Monday, December 04, 2006

Monday Monomyth: The Basics (Part 1)

You might have noticed that there was no Friday with Freakazoid! last week. This was intentional, after the fact. I've decided that, since December is a month dedicated to celebrations of various sun (and son) gods, and since many of those gods conform to the Monomythic Hero Cycle (and related Hero models), and since I already get a bunch of hits for Monomyths despite never really discussing it, it seemed a good time to implement a new weekly feature.

Also, what with the dearth of Freakazoid videos on YouTube, I may just prolong the life of my only other regular feature.

So, to start things off, I'm going to briefly (yeah, right) run down the characteristics Joseph Campbell's Monomyth, Lord Raglan's Hero, and the literary Christ Figure, all of which will be considered throughout the rest of the month. Today we'll be covering the Campbell contribution, and I'll hit the other two a little later in the week.

The Monomyth
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."--Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 30.
That's it folks, it's as simple as that. Onto the next thing.

Dude, Man-E-Faces has nothing on this guy.What, that's not simple? Okay, fine. The Monomyth consists primarily of the Hero Cycle, a plot that recurs in mythology and fiction all over the world. A hero begins in his homeland, where all is at peace, except perhaps the Hero, who may feel ostracized, outcast, or different. This is usually because the Hero was born under special circumstances, or has had a significant childhood. The Hero then experiences a Call to Adventure, which may be an event or may be a literal calling, and often the Hero will initially Refuse this call, entering the Reluctant Hero stage. Eventually the Hero accepts the Call to Adventure, because otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. The Hero receives some sort of aid, often a weapon or device, usually supernatural, usually presented to the Hero by a mentor. Having received this boon, the Hero crosses the First Threshold into the land of the unknown, the land of darkness, usually vanquishing a Threshold Guardian in order to pass. The threshold might be literal or more figurative, and the guardian may become an ally to the Hero after he passes this test. Following this, the Hero descends deeper into the land of darkness, facing various tests in the portion of the cycle which Campbell called "The Belly of the Whale." These tests often take place underground or in the underworld, but always occur in the land of the unknown, the land alien to the Hero. Despite the odds and various doubts, the Hero passes these trials, moving the plot onward. As the Hero faces these seemingly impossible tests, they are accompanied by helpful allies, though among those allies may be an untrustworthy 'shapeshifter' who actually seeks to hinder the hero's progress. The Hero faces temptation on this journey, often in the form of a lover, and the Hero must choose between this pleasure and the completion of the journey.
This leads ultimately to the Ordeal, where the Hero faces a Nemesis (dark mirror image of the self) or encounters some other major event (often a battle) which causes a change in the Hero's character. This change may be an epiphany, it may be an expansion of consciousness, or it may be a literal physical death and rebirth. It is this event that leads eventually to the Hero's apotheosis. Following the major Ordeal, the Hero receives some reward, possibly in the form of greater wisdom or enlightenment. This reward is often called the Elixir, and may be key to the Hero's return home. Of course, there's always the chance that the Hero doesn't want to return, in which case there is a Refusal similar to the Refusal of the Call. Eventually, the Hero decides that home is the place to be. This proceeds to the Flight, where the Hero ascends out of the darkness of the unknown world, usually at a fairly quick pace. During the Flight, the Hero might face more trials, or the same trials faced during the descent, but will overcome them with the knowledge gained from the previous ordeals. This culminates in the crossing of the Second Threshold, where the Hero defeats the final Guardian, achieving mastery over the world of darkness. The Hero is reborn into the familiar world of light, forever changed (sometimes having literally become a god), and bringing the Elixir or enlightenment from the world of darkness which improves life for the Hero at home. This act proves that the Hero has achieved mastery of both worlds, the world of common day and the world of supernatural wonder, and can thus be at peace.

There are a few other points that Campbell included, some of which have been reinterpreted in recent years (for instance, when he came up with "Woman as Temptress," his sexist Catholicism was showing--many now just go with "Temptation"), others which are more or less subcategories. Following the trials, the Hero may meet the Mother Goddess, who offers love and/or some greater boon or purpose. During the trials the Hero may meet with their father, and must come to reconciliation with him. At some point, the Hero will often dress as one of the enemies. But these aren't quite as important to the cycle as the other points.

