monomyth definition the hero's journey

Monomyth Definition: A Defense of The Hero’s Journey

Let me again pick up a standard that has fallen on our literary battlefield: the standard that marks the entrance of The Defender of The Common. It would seem a silly thing to need to defend common things, but in truth we have grown quite accustomed to tearing down good things simply because great things exist. Those who do such things are either ignorant or bullies. If ignorant, then the remedy is wonder. Education. If bullies, the response is to defend the common. Why? Because it is petty to make fun of a child for making a fort simply because he’s not a man who made a castle. Every mason who built the pyramids began as a boy making mud pies and the goodness of that childhood tinkering whispers a prophecy fulfilled in towers. With this spirit, I plan to defend common things and the thing I defend today is The Hero’s Journey as well as offer a monomyth definition to help us bridge the gap between theories on storytelling.

The Hero’s Journey is a way of explaining stories and myths and fables found in The Hero with 1,000 Faces, a book by Joseph Campbell. It’s a cycle he called “the monomyth.” Here’s your monomyth definition: Campbell believed that all myths told one story. Well he was right on story and wrong on myth, for the phrase “comparative religion” is an oxymoron. I’ll digress on that point only for three sentences in order to focus our monomyth definition. For one, it’s hard to imagine a college freshman’s 101 class forbidding students to write essays contrasting two subjects, but such essays have no place in the world of comparative myth. It’s as bad as if some Memoir 101 teacher forbade her pupils to write personal essay and in fact that’s exactly how absurd it is when we merely compare religions — including non-faith or anti-faith — since each lays claim to The Incomparable. So I think anyone who critiques Campbell by saying he erred on mythology — specifically where it touches philosophy and metaphysics — is right.

But to say Campbell’s books have no value for the author because they create a system and a monomyth definition is at best ignorant, is potentially misguided, and is at worst a downright refusal to face the facts. Cultures may have serious differences in their mythologies but to say that they have no similarities in the nature of story per se is to say that a nostril does one thing in Chad that it does not do in Canada. Certainly nostrils may smell maple syrup in the north and daraba in the south, but no one would say that a Chadian uses his nose to smell whereas a Canadian uses his to see. The definitions we have of what story is in modern history all come from Campbell’s recent distillation of the so-called monomyth. Our good friend and mentor Ms. Lisa Cron said at UnCon that story:

“…is about how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result. That someone needs two things: something they want really, really badly and then what I call a misbelief that usually was deeply ingrained early in life, it’s actually what’s keeping them from getting it.”

McKee in Story says:

“For better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or conscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it.”

And then there’s Dan Harmon’s one-sentence summary of The Hero’s Journey, a one-sentence monomyth definition:

“A hero is in a zone of comfort, but he wants something, so he enters an unfamiliar situation, adapts, get what he wants, pays a heavy price, and returns to comfort having changed.”

In essence, you see, they’re all saying the exact same thing Stephen King says in Danse Macabre. Story reveals a war between our Apollonian ideals and our Dionysian comforts. Stephen Pressfield would say story manifests itself in our daily life through “The War of Art,” because any time we try to do something high and noble, resistance gets in the way. We have status quo — life and our comforts — and then we have that thing we deeply desire which will change our situation if we take courage and pursue it. Generally the comfort side of things is so strong, is so habitually used to self-medicate our past traumas, that we don’t even understand our goals ourselves. Those two sides of us, our comfortable misbelief and our goal, war with one another both internally and externally. Any time we seek something high and noble, resistance rises up and gets in the way in the form of fatty foods and family drama and festering limbs and fevers and failing ecosystems and frigate skirmishes and fettishes.

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Stated formally, The Hero’s Journey simply describes how any given story works and it goes something like this:

  1. The hero in his natural environment
  2. Call to action
  3. Refusal of the call
  4. Meeting the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold (heeding the call)
  6. Trial and first failure
  7. Meeting allies and enemies
  8. Growth, new skills
  9. First success
  10. Grand trial, revelation and insight
  11. Discarding old self
  12. Accepting new role
  13. The road back
  14. Stepping up to the final challenge: success
  15. Restoring order
  16. Taking new place as master of both worlds

That’s a more complicated way of saying your protagonist is in a zone of comfort, but he wants something, so he enters an unfamiliar situation, adapts, get what he wants, pays a heavy price, and returns to comfort having changed. But it’s present as a form for the myths. It doesn’t so much explain what the myths mean as show how the myths work. Individual myths may mean different things (which is where Campbell’s own monomyth definition fails), but as a genre — the genre we now call “fiction” — myths work in one way and therefore earn the prefix “mono.” The Hero’s Journey simply contrasts the genre of narrative against that of painting or music. Again, music may sound different in different cultures but regardless of stylistic preference, no one would confuse any culture’s stories with their songs. The only time they might would be in folk songs which often include folks tales.

