There is a reason why Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is so prevalent in storytelling: it works. It has worked for thousands of years. It seems that use of the monomyth is unconscious in writers; we imitate it because it’s what we know. We see it in our books, in our movies, in our bible stories. In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting best seller Save the Cat, we see it on his beat sheet, broken down for writers and critics to follow. It seems unavoidable, Ingrained into our very psyche. And yet, original work still seems to exist. But is what we see really original? Or just our first experience with the incarnation?
To understand how prevalent the monomyth is in our culture and storytelling—especially in science fiction and fantasy—first we must understand what the monomyth is. The Hero With A Thousand Faces breaks down the narrative structure into three acts: the Departure, the Initiation, and Return. Within each of these acts, there are beats that the character typically hits. The three act structure is a simplified version of this, tracing the inciting incident where the characters and situation are first established, the rising action in which the protagonist tries to solve the problems faced in the first act, and the resolution in which the loose ends are tied. This is also similar to Lou Anders’s Hollywood formula. These formulas do not exist to produce identical stories, but to help maximize the “emotional torque,” the gut punch at the end of the story that leaves a lasting impression and prevents an apathetic reaction from the reader and audience.
|Would you refuse this call?|
We first have our Call to Adventure, in which the hero is called out of the mundane. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, Frodo and his three companions leave the Shire. Neryn is lifted out of her life of wandering and her relationship with her father in Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier. Rand is cast from the safety of the Two Rivers in The Eye of the World, the first book of the Wheel of Time fantasy epic by Robert Jordan. Heroes of humble beginnings are typically expected, it leaves room for a significant amount of character growth and leads into the second beat: the Refusal of the Call.
Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire or renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration. -Joseph Campbell
The reluctant hero is much more engaging than an eager one. This necessitates growth. We don’t want a perfect hero, someone who is ready to cross thresholds and accepts trials. We want someone who has to come around the idea. It raises the stakes, it deepens the impact of what the hero undertakes. If saving the world was easy, what joy would there be in experiencing it?
The next step is supernatural aid. It comes in the form of the Good Folk fixing Neryn’s shoe and discussing her destiny. Frodo’s receives help from the Elves of Rivendell and Rand’s village is aided by Aes Sidai. It is important that the hero cannot complete this journey on his or her own—if they could, it would cheapen the difficulty. Then the First Threshold is crossed, over a bridge, out of Rivendell, across the Two Rivers and into the Belly of the Whale. Neryn is captured, Rand and his companions cross into Shadar Logoth, a city plagued by unspeakable evil, Frodo and his fellowship enter the Mines of Moria. After this, the true adventure begins as our hero is pushed through a series of trials that serve as the Initiation.
The Initiation is the bulk of the novel, the second act. This is where we watch the hero grow and change as they are forged and pushed forward by forces beyond their control. The first step in the Initiation is the Road of Trials. Typically, this comes in sets of threes, and the hero is likely to fail one or more of them. It begins his transformation. For Rand, these trials begin in Shadar Logoth and end when he reaches Whitebridge. Frodo and his companions face a terrible creatures, including the Balrog, before emerging from the Mines. Neryn encounters the shape shifter who tests her. These trials are often life and death situations. It heightens the seriousness of the journey, it raises the stakes.
The Meeting with the Goddess is next. The Goddess is gives the opportunity for the hero to achieve the boon of love. Rand meets Elayne, who he is destined to be with. Frodo meets Galadriel, the tests him and assures him. Neryn sees her mother. The impact of these meetings shapes the hero and brings them further on their path, with confidence in knowing that they are loved and supported by the “goddess” figure.
|Meeting with the goddess? Check.|
We next encounter the Woman as Temptress. This brings up the problematic dichotomy with woman being both Goddess and representation of temptation. Though Campbell bases his hypothesis on years of studying mythology and spirituality worldwide and admits that temptation does not always come in the form of a woman, I dislike the assertion that woman serves a vessel to sin and straying from the hero’s path, without assigning proper culpability to the hero. This permeates sexism which is largely seen in the science fiction and fantasy genre, however that is a topic I shall save for later.
