Beyond the Monomyth

CampbellI have spent years being aggravated by all the hoopla over Joseph Campbell-Christopher Vogler-that-everlasting-hero’s journey. My thinking didn’t fit into its straitjacket. I thought it was just me. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough.

Then I began reading criticism of Campbell’s mono-myth theory. But that assessment from the field of folklore scholarship wasn’t percolating into the world of literature and film. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I’m a Star Wars enthusiast. But I couldn’t buy the idea that a single Eurocentric version of story was somehow fused into everyone’s synapses.

During the 25 years in which I have been writing and publishing in the children’s literature market, writing teachers I know and love have insisted that the Call to Action, the Refusal, the Mentor, and so on, are necessary ingredients of story. Campbell himself cast the Ramayana in this Jungian framework. Really? Rama’s sad, benevolent rule after the tragic departure of his queen is supposed to be a reward for his heroic journey? And how about the woman in the story? There are many emotional and esthetic meanings to be drawn from Sita’s return to the Earth, her mother, but the concept of “reward” does not fit into any of them. Talk about stuffing a sprawling multilayered epic into a mass-market storage bin!

Over the years, all the Campbell worship just made my head hurt. So I’m delighted now to read this essay by Marie Mutsuki Mockett on what a story can be. She writes:

I suspect, if you are reading this essay, you too are at once a cautious but adventurous reader looking for something other than the same experience over and over again. You too are looking for a story that feels like a story, but isn’t necessarily a clone of something you have read before. You want to be immersed and moved. You want real and you want authentic. And you want a story to work.

Mockett looks to Japanese film and story for alternate models, and she finds them in all their complexity. But the gift she gives us is the permission to set aside a single version of story and create our own. Structure is necessary but it doesn’t have to be only one kind. There is no one default version of “story.” The richness of being human is that we are not all alike.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Monomyth

  1. “We’re not all the same.” Agree. Thus, I believe, the title: The Hero With A THOUSAND Faces.” Those who stand as heroes, this is where the monomyth rings true, came from all cultures, across time, and stand out to us as representatives of often the best within our individual selves. Even our heroes, whom we’re drawn towards as individual souls, are mirrors unto ourselves. The beauty in Campbell’s work, isn’t in Campbell himself, but rather, in his way of looking at stories, teaching, guiding mythologies, through eyes and with a mind seeking ‘commonality’ ‘universals’. It may seem like he hasn’t nailed it, if we’re looking to critique. But for me, Campbell’s writings initiated a journey, one I’m personally still walking, not in hopes of being heroic any longer, but rather, towards the courage to express the most common need, within our blessed, unique, and individual selves: Personal Authenticity, and Peace in finding way to live, just that. Be Well. Thank you for your wonderful words, and for beginning a conversation in regards to Campbell’s work. He’s evident, today, like we all are, for a reason. What that reason is, for you? Will be unique, to me. And to Bill, Jane, Doug, and Marcia, whomever may also visit this space and our words today. We need, individually, our own heroes, as mentors to help us grow. Once the teacher’s needs are emptied into us, we move on and find, again, the guides, waiting for us to catch up in the wings. Eventually, and ultimately, we’ll find we are finally quite comfortable, walking our chosen path, even all alone.

    • I think you’ve missed the point, Darren. Seeking out points of universality, in my opinion, is akin to being put in categories — and I think it’s personally limiting and also limits one’s understanding/perception, especially when coming into contact with new things and forcing it into previously understood patterns instead of trying to meet it where it’s coming from. (Are you type A B or C? what if I’m all, some, none or other? people and stories don’t need to belong in boxes, especially if they are just different to begin with. And a narrative doesn’t need to be twisted to fit certain keystones to be deemed good.) The monomyth is over-taught as a literary “staple”: storytelling and related academia would do better to celebrate diversity and not deconstruct stories in ways that actively pervert them by trying to force them into one mold, like Ms Krishnaswami’s example.
      Just as one might find mentors in unexpected places, I think it’s also pertinent to understand criticism and also evaluate critically on other’s ideas – what you think for yourself matters probably more than any one mentor can give you, and the individual can and should decide for themselves if the ideas and opinions of another is something they should accept for their mindset as well. The script of the monomyth is imbued with elements of hubris or fatalism that, for me, spits on self-determinism. But there are a variety of perspectives on the tradition of humans telling stories, and the idea of the monomyth casts an inflated shadow over the thousands of other tales that have been told or have yet to be written. Campbell’s monomyth comes from a Jungian perspective, but there are many other approaches to understanding myths and folklore as well. The book linked above (Sacred Narrative by Alan Dundes) details several frameworks to folklore study and gives a diverse array of cultures a spotlight, as opposed to the cherrypicked primarily Greek-derivative myths that Campbell highlights as foundational.

  2. I think that this is a great reminder ensuring that the authors of tomorrow stay true to their visions. I remember a couple of weeks ago when I went to my local bookstore and feeling that every book I came across (in terms of “popular” fiction) seemed the same. I am sure that not all of them were similar when it came down to the details but my initial response of not seeing anything that would catch my fancy was still there.

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