That's a lot to take in, I know. So, I'll put it into more familiar terms.Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, or he would have if he weren't on fire when I took it.
Luke Skywalker lives on peaceful Tatooine (land of common day), but wishes for something more. Little does he know that he is the son of a Queen and the Dark Lord of the Sith (Special Birth). He ends up with a couple of old droids, one of whom contains a holographic distress message (Call to Adventure). R2-D2 runs off, and Luke chases after him with C-3P0 in tow, eventually catching up with the Astromech droid in the desert. He plans to go back home, so Uncle Owen doesn't get too mad (Refusal of the Call). He encounters Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi, who gives him his father's lightsaber (Supernatural Aid) and tells him the truth (sort of) about his father's life, and about the Force. There's some more call-refusing ("Look, I can take you as far as Anchorhead. You can get a transport there to Mos Eisley or wherever you're going.") as Luke whines his way through the Reluctant Hero phase, but eventually (thanks to the slaughter of his Aunt and Uncle) Luke accepts the Call. The group cautiously approaches Mos Eisley Spaceport, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, where Obi-Wan fends off Ponda Baba (Crossing of the First Threshold), and they meet the smuggler Han Solo (Ally/Shapeshifter), who shot first. Luke and the crew head off into space (The Belly of the Whale) where they face various trials (Imperial Star Destroyers, Luke's Force training, "that's no moon, that's a space station!"). They head into the Death Star, rescue Princess Leia (Meeting with the Goddess), while dressed as Stormtroopers (Wearing the Enemy's Skin), and ultimately encounter Darth Vader (The Ordeal). Obi-Wan dies, leaving Luke feeling alone and giving him new resolve to beat the Empire. They retreat with the Princess and the Death Star plans in their possession (Flight with the Elixir), and make their way to the Rebel Base. Eventually, they head out to take down the Death Star. Using the knowledge he gained through his trials, specifically of the Force, and with some help from his allies, Darth Vader is defeated (Crossing of the Second Threshold), and thanks to the Death Star plans, Luke is able to destroy the Death Star (Return with the Elixir), and returns home (not his literal home, but the "home" of being on-planet again) to the world of the familiar, having achieved Mastery of Both Worlds. He is happy now, no longer feeling the pull of adventure as he did before these events unfolded, he has achieved enlightenment and is at peace.

It all fits so well...why, you'd think George Lucas wrote Star Wars with Campbell in mind specifically.

Oh, wait. He did. Nevermind.

Coming tomorrow: Lord Raglan and some other Lord!

10 comments :

Matthew E said...

I'm looking forward to the Lord Raglan discussion. I went to great lengths to hunt down a copy of Raglan's book The Hero after reading it from a university library. I think he's definitely on to something with his ideas about rituals, even though some of his arguments are pretty weak.

Campbell I'm much less enthusiastic about. The monomyth seems like too much of a general case to be interesting: 'the hero goes somewhere cool, does something cool, and comes back with more experience points'. Any scheme that pretends to apply equally to Jesus and Hercules... They're different kinds of figures, and you can only fit them into the same model if you're willing to miss the point of both of them in the first place.

I expect to have another comment in me about all this, but there's a book at home I want to look at first.

Jason said...

C3-PO lives aboard a diplomatic vessel (Land of the common day). Little does he know, he's the tinker toy project of a Dark Lord of the Sith (Special Birth). He ends up in a fire fight as the Imperials attack (Call to Adventure), where the only escape is a pod he refuses to enter (Refusal of the Call). However, he has a lucky friend R2-D2 (Supernatural Aid), and a stray laser blast makes his decision for him (Crossing of the First Threshold). They land on a desert planet, and go their separate ways. C3-PO encounters the Jawas (Ally/Shapeshifter), and is placed in their massive vehicle (Belly of the Whale). They end up in the home of Luke Skywalker, where R2-D2 reveals a message (Meeting with the Goddess). After a number of minor inconveniances, they end up on the Death Star, where C3-PO must pretend to be an Imperial Droid (Wearing the Enemy's Skin), suffers through his friend's apparent death (The Ordeal), but eventual escape aboard the Millenium Falcon (Flight with the Elixir). Sadly, his friend R2-D2 is killed in the fight at the Death Star (Crossing the Second Threshold), but is able to be repaired (Return with the Elixir) and all ends happily.

