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Campbell was not the first person to think that if you read lots of different stories, you'd find that some of them had things in common. We've seen that that James Frazer and his fans thought that all stories came out as "we plant the seed, nature grows the seed, we harvest the seed" and Freud thought that all stories came down to "there once lived a man named Oedipus Rex who loved his mother". Other examples could be tracked down. Vladimir Propp proved to his own satisfaction that all Russian folktales (and presumably all folktales) could be expressed as a (rather complicated) set of equations and formulae. Lord Raglan noted that nearly all mythic heroes have a disconcerting tendency to be
a: the children of gods or other superheroes
c: survivors of a massacre
d: raised by common folk in ignorance of their true nature
e: obliged to fight the person who killed their parents
f: given a special weapon, connected with their parents in some way
g: a dab-hand at Quidditch. (I made that one up, as the fellow said.)
But Campbell and his followers are not content with the observation that stories which conform to "the monomyth" occur in many different cultures. They think that this really, really matters, because Mythology is telling us something that we really, really need to hear.
Vogler says of hero myths:
"They deal with the child-like but universal questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go when I die? What is good and what is evil? What must I do about it? What will tomorrow be like? Where did yesterday go? Is there anybody else out there?"
I am not quite certain whether Vogler thinks that there is a special category of things called Hero Myths which will answer all these deep questions, or whether he thinks that this is true of stories in general (including comic strips and dirty jokes).
Campbell says that his purpose in writing Hero With a Thousand faces is to "uncover some of the truth disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology". He goes on:
The old teachers knew what they were saying. Once we have learned to read again their symbolic language it require no more than the talent of an anthologist to let their teaching be heard. But first we must learn the grammar of the symbols, and as a key to this mystery I know of no better tool than psychoanalysis.
For Campbell, it seems that hero-myths are really about – wait for it – Life. They are, in particular, about Growing Up and learning what it is to be a Man or, if you absolutely insist, a Woman. In Hero With a Thousand Faces, this is conceived of in classically Freudian terms.
One of the things which might occur during the heroic round is "Atonement with the Father." (Atonement with ther father: not "atonement with you father" or even "reconciliation with your father". Onement was the ordinary Middle English word for "unity" [BLUFF] but the word is now only used in a religious context: to refer to the Crucifixion of Jesus, or Yon Kippur.) Campbell begins his discussion with a lot of blood-curdling quotes from Christian preachers about how God is really very cross indeed and is going to make you sit on the naughty step for eternity if you don't come down and play nicely. He notes that, in most mythologies, there is some magic way of escaping from the wrath of the angry god (or God) whether we're talking the Blood of Christ or Sir Gawain's magic girdle of invulnerability.
For the ogre aspect of the father is a reflex of the victim's own ego – derived from the sensational nursery scene that has been lift behind, but projected before; and the fixating idolatry of that pedagogical non-thing is itself the fault that keeps one steeped in a sense of sin, sealing the potentially adult spirit from a better, balance more realistic view of the father, and therewith the world.
For Campbell, the idea that God is going to send us to Hell (or that the Green Knight is going to chop our head off) "really means" that we remember what it was like to be scared of Daddy. "Sinners will be sent to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth" means "We remember how horrid it was when Daddy gave us a smack on the bottom" or "We remember how desolate we felt when Daddy seemed to come between us and Mummy."
When you are a Baby, nothing exists but Mummy, and in particular, Mummy's breast. Ergo, the Garden of Eden and the Old Republic both "really mean "your memory of what it was like to be a baby, which was the only time in your life when your were perfectly content." This is why "Mummy" and "The Universe" are pretty much interchangeable in mythology: because we remember a time when there was nothing but Mummy. It's also why Paradises (and, indeed, Universes) often contain sucky things that provide endless, magical sources of nourishment. The Holy Grail and the Tree of Life are both equally symbols of Mummy's nipple.
The symbolism appears to work in the other direction as well: breast-feeding represents the mystery of the Holy Grail. I wish I had been in a punk band so I could have called it Pedagogical Non-Thing.
But then, of course, you also have memories of resenting and hating Mummy, because there were times when she wasn't feeding you; indeed, there were times when you lay in your cot and yelled but she didn't come and you hated her for not coming, until she came, and you loved her again. So you probably have an image of a Nasty Mummy in your head alongside your image of Nice Mummy, which is why mythologies are so full Wicked Stepmothers and Fairy Godmothers; of Virgins and Magdalenes, Eves and Liliths. And the only way for you to get back to Mummy, once she has stopped suckling you and gone off with Daddy is for you to become Daddy. And the only way you can become Daddy is by growing up. So life is all about leaving paradise (Mummy's booby) and turning from a child (who can't marry Mummy) into a man (who can). Of course you don't really marry Mummy: but a pretty lady who represents your Mummy; and you don't really become your own Daddy but someone else's Daddy, so the whole ghastly business can start again. Get out as quickly as you can, and don't have any kids yourself.
This hyper-Freudian bullshit is really is, it seems to me, what Campbell thinks lies behind all mythologies. Jesus dying on the Cross; Gawain surviving his encounter with the Green Knight; and Luke Skywalker taking off Darth Vader's mask all "really mean" "You can let go of those scary picture of Dad that you've been carrying around since you were baby. And until you've done that, you can't stop being a child and become a Daddy yourself."
