Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Hero's Journey

More story structure! Today, we'll be looking at the figurative bible of all stories everywhere*: The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Archetypal is the word of the day when it comes to talking about Joseph Campbell. His book examines broad swathes of mythology, finding and establishing recurring themes and common core motifs. The result, of course, is what has come to be known as the Hero's Journey.

For those who haven't ready THWATF (yeesh even the acronym is a pain to type, how about Hero from now on...), you may want to take a deep breath before you do. And maybe a course on Jungian psychology. And maybe get a few master's degrees in ancient mythology. Because to get the most out of Hero, that's the least of what you'll need. Campbell is a smart dude; he knows his stuff, and there's no dumbing-down, no condescension to the layman in Hero; the prose is just as dense as the subject matter.

But don't worry, there's hope--if a schmuck like me can glean the general meaning from Hero, you probably can, too. (And, even if you can't, there's always Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which is basically the CliffsNotes for Hero. But more on that later.)

So what are the common themes Campbell finds in the myths of the world? He narrows it down to the following cycle:

Excuse the blurriness.
Yay, another circle! Although this one goes bafflingly counter-clockwise; Dan Harmon's clockwise circle makes much more sense to me. I mean, counterclockwise, Campbell? Come on, man, you're better than that.

To be clear, Joseph Campbell's Hero isn't only for story-makers; it's more of a mythological exegesis--Campbell excavates the mythos and stories of dozens, if not hundreds, of cultures--the intent of which is to make us think about general truths of life. Campbell quotes Sigmund Freud in the preface to the 1949 edition of Hero:
The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth. [...] We have become convinced that it is better to avoid such symbolic disguisings of the truth in what we tell children and not to withhold from them a knowledge of the true state of affairs commensurate with their intellectual level. (Campbell xii)
Commenting on Freud, Campbell goes on to state that
It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religions and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. [...] My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding. (Campbell xii-xiii)
Basically, Campbell is looking for general truths that can be agreed upon by essentially anyone willing to see them. A lofty goal, if you ask me, and Campbell does a surprisingly good job of it. But Hero really is more of an examination of life in general rather than simple story structure.

The appeal to me, of course, is that the two happen to be inseparably connected. If you recall from my previous post on story structure, I quoted Dan Harmon exhorting us to
Realize that [story structure is] hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that, in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern. ("Story Structure 101")
So Hero, by aiming at general truth (with or without a capitol "T," I would say), becomes a great textbook on story structure, even if it wasn't exactly intended to be so in the first place.

That said, some adaptation is helpful, and that's where Christopher Vogler enters the picture again. His book The Writer's Journey essentially takes Campbell's work and applies it strictly to writing and telling stories. The following is my own interpretation of "the Hero's Journey," mostly straight from Campbell with one or two items from Vogler**:


1. Ordinary World - The hero begins, of course, in a world largely without conflict. Things are great; there is no need for change.

2. Call to Adventure - Suddenly: conflict! The hero finds or is given a reason to change something (whether it's him/herself or an outside circumstance).

3. Refusal of Call - But that reason may not yet be enough; the hero can be reluctant to take action because of cowardice, false duty, self-doubt, or laziness (just to name a few potential reason).

4. Supernatural Aid - Sometimes an external force, often divine or supernatural, gives the hero that final push to take action and get out the door and onto the Journey (which may be an external or internal journey, btw).

5. Crossing of Threshold - The point of no return; once the hero crosses this line, s/he is committed, and there's no going back to the ordinary world as it was.


6. The Road of Trials - The "training montage;" the hero goes through a series of trials, meetings, and conflicts that forge him/her into what s/he needs to be to triumph.

7. Meeting with Goddess - An encounter with another being or idea (often a woman, and often romantic in nature, but not necessarily either of those things) where the hero finds that last essential phlebotinum needed to finish the journey. Campbell says that "the meeting with the goddess [...] is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity" (Campbell 99). It's heavy stuff, guys. This is where stuffs get real.