Neryn’s temptress comes in the form of her feelings for Flint and are circumvented when she learns of his powers as a mind scraper. Rand faces Queen Morgase and her Aes Sidai advisor Elaida who seeks to stop him from continuing his journey but is ultimately set free and is set free. For Frodo, temptation comes in multiple places in the novel, since he wears the Temptress around his neck. Most notably, when Borimir attempts to take the ring to use its power. Borimir does realize that he has done wrong and sacrifices himself, making his own Atonement with the Father. In the end of the trilogy, Frodo decides not to destroy the Ring and keep it for himself, but is forced into Atonement by Sam. This atonement is the initiation of the hero by an all-powerful being.
The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, and understands—and the two are atoned.-Joseph Campbell
This atonement comes in various forms. Neryn sees her grandmother. Rand meets the Green Man, who dies saving his companions. Frodo’s atonement is different. Because he succumbs to his temptation, he atones when he leaves with Gandalf across the sea. However, his companions are atoned throughout the novel and Sam is able to save him from himself and help him destroy the Ring and Gollum, who represents Frodo’s failure.
|Apotheo THIS. One more near death experience for the scapbook|
Apotheosis is the death of oneself. It can come in the form of rest and peaceful fulfillment before the hero begins the return.
The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth… the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form—all symbolizations, al divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.-Joseph Campbell
Neryn accepts that she is the Caller and used the Good Folk to save her new friends in battle. Frodo refuses the selfless offer of Sam to carry the ring, and instead Sam carries him into Mount Doom. Rand learns that he can channel and will ultimately die because of it. The final stage of the Initiation is the climax: the goal of the quest achieved. The Eye of the World is saved, the Ring is destroyed, Neryn reaches Shadowfell. It is the inevitable, the expected fulfillment of promises established in the beginning of the book. The call is answered. All that remains is the Return.
The final act, the final stage of the journey is usually much shorter than the first two stages, sometimes encompassed in a single chapter. Initially, the Hero will refuse the Return. Having reached enlightenment in the apotheosis, the ordinary world will be a lesser place. But it is the hero’s responsibility to return and offer the gift of the boon to his fellow man. We are denied the true return in Shadowfell, as it is the first book in a series, as well as in The Eye of the World. However the Lord of the Rings has a full return. Frodo’s failure to destroy the ring is part of the Refusal. The Flight that comes after, is literal, as Sam and Frodo are saved by Gandalf and the Eagles as Mount Doom collapses.
The Rescue from Without is brought as the heroes find respite, rejoicing as the four Hobbits that began the journey are reunited.
Whether rescued from without, driven from within, or gently carried along by the guiding divinities, he has yet to re-enter with his boon the long forgotten atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete.-Joseph Campbell
The Crossing of the Return Threshold is fulfilled when they cross the threshold into the Shire and find it enslaved. They must use what they have learned to rid the Shire of evil and become the Masters of Two Worlds. They then can achieve the Freedom to Live and go on to live the “happily ever after” portion of their lives.
The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending; death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved.-Joseph Campbell
Merry and Pippin are heroes, Sam marries Rosie Cotton, and Frodo, too wounded by the oppression of the Ring to live a normal life, crosses the Sea with Gandalf. He is eventually followed by Sam, the last of the Ring Bearers. And with that, the journey is over, the final page turned.
|Everything ends with shawarma.|
The monomyth is an observation drawn from years of study of myth, religion, and story by Joseph Campbell. The awareness of this formula has led me to view stories with a sometimes jaded eye, feeling cheated by the obvious steps an author takes to push their characters through trials. Ultimately, a story can still be meaningful and well told provided that the characters are fully realized.
The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is… He does not mistake apparent changelessness in time for the permeance of Being, nor is he fearful of the next moment.-Joseph Campbell
The hero must continue to change, continue to grow, and continue to learn as the story goes on, otherwise he or she is lost in the step by step expectations of the journey. The problem of originality is not in the journey, but in the people. It is inevitable in the space of reality that we live and we die, but the decisions we make in the meantime differentiate us from animals, from a subpar existence. Our written characters should be reflective of this in the decisions they make, otherwise they will fall into a space of forgettable infamy.