People often bash on Joseph Campbell because they think he’s formulaic — the balk at the very idea of a monomyth, but Campbell never hoped to invent a formula so much as show what it means to experience humanity and convey that experience to one another in tales. Monomyth defined quite literally in the sense that he brought it to its final and logical end. Other than that, there’s no cohesion in his work. In fact, if you’ve read enough of Campbell, you’ll find him hopelessly A.D.D. The man jumps from story to story without any regard of a through line other than interior change that happens as a result of a goal pursued. That’s why I find many people in the literary community agreeing with Campbell in actuality even though they bash him verbally or in their blogs. Likewise, McKee gets a bad rap for being formulaic but agrees often with tons of different people who comment on narrative. These masters of talecraft all agree far more often than they disagree and the proof is in Adaptation.

Far and above, the majority of people whom I have encountered that bash Robert McKee (and Joseph Campbell) consider themselves fans of Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation. Adaptation is this brilliant fictional film about the director and writer, Charlie Kaufman, and his imaginary brother who they try to adapt this book about ghost lilies into the film Adaptation. In the film, they encounter Robert McKee’s in a story seminar and end up following his advice… sort of… but not before making fun of the man or at least critiquing him with a heavy hand. Of course McKee becomes the Obi Wan character of the film and actually helps Kaufman along.

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What people don’t realize is that Adaptation is an adaptation of two books: the book about ghost lilies and Story by McKee — particularly the part on adaptation and the difficulties involved when we try to take the spirit of an original work and turn it into a new story. McKee points out that this gets particularly difficult when we try to turn a non-narrative work into narrative or an arch-plot story into an anit-plot or mini-plot, as is often the case with Kaufman’s work. The film is about a character, Charlie Kaufman, in a zone of comfort (as a lazy and self-indulgent writer) who wants work as a screenwriter so he enters an unfamiliar situation of adapting a book into a film, he adapts to adaptation by learning about Story, gets his work, pays a heavy price (yielding to story structures he’s allegedly “above”) and returns having changed. People use the movie as an excuse to bash McKee and The Hero’s Journey, but it’s an adaptation of all story adaptations, an adaptation of the monomyth definition per se. It’s about as meta as a metanarrative for Hollywood can get.

Oh, and by the way, Robert McKee was a story consultant for the film.

You know, the film that was anti-Mckee.

What happens is people don’t actually read the books they’re critiquing or if they’ve read them, they haven’t looked for connections and reflected upon them in recent years. This is why context matters. Readers, critics, and even authors are in zones of comfort: ignoring the connection between all of the texts by the great minds of talecraft. And yet they want to read and critique and write good stories. So every year, they enter an unfamiliar situation in which they find themselves reading books and articles on the craft in places like Writer UnBoxed and they adapt their skillset to become better authors, which means they get what they want and yet they have to give up their bias against such ideas even as Kaufman — the hero of antiplotters and miniplotters — did and does. They return to their work having employed story structure and The Hero’s Journey and the pursuit of a goal in spite of their misbelief in archplot and the reconciliation of the Apollonian and Dionysian states. The monomyth definitions is, in essence, a definition of the journey of life.

We are all on a journey of accepting the presence of The Hero’s Journey in the tales we tell ourselves. And the best way I can prove that is by returning to my habit of quoting someone wiser than me, having changed:

“Shall I be thought whimsical if I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas–home-coming, reunion with a beloved–similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so–well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted?

“If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? I am not sure, on second thoughts, that the slow fading of the magic in The Well at the World’s End is, after all, a blemish. It is an image of the truth. Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done–or very, very nearly done–in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.”

— C. S. Lewis, On Stories

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