Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” or monomyth idea is incredibly useful for critical analysis of developmental stories.
If you want to compare Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) to Jesus Christ (Bible) to Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz) – Campbell’s got you covered.
If you want to compare it to your own developmental journey through life, it can kind of fit too.
But what happens when you start to look for it… everywhere?
It still works, but the characters and roles get all mashed up. Which is cool. If you can accept the chaos of it all.
Campbell uses a three-act structure. You can think of it as simply as beginning, middle, and end, OR you can get a little fancier and call them departure, initiation, and return.
As you drill into each act, there are sub-parts (totaling a full 17 in Campbell’s version). I like to think of each as a tiny story where tension gets created and resolved. The recurring tension-resolution process builds “stakes” – and the whole arc leaves us at the end with a feeling of accomplishment.
If everybody is on their own version of Campbell’s schematic – just at different points in time, the arcs all turn into a bowl of spaghetti.
The accomplishment-awareness gets confusing real fast.
At the macro level, it’s still useful. The weirdness that occurs (or “the weirding” to borrow Venkatesh Rao’s word) is in the self-awareness of our collective stories being heroic. There’s even the meta-level of seeing ourselves as various roles in the stories of others (“Oh, I’m his Han Solo, but I’m her… Darth? Maybe? Neat!).
At the micro level, it’s still the most useful. Not just for studying others like focusing on a single noodle from our pot of spaghetti. It’s useful for reflection on our most personal developmental crisis. It’s a model for understanding character development after all.
We don’t have to follow the exact format as Campbell lays it out. But we become heroic when we hit the touchpoints over our lives and in various chapters of life. We become villainous, or a temptress, or a father, or… pick any other character too.
Life is not movies and fairy tales. It’s not a pot of spaghetti either. We’re heroes, just not all of the time.
At the macro level, recognize all of the roles and the weirdness of when too many people start thinking they’re in the same seat.
At the micro level, don’t lose sight of the stakes and embrace wherever you are in the journey. Campbell’s work can help move your own plotline forward.
Speaking of which, I’m currently in the market for a referral to a good wizard. Do you know one?
ps. Bill Moyers’ PBS special “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” is still the greatest Campbell overview. I found these in high school and it’s been a constant in my life ever since. Free on YouTube or find it elsewhere, everyone should see these at least once.
pss. Tom Morgan’s writing and thinking about the hero’s journey is some of my (modern) favorite in the “it provokes me to THINK” sense.