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.