throughout and simply returning to the status quo (I believe there are some such stories out there but not many). But I’m not sure if this gives credence to the Monomyth or is just as useful as stating that time moves forward.

On the other hand the elements and stages of the Myth do capture something about human nature or psychology, and change and adventure. For example the role and position of mentors doesn’t seem rudimentary, the theory captures ideas and the position of mentor archetypes more specially than just generalities.

So in my humble opinion these are some of the strengths of the stages of the Monomyth:

Status Quo

It seems really obvious but I think something that often goes amiss in writing is failing to create a status quo. The status quo or normal setting is vital in a strong story because it creates context for everything that happens throughout AND the ultimate effects of the climax of the story. Lord of the Rings is a prime example, the Status Quo is the lazy peace of the Shire and the whole story is made all the more powerful to be contrasted with that. Harry Potter’s status quo is a little odd, as Privet Drive holds almost no direct relevance to the wizarding world, but is incredibly important for the character throughout.

Known/Unknown

This is a tricky and powerful element of the Hero’s Journey, as it can refer directly to a character literally travelling somewhere unknown, but equally to unknown territory emotionally, or figuratively. It may be a character doing something different, or interacting with someone new. This is the flipside of the status quo and by establishing the latter you create and enhance the former. Often when the tension of stories fall flat its because there was never any normality to begin with so its not interesting to dive into anything abnormal.

Death/Rebirth and Attonement

In my opinion this is where things get a little hazy and perhaps too metaphoric. In some respects change always contains some element of death in the sense of leaving behind old selves for new, but I think part of the magic of stories is the potential for more variability in the journey. In some respects the decision of an author/story telling with what the ultimate test is in the story defines the journey. For example many tales are more affirmations rather than changes – take a wide variety of superhero stories (maybe more traditional ones as modern stories perhaps have more pressure to show their characters change!).

My point is that the Monomyth is wrong just that I’m not sure exactly how the step fits with stories, does death/rebirth only really count for mythological hero stories or is their room for modification?

Unfortunately I don’t really have a grand overarching conclusion, just some rambling to get back into the blogging!

What are your thoughts on the Hero’s Journey?

Are you keeping well in the final few weeks of 2020?

2 thoughts on “On Writing: Thoughts on the “Hero’s Journey” or Monomyth

  1. One detail that should also be emphasised is the Return; in keeping with your note of the Status Quo being important as context for the Unknown to come, the character returning to their original place/status/etc. serves to demonstrate how their adventure has changed them.

    For example, (SPOILERS, obvs) when they return and restore the Shire, Merry and Pippin are now mighty heroes, and Frodo is unable to enjoy the peace due to his ordeals. Only Sam is able to resume something like his former life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As I recall, some of the criticism of the monomyth is the fact that there are many examples of world myth that are different from or contradict the core ideas, and Campell simply ignored examples that didn’t fit into his thesis. Humans have had stories and storytelling as long as we have had complex language. I have to imagine, like language, you can reach back and find core elements from some ancient parent imaginary, but the surviving elements would be minimal. I also imagine there has to be some psychological root of our stories, but that too probably has changed significantly over time.

    Liked by 1 person

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