The Myth of Monomyth

“The Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” is, in my understanding, Joseph Campbell’s formulation of the fundamental archetypal dramatic structure. You’ve got a protagonist who is trying to accomplish something, and he/she must face challenges, take risks and grow, gaining maturity and wisdom in the process.

This concept was used to explain the success of Star Wars in the 70s, and it has basically been the guiding principle of mainstream cinema ever since – partly because it works. It’s emotionally satisfying to see “The Hero’s Journey” executed effectively, and there are a number of examples of great (and successful movies) that use it tremendously well… the original Die Hard, the Matrix, anything by James Cameron, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to name a few relatively recent examples.

As you may have noticed, it’s virtually the only kind of movie getting made anymore – especially for teens, tweens and kids – and, following the steps does not necessarily lead to a good, or even watchable film. So this article poses the provocative question: is it possible to exaust the Monomyth? Which has been the basis for western storytelling since forever? Can a generation or two of screenwriters ruin something that’s taken millenia to perfect?

I think it’s an interesting question, and it points to something that perhaps hasn’t been clearly articulated in all these years since Star Wars – or at least, I haven’t heard it:

The Monomyth is intended to be an OUTWARD manifestation of an INNER process – the outer journey is a metaphor for the inner process – it doesn’t cause the inner process, except in a metaphorical presentation. In the movies it’s a series of events that lead to personal growth. The movies are by their nature very literal – a battle with an ogre is a battle with an ogre. There’s no place for the metaphorical ogre – movies don’t know what to do with metaphor except manifest it, show it on the screen. “Show, don’t tell” is the film school maxim. Movies have never really figured out how to present a metaphor – except by actually staging the metaphor. And now that the makers of big movies can create anything they need with CGI, they can actually literalize anything, which is a disaster for the human grasp of metaphor – we no longer have any inner sense of what is symbolized by superheroes, magic and monsters.

The reason Jaws was so successful, any film student will tell you, is that the monster shark actually sucked. It looked terrible. Every second that it was a literal shark onscreen it got less scary. So it was forced to remain in the realm of metaphor for most of the movie, which… worked. Most of the movie is guys arguing in a boat.

Personally I loved both the Matrix and the Lord of the Rings – but I believe that both are in dangerous cultural territory because they make such a convincing case for the literalized, battle-icious Monomyth.

I want to propose something which may be a fairly radical, or at least it feels radical to me: there never was a literal hero’s journey. No crusade ever made sense in terms of the three-act structure. No battle was ever courageous or heroic.

I mean, think about it: when you hear accounts of wars from the people who actually participated, it was always chaotic, messy, uncertain, confusing, boring, and stupid. Even if the story of the war makes a good story and is somehow satisfying or cathartic, the actual experience is uniformly horrific and senseless.

The myth is always describing an inner state. I think that modern people (such as myself) are on some level still confused about a story like the Odyssey – it’s fiction, right? There was no Hydra or Medusa or whatever. Odysseus was real, maybe, but his story was later embellished. So the real history and the fiction mash together into the myth. That makes a certain amount of sense, but calling it fictionalized history doesn’t allow us to access the story as a pure metaphor – the brain is trying to figure out what’s literal and what’s fiction, or it assumes that everything is fiction. Then, when they make a movie out of it the brain experiences it as literal. But anywhere along this real-fictional axis it’s an outward experience, something happening outside the psyche, external, other.

But if it’s a metaphor then it’s internal, then it applies to ME directly, and it’s relevant in a completely different way.

Whenever I see extreme sports or one of these Warrior Dash type experiences, that’s what I see: a literalized version of a fictional formulation of a metaphorical journey – a copy of a copy. The danger with the movies is that we SEE the literal hero’s journey, and we see that it doesn’t match our life experience, and we think that we’re doing something wrong. Our literal life is boring compared to a fictional Odyssey. It doesn’t necessarily occur to us that our metaphorical inner journey could pretty closely match the metaphorical inner journey of Odysseus.

But in reality there never was a literal version of the story. These events never actually happened, or if they did they certainly didn’t make any narrative sense at the time to their protagonists. The Knights of the Round table were normal idiots (like the rest of us), trying to figure stuff out as it happened, maybe with swords. But the STORY was always a metaphor about us and our lives. It was never meant to be taken literally.