SallyP said...

Tom, you put an incredible amount of work into your essays. Thanks.

Tom Foss said...

Jason: It's a stretch, but I like it. That's one of the neat things about Lord of the Rings: nearly every major character goes through a hero cycle.

Matthew E: despite being used to different purposes, the similarities between the figures are striking. Just running down Raglan's list, both were born of a virgin, both had a father of royal lineage, both were truly the children of gods, both were conceived through supernatural means, both had attempts made on their lives early on, both traveled to their future kingdoms upon reaching manhood, both are declared rulers, both faced mysterious death at the top of a hill and were not succeeded by heirs, neither body was found, but both were worshipped in temples.

Incidentally, Jesus scores higher than Heracles on the Raglan scale.

But both were god-men descended from the primary god of their respective religions. The primary difference is that Heracles was a warrior, while Jesus was only expected to be one.

It's true that you can broadly interpret the Monomyth to fit most characters, but that's the thing in literature...you really don't get to have hard, fast, rigid definitions for anything. Even relatively clear like "fiction" and "nonfiction" are blurred at the edges (just take a look at arguments over Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Pieces if you don't believe me). You can broadly interpret anything in literature to be utterly meaningless. If you say "a superhero is someone who may or may not have powers and may or may not wear a costume and may or may not have a secret identity, who helps people," then suddenly just about everyone is a superhero. There are more conventions than what are obvious, and I think when you really start considering the important points of the two-world model, the discomfort - unknown - enlightenment - mastery - peace cycle, then you come to something that's a lot less general.

Plus, I think part of the generality comes from how ingrained into humanity this story is. And I think that it's a lot of the reason for why Christ's story is told as it is, but that's a discussion for another day and perhaps another blog.

Tom Foss said...

sallyp: I did a big project on heroes a year and a half ago, so most of this comes naturally. The work has been holding it back for so long :).

Incidentally, I had mixed feelings about the fact that I had to go to a Star Wars script site so I could make sure I had all the story beats right. It's been so long since I've seen the movies or GMed the RPG that my encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars has waned. I feel far less geeky because of it, and I'm not sure whether that makes me happy or sad.

Derek said...

This is fun and educational.

Ooo! Ooo! Do Robin Hood next!

plok said...

This is exactly the sort of discussion I like, Tom! Comparing these mythological comparison-strategies always struck me as a pretty rich vein, and I can't wait to see it get mined, here!

And Jason...brilliant!

Jon H said...

The late, lamented highbrow Chicago public radio call-in show, Odyssey, did a great show in 2002.

Note the description of guest "Glenn Mendler".

The Risks of Reinterpreting Art


Glenn Mendler – Joseph Campbell chair of Mythology at Lucas College, and author of Chewbacca's Purse: Androgyny and Sexual Dissonance in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Michael Barrett – editor of the Cambridge Review of Literature, Massachusetts' oldest bound periodical

Diane Peabody-Lopez – Art Historian at the University of Lawsonomy, and author of Lizards and Lute Players: Carravaggio Revisisted


It wasn't until 2/3 of the way through the show that I figured out it was an April Fool show. I think it was the only one they ever did.

What clued me in was when a guest of the show suggested that Picasso's Guernica was not actually about the terror of the destruction of the town by Nazi planes, but rather about the poor dental health of the Guernicans. (All those people with their mouths open aren't screaming, they're showing their bad teeth.)

Worth listening to. The link is to the real audio stream. There is also an Odyssey show where the guests included Eisner and Gaiman, who were in town for a humanities festival.

I seriously miss the show. If I had the time I'd index and record all the episodes.

Beth said...

(This should probably be an email but I couldn't find an address for you, so feel free to delete this ASAP of course....)

Your post has been so useful! I haven't thought about most of this since college, and I found myself watching a Bollywood monomyth film this weekend and realized I needed to revisit the ideas pronto. Would you mind if I linked to you when I blog about the film?

cheers
http://bethlovesbollywood.blogspot.com
(also in Illinois!)

ladylazarus1027 said...

Alcmene, the mother of Heracles, was no virgin.