This is why "the traditional idea of initiation combines an introduction of the candidate into the techniques, duties and prerogatives of his vocation with a radical adjustment of his emotional relationship to the parental images" : to be properly grown up, it isn't enough to know what's expected of you as a soldier, hunter or chartered accountant: you also have to cut the apron strings and stop thinking of yourself as Mummy's little boy. Campbell gives many blood-curdling examples of traditional "initiations", and gives Freudian explanations of the symbolism of the "cutting the apron strings" bit. Young native Australians had to play a a terrifying role-playing game in which the adult men pretended to be the "great father snake" who eats little boys and the adult women pretend to fight the snake and cry because their sons were going to be eaten. In the end the snake monster is satisfied with just eating the boy's foreskin: the ceremony ends with the boy really being circumcised. "The culminating instruction of the long series of rites is the release of the boys own hero-penis from the protections of its foreskin, through the frightening and painful attack upon it of the circumciser." Campbell thinks that the reason that these ceremonies are "mysteries" is that the child mustn't know what is going to happen: he really does believe he's going to be eaten by a snake, and that artificial trauma effects his personality and makes a man of him. No, I don't know at what point the "penis" turned into the hero of the story, rather than just metaphor for the sword that the hero was carrying, either.
It is not surprising that, given his essentialist view of symbolism, Campbell has an essentialist view of human nature. If cups and spears and shadows have one, and only one, correct and true meaning regardless of which mythology you find them in, so there is one, and only one, correct and true role which sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and old people ought to play, regardless of which culture they live in. The idea that there should be a rite of passage which sharply distinguishes childhood from adolescence – a moment where the childish part of you is literally (i.e metaphorically) put to death – is not, for Campbell, something which works in particular contexts for particular cultures, but a universally correct way of doing thinks in any culture. Horrid modern society has gone wrong because we've stopped making slits in boys willies and biting their foreskins off. We've gone wrong because we no longer think that boys are boys and girls are girls and Daddies hunt the tricerotops while Mummies stay home and weave the baskets. In the course of Mythos (the TV show) Campbell explicitly bemoans the fact that there are fewer and fewer all male clubs nowadays. I suppose there's no reason why you can't be a visionary and an old fogey at the same time.
The idea that modern males have infantilized themselves – that men in their thirties and forties still watch Doctor Who, listen to rock and roll (as I believe the young people call it) and generally fail to take proper responsibility for their lives – is one that even people with little or no interest in the genitalia of Aborigines would be prepared to contemplate. The idea that it is natural for the child-bearers to be the primary child-rearers -- that there comes a time when you should stop playing football and start winning bread; that families need fathers – is not self-evidently false. But how many of the script writers and games designers who sit and worship at the feet of Vogler believe that this rather reactionary message is what All Stories In the World are telling them?
There is something to be said for the the idea that the happy society is the one where the you have a role, regardless of what stage your life your are at. Maybe we could usefully treat the Hero story as a template for the good life. When you are old, you are not a has-been -- you are more like the hero who has finished his quest, learned The Thing, and must now share it with his Tribe. You've had your turn at playing Luke Skywalker and can now have a go being Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But let's suppose that this is right: let's suppose that modern man (and, if you insist, Woman) has been, and I use the term in its technical sense, fucked up because he hasn't had an initiation rite, hasn't left is childhood behind, is still yearning after Mummy's breast and is still terrified that Daddy will spank his bottom and chop off his willy. And let's suppose that this is what all hero myths (or if you follow Vogler, all stories of any kind) are telling us. What follows from this? What should we do about it?
Campbell's laughs at the idea that we could return to our old primitive religions; and is just plain irritated with anyone who thinks that they can carry on being a Jew or a Catholic in the modern world. (There is a rather distasteful scene in Mythos where he mocks a Christian member of the audience on the grounds that if the story of the Ascension is true and Jesus is limited to the speed of light then far from being in Heaven, He hasn't even reached the edge of the galaxy yet: a non sequitur of Dawkinsian proportions.) He doesn't seem to be advocating the invention of new religions with new ceremonies or even that the return of national service and corporal punishment would make men out these boys pretty damn quick. He seems to think that what Freudian psychoanalysis does is allow you to re-learn the roles that you should have been taught when you were growing up – learning how to be separate from Mummy, learning that you don't need to afraid of Daddy, learning that you are now a Man (or, if you insist, Woman) and can leave your parents behind.
At some points, he seems to be saying that Hero Myths are simply rather oblique and complicated ways of advising you to book a session with your local Freudian counselling practice. Reading Gilgamesh enables us to understand that we are not properly grown up, and that we need to spend a little time on the couch free associating and talking about our dreams. At other times, he seems to be saying that because these stories describe, in symbolic terms, the Journey from Childhood to Adulthood merely reading them will recapitulate the life stages that you would have gone through if you'd been a happy aborigine. You don't need prayer, meditation or psychoanalysis to heal your life. A sufficiently intense reading of Moby Dick will do the trick.
One can see why professional screen writers would be attracted to a theory that seems to say that some stories (or, if we go with Vogler, all stories) have an intrinsic, magical, life-saving power. But the end result is a massive paradox. My culture doesn't practice Bar Mitzvah, and I'm stuck as a kiddult. But the solution, it appears, is to go and watch Star Wars one more time.
"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.