The journey is always an internal journey. The antagonists are always actual people in your actual life right now, or internalized versions of people from your past. Folk tales and fairy tales and myths and legends were invented and told and retold and evolved AS METAPHORS – whether or not the tellers knew the word “metaphor,” I imagine they understood it on a subconscious level.

But we don’t – when we see kings and knights and wizards and dragons on the screen, we process them as an external reality – as literal people, still literal even if fictional, leading lives somewhere, battling against evil.

This is a uniquely post-1900 problem, because prior to that, even in theatre, metaphor was required. It’s obviously not really happening in front of you – the actors are not the (king, wizard, demon), so the use of the imagination and the interpretation of metaphor is integral to the experience. The literalness of movies circumvent the natural ability to grasp metaphor, to read into things.

Folk tales, fairy tales, myths and legends existed explicitly in a metaphoric space, and the unspoken gestalt of the metaphor was YOU. Your life and mind and spirit as listener. I think that this was grasped on a deep and unconscious level and persisted until quite recently – it’s possible that it was initially disrupted to some degree by the specificity of the novel. But it was movies that really challenged it for the first time.

The question was not, “how do I find an adventure and prove my heroism?” because the tales were describing your life already on a metaphoric level. The vast majority of people were still living day-to-day humdrum lives, hunting, gathering, farming, having babies, getting old, singing songs, making dinner. Life was not more exciting.

But the tales were describing inner worlds which are, and have always been, epic.

It’s astonishing how blind we are to these metaphors, when they’re all around. The boss at your job is a king or queen of a kingdom. Of course they are. Are they a good king, bringing prosperity and light to the land, or a weak and corrupt ruler, slowly poisoning the hearts of their subjects?

Of course that famous rock star is a powerful sorcerer or sorceress. They weave intricate spells and millions of people fall under their thrall. They sing a few notes or speak a few words and money and attention rain down on them. But are they strong enough to control the magic forces they summon?

Of course that megacorporation is a fearsome dragon. It spans continents, devours villages, lives for hundreds of years, and sits on a vast hoard of stolen gold. Obviously we’re talking about a Dragon – GE, Cargill, Disney – what could be more straightforward?

These deep and in fact beautiful metaphors were part of every child’s pre-literate understanding of the world, and they’re terribly relevant and applicable to the world we live in today – but they’re gone from our vocabulary, that richness of metaphoric understanding of our context is foreign to us. And these are things that would be helpful to notice.

Back to the monomyth – the article in the Atlantic, linked to above, poses the question, what if it’s used up? What if we’ve lost interest in the story of the Chosen One?

I was initially discouraged by the idea that it could be used up, like so many of our resources – pumped dry, exploited by Hollywood until there was nothing left, ruined for future generations. Who wants to see another yet movie about a reluctant hero overcoming challenges and learning about himself?

But, I think ultimately this question mostly reveals the stark limitations of a rationalist, literalist, capitalist, commodity-based worldview, as presented onscreen – the (at least intriguing) idea that the Monomyth is some kind of resource or well of narrative, dramatic potential.

Modern movies may have, in fact, exhausted their own ability to capitalize on the Monomyth, at the most basic, elementary, literalist level (at which they understand it). But since we’re talking about the movies, this is only a small, ultimately unsatisfying teeny-tiny tip of the iceberg of archetypal metaphor.

It seems kind of hopeless at the moment, it seems like we’re doomed to have to watch endless iterations on the same basic, kindergarten-level formulation of human drama. Even the term “Monomyth” has an ultimately misleading air of hopeless blandness to it, an uber-mensch sensibility.

OF COURSE there is not one primary myth. That’s the whole point of mythology – mythology becomes moot if it is reduced to one primary myth. There are many myths, many gods, many journeys.

Perhaps, if we can step back from the authoritarian, literalist grip of modern cinema, this is in fact an opportunity, from the starting point of the monomyth, for our understanding of narrative to unfold into a neoclassical exploration of the world of mythology and folk tales, in all their multifarious complexity and nuance. And perhaps that can lead us to a deeper understanding of how we exist in the world and navigate our human lives. Perhaps.

  1 comment for “The Myth of Monomyth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *