Saturday, September 11, 2010

10: The Road Back

"The hero sets out on a journey. Stuff happens to him on the way. Then he comes home again." It wouldn't be very surprising if nearly every story on earth fitted into that pattern. The real challenge would be to come up with one that didn't.

Sam Gamgee spotted that it's a no-brainer that all stories begin with heroes setting out, because the people who stay at home don't get stories written about them. Dr Watson made a similar point: Sherlock Holmes always solves the case because the cases he couldn't solve don't get written up as case histories.

So, is anything not a monomyth?

Campbell's monomyth ends with the hero returning home and bringing something back with him. This "boon" is an object – the Holy Grail, the Golden Goose, the plans of the Death Star – but it represents something which has happened inside the Hero. He has been changed by his adventure. Travel broadens the mind. It follows, then, that any story in which the hero, after many struggles, reaches a destination and stays there is not a monomyth. This is not necessarily a problem for Campbell whose claim is that examples of the monomyth can be found in many cultures. But it is is huge problem for Vogler, who thinks that monomyths are the only show in town.

The Pilgrim's Progress comes instantly to mind. You can't have anything much less cyclical than a one-way journey from Earth to Heaven. And Pilgrim's Progress is a central text among, in particular, American protestant Christians, who are highly committed to a myth in which the Pilgrim Fathers left their corrupt, European homeland and travelled, through many dangers, to the New World, where they created a utopian society, albeit one with rather more talking-wires than the original inhabitants found to their taste. Some of their descendants told cowboy stories, in which the hero, or indeed, Hero, is engaged in an obstinately linear journey to the West. He comes into town, fixes everybody's troubles, and rides off into the sunset. No monomyth in sight.

If Vogler is right, then Pilgrim's Progress would be better – more magical, more universal, more psychologically true – if Christian had, after a brief stopover in the Heavenly City, retraced his steps and brought the good news back to Christiana. Similar, the legend of the Pilgrim Fathers would be more inspirational if it ended with them taking a cargo of turkeys and cranberries back to Old England. And, of course, the story which inspired both Bunyan and the Pilgrim Fathers would have been hugely improved if, after crossing the Jordan, the Chosen People had returned to Egypt with an infinite supply of milk and honey.

You could, I suppose, say that all these stories are really cyclical: that straight lines are symbols for circles, though not, presumably, vice versa. Staying in America is a metaphor for going back to England. Or you could say that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, but only because Joseph had taken them there in the first place: the Exodus is the "going home" bit of a monomyth with Israel as its hero. Or else the whole Bible is a gurt big monomyth about how Adam left the garden with an apple in his hand until one greater man restored him and regained the blissful seat. In any long story, you can find instances of people leaving places and going back again. But one wonders if Campbell's antipathy to the Jewish God is related to the lack of cyclical stories in the Old Testament?

When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences -- was dangerously "phallocentric". But one does take the point that boys' stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls' stories like Middlemarch really don't. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.

And so we come back to that damn movie. Luke Skywalker certainly sets out from his homestead; certainly has a fight with a Sandperson, certainly meets an old man who certainly gives him a weapon. He certainly rescues Princess Leia from death row on the Death Star and you could say without sounding too silly that that had something to do with death – the nadir of the mythological round. (Threepio thinks that Luke has been crushed to death in the garbage crusher, and we could even say that the the thing with the eyestalk which almost eats him is sorta kinda like Jonah and the whale.) But although he wins all sorts of "boons" – a girlfriend, secret plans, knowledge of the Force – he doesn't return home with them. It's very much a one way journey from Tatooine to Yavin, from hopeless, whining teenaged Luke to grown-up hero Luke in his soldier suit. Would Star Wars have been greatly improved if the movie had ended with his triumphant return to Tatooine? Is Return of the Jedi a better movie because it includes a clear cyclical movement, from the Forest Moon, to the Death Star, and back to the Forest Moon having Atoned With the Father? (You might think that Return of the Jedi is, in fact, a better movie, but is that why?)

Here is Campbell describing the beginning of the hero's journey:

"Having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forces, where he must survive a succession of trials."

