The Monomyth – aka Hero’s Journey

Interest in Joseph Campbell’s work continues to grow.  In a highly compressed whirlwind trip of world mythologies, Campbell shows us that many commonalities exist in our human family through a breathtaking sampler of mythological narratives across an expanse of time and location in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That is not to say that differences are absent.  Rather, he attempts, through this work, to balance the extreme and extremist focus on the differences that appear to be the dominant view now for centuries, if not millennia.

Campbell quoting James Joyce says: “The monomyth is an everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique way.”  That is to say, fundamentally, there is one narrative.  However, this form demands of us that we live our unique narrative out.  We cannot live someone else’s narrative.  Campbell was insistent that we enter the woods alone where it is thickest and where no path exists.

The monomyth is the journey each of us is on.  “Myth commonly is an allegory or metaphor of the agony of self-completion through the mastery and assimilation of conflicting opposites.  The process is described in the typical symbolic terms of encounters, perils, feats, and trials [in myths].”  This comment was made in The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell) before Campbell put to pen the monomyth.  Myths are metaphors to assist us in the confusing business of living life.

The common understanding of myth is as a story.  The content of myth as stories is important but there is something behind the content of the story: mythic form ( Dennis Patrick Slattery on The Relevance of Myth in our Lives). Slattery asked himself: “What kind of energy field gathers itself to coagulate or constellate that has this particular type of plot?  It’s not that myth as story is wrong; it is just insufficient.  There is something behind the narrative that each of us is living out.  To merely discuss the plot of our lives is to sidestep the form.”  The Universal emerges through unique local and individual expression.

For writers who use the Hero’s Journey as structure to guide them in their writing, the greater truth of the monomyth may be overlooked.  There are those who try to capitalize on the form saying things like there are 510+ stages of the hero’s journey. There are in fact uncounted stages of this journey as each of us “inflects in particular ways” the reiteration of unchanging principles.  Do not be taken in by jargon.  There is something very basic to the human condition here.  Jargon muddies these waters when clarity is desired.  Also, I suggest you do not dismiss the form because it appears simple.  Do not confuse simple with simplistic (and simple often does not mean easy).  The potency of the underlying truth is not diminished by the simplicity of the structure.  Another common error is to think of the form as if it were a formula.  If the writer does this, the story most likely will feel formulaic to the audience.

The story you writers tell (and the story that each of us must live) is uniquely our own.  If we do not follow the call, the story that only each of us uniquely has the capacity to live will go unlived; a vacuum will have been created because that gap cannot be filled by any other.  The everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique ways is simultaneously a grueling demand to rise to the challenges that are presented to us and a gift, elixir, joy, and experience of the wonder of Life.