8. Atonement with Father - "The father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world" (115). Don't be fooled, though--the "father" (often but not necessarily a specific male being) isn't always sympathetic to the hero or his cause; this atonement can be a climactic battle, a fight scene, an argument, or even a monolog that helps the hero realize the final call to adventure, as it were, or what needs to happen to achieve what s/he has been working towards all along. "The hero transcends life [...] and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands--and the two are atoned" (125).***

9. Apotheosis - Exactly what the term means: the hero becomes, for all intents and purposes, divine in his/her ability to perceive, interpret, and shape the world.

10. Ultimate Boon - Sometimes, even more phlebotinum is needed to finish the Journey. The Hero receives/finds that here.


11. Refusal of Return - Sometimes, (like the refusal of the call--see any parallels, here) being deified and all, the hero doesn't want to return to the ordinary world. S/he needs an extra impetus.

12. Magic Flight/13. Rescue from Without - Again with the parallelism: If the hero has no desire or power to return on his/her own world, external forces often step in.

14. Crossing of Return Threshold - The hero returns to the ordinary world, although that world is no longer ordinary given the hero's new and improved presence.

15. Master of Two Worlds/16. Freedom to Live - The hero becomes the ultimate mover and shaker of the world: the romantic interest and the hero get together, the war is won, the goal accomplished, and people around the hero contribute to such changes simply because the hero has the magnetism to draw people to his/her cause.

So that's the short of it (for more, seriously, go read the book). Campbell's hero journey is certainly more complicated and detailed than Dan Harmon's, but I still feel the general implications of each step are broad enough to allow for interpretation; again, just like Harmon's formula, the idea behind the hero's journey isn't "follow these principles to make your story," but rather "if you have a story worth anything, it'll follow these principles." Which, now that I write it out, sounds completely like a chicken-and-egg scenario. But still, that's how I see it.

Also, you'll notice there's a general three-act structure to Campbell's theory: Departure being Act I, Initiation (meaning something closer to the ritualistic definition of the term rather than the "commencement" version) is Act II, and Return being Act III. I'll talk more about this in a later post, but it's important.

Either way, Harmon's structure is clearly established upon Cambell's theory. Just read this article and see how often he refers to Campbell directly, or at least uses Campbellian terminology. Essentially,

Ordinary World = YOU
Call to Adventure = NEED
Crossing the Threshold = GO
The Road of Trials = SEARCH
Meeting with Goddess = FIND
Atonement with Father = TAKE
Crossing of Return Threshold = RETURN
Master of Two Worlds = CHANGE

Other parts of the Campbellian process fit into Harmon's structure (which I believe I'll elaborate upon later), but that's the basic 1-for-1 conversion.

Anyway, that's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in a nutshell. I will say one thing, though: Campbell's theory isn't perfect, as exhaustive as it is. My chief concern with Hero is the lack of a female perspective as the hero--and some sections, "Woman as Temptress" in particular--feel downright misogynistic (whether that's because Campbell himself felt that way or because 99% of the cultures he studied were patriarchal at best, misogynistic at worst, or both, is unclear)****. But that gets me into the Virgin's Promise...which I'll talk about next time!

* Hero can be just as controversial and just as widely interpreted as the Bible itself, so the informal title is vaguely appropriate.

** The first item, "Ordinary World," is the only strictly Vogelian term. All the rest are Campbell's; although I left out two other sections in Campbell's order that I found redundant or unnecessary: "Belly of the Whale" and "Woman as Temptress," in that order (to find out what those sections discuss, go read the book!).

*** You'll notice I'm particularly interested in what happens in the "Meeting with Goddess" and "Atonement with Father" sections. What happens there and how the hero changes fascinates me, and may become the subject of a future blog post in and of itself.

**** I've tried to keep my explanation of things gender-neutral, although Campbell makes no such attempt (give him a break, though, it was like 70 years ago...).

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