Now, it's a no-brainer that once the hero has set off on his adventures, Stuff is going to happen to him, and that in an heroic story, that Stuff is going to involve physical trials. But "dream landscape"? "Fluid"? "Ambiguous"? Are we to say that Star Wars is definitely not Campbellian because the trials which Luke undergoes are, let me see, a fight with some desert dwelling savages, an encounter with the local police, a brawl in a bar, an attack by some enemy space craft....all very concrete and unambigious. Or do we have to say that the Cantina scene would have been better if it had been more like that bit in Empire Strikes Back where Luke encounters an hallucinatory Darth Vader in Yoda's Cave? Sir Gawain's journey from Camelot to the Green Chapel takes him through landscape which is described in geographically specific terms, and his main trial is a comedy-of-manners in a castle built in an architectural style that people who know about these things can identify. Moby Dick is full of factual, concrete, un-ambigious data about fishing. Do we have to say that none of these are monomyths (and therefore, none of them speak to us with universal message type thingies) because the landscape the hero moves through isn't fluid, ambiguous or dreamlike?

I don't think that Campbell's structure, and even Vogler's, is devoid of value. A story in which a character is born with great personal talents and aptitudes and very willingly goes out to confront an enemy with weapons he already owns is, I concur, less appealing than one in which a character with few talents reluctantly sets out to confront an enemy, and is given a special weapon along the way. It is artistically satisfying for Luke Skywalker to get his lightsaber after he has had the fight with the Sandperson; it would have been vulgar if someone had thrust it into his hand when he first set out into the desert. But only if we claim that "up" is sometimes a symbol of "down" can we make every satisfying narrative fit into Campbell's structure.

But I submit that the people who see in Hero With a Thousand Faces the Secret Key To All Stories are responding (as I did) to the title and the diagram. And maybe not even to the actual diagram in the actual book but to the idea that such a diagram exists. And I submit that many of those who use the diagram, or the idea of the diagram, as an amulet which guarantees that Writers are most important people in the world would be rather shocked if they knew what Campbell thinks the Diagram really, really means.

continues


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10 comments:

culfy said...

"Dr Watson made a similar point: Sherlock Holmes always solves the case because the cases he couldn't solve don't get written up as case histories."

Er The Five Orange Pips
The Yellow Face

other than that, great series - keep going.

James Kabala said...

Cuffy: I think those were explicitly depicted as "the exception that proves the rule." In fact, isn't one of them (too lazy to look it up) the one where Dr. Watson makes the statement to which Mr. Rilstone refers?

Alexi said...

I love this series. Whenever I hear sweeping generalizations about very different stories ("The Isis, Cleopatra, and the Virgin Mary stories are all really versions of the same yada yada Universal Female yada yada") I want to make points like yours, but find them hard to articulate.

P.S. There's a small typo at the bottom of the seventh paragraph. I think you meant "search in vain" not "search in vein."

Andrew Stevens said...

Scandal in Bohemia as well. The client was satisfied in the end, but Holmes failed in his objective.

In fact, "Scandal" is the story which made Holmes a big star, though probably more because it was the first story printed in the Strand than due to his failure in the case.

dagonet said...

"Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good)."

...is an unfortunate example of how some feminists glorify powerlessness.
That Alan moore writes "esentially female" stories based on this idea does not help matters.

Phil Masters said...

Pinching something from John Clute - isn't having the story cycle back to the beginning, describing an unchanging state of being, a characteristic of "pure" comedy? (Though not unique to pure comedy, obviously.) Tragedies end with people dying; histories show dynasties changing and wars being won and lost; farces end in a collapse into chaos; romances end in weddings; but Blandings Castle sits in an eternal golden sunlight, unchanging.

(Clute's point, made some years back, was about the Discworld series, which he described as evolving into a comedy which refuses the deadly changes of history. Since then, mind, the Discworld books have been increasingly about history. Change can't be refused forever.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sound a bit like Northrop Frye.

Phil Masters said...

Quite possibly, and Clute may well have attributed it if so. I'd have to dig through ten or twenty years of Interzone to check.

Porlock Junior said...

"The Pilgrim's Progress comes instantly to mind. You can't have anything much less cyclical than a one-way journey from Earth to Heaven."

So C. S. Lewis was a fan of Campbell and Vogler, and that's why he wrote that other version in which Pilgrim comes home again?

Stephen said...

""The hero sets out on a journey. Stuff happens to him on the way. Then he comes home again." It wouldn't be very surprising if nearly every story on earth fitted into that pattern. The real challenge would be to come up with one that didn't."

Waiting for Godot?