The Hero’s Journey is Hollywood’s McMyth

The American mythologist Joseph Campbell is to blame for the rise of moral relativism in the movie world — as Thomas Mann observed

C. P. Nield

Poor old Casaubon in Middlemarch. There he sits among his tremendous tomes, failing to finish his Key to All Mythologies while ignoring his incandescent bride Dorothea. “What a fool!” we think; a noble one, perhaps, but unquestionably a fool. Yet his plodding, labyrinthine, hopeless quest has been shared by two centuries of anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, poets and eccentrics who have devoted their lives to finding that elusive secret of humanity. Such figures include Sir James Frazer, Madame Blavatsky, Spengler, Freud, Jung, Mikhail Bakhtin, Vladimir Propp, Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bruno Bettelheim. One of the most influential is Joseph Campbell (1904-87), an American scholar whose central work The Hero With A Thousand Faces, published in 1949, has had an incalculable impact on the Western world through its adoption by Hollywood and the mass entertainment industry. 

Campbell’s legacy is an unholy knot I can only partially unravel. He inspired movie masterpieces, as well as disastrous flops. He made an important plea for cross-cultural tolerance, yet was paralysed in the face of evil. To understand his story is to understand something of our own ideals and our own contradictions. 

A lecturer in comparative mythology and religion at the private liberal arts college Sarah Lawrence in New York state, Campbell took Jung’s theory of universal archetypes to its logical conclusion: not only were characters such as the Wise Old Man in every myth, but every myth told the same story with different names. The Hero With A Thousand Faces covers the Epic of Gilgamesh, Native American spirituality, Graeco-Roman potshards, flying Bodhisattvas, the Young Corn God from Honduras and the “great pantomime of the sacred moon-king”, to name just a few. (Little Miss Muffet is, however, bewilderingly snubbed.) Fragments of each myth are cross-cut with dreams from modern psychoanalytical sessions and introduced by gnomic chapter headings: “Mother Universe”, “Matrix of Destiny”, “Womb of Redemption”. While intriguing, the book is perhaps more a triumph of editing than insight. Campbell’s case is not helped by a foggy prose style that drains the gods of any wit, vitality, fire or sex. Take this sentence: “Makroprosopos is the Uncreated Uncreating and Mikroprosopos the Uncreated Creating: respectively, the silence and the syllable AUM, the unmanifest and the presence immanent in the cosmogonic round.”  

The Hero With A Thousand Faces dwelt in benign obscurity until it was discovered in the 1970s by a young film-maker struggling to write a sci-fi film in the style of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Cobbling together a budget from a dubious 20th Century Fox and assembling an eager American cast, the director ended up in the deserts of Tunisia, together with a legendary British thespian rolling his eyes and predicting doom. The result? Star Wars

Thanks to George Lucas, the Hero’s Journey had arrived in Hollywood. But it really came into its own via a seven-page memo pounded out in 1985 by Christopher Vogler, a Disney story analyst who, in search of the golden fleece in Beverly Hills, pushed “A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces” into the hands of friends, colleagues and Disney executives. Soon, in his own words, “executives at other studios were giving the pamphlet to writers, directors, and producers as guides to universal, commercial story patterns”. Furthermore, in 1988, Campbell became a celebrity through the PBS interview show The Power of Myth. Homely, avuncular, gentlemanly and enthusiastic, he was every inch the octogenarian professor you wished you’d had at university. “Follow your bliss!” he intoned to millions of Americans who kept the book version on the New York Times bestseller list for a year. So when Disney was looking for a formula to turn its embryonic plot for an Africa-set cartoon into a fully grown phenomenon, it didn’t have to look too far: Vogler was called in as the witch-doctor and The Lion King was born.

Vogler went on to pen The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which is now the bible in many creative writing courses. This is Campbell for Dummies. Vogler cuts out the pantomime and gets down to business. To the budding J.K. Rowling, sitting in the Platonic café, trying against the odds to pull incoherent ideas for a story into a bestselling narrative, it seems like a great boon. Introduce the hero here. Introduce a crisis there. Now the Shape-Shifter comes crashing through the window. Shazam! Since Star Wars, films like The Matrix, Fight Club and Titanic have all made use of the theory, as well as clunkers like Ishtar and Howard the Duck. Now every summer the Hero’s Journey returns to our screens in a procession of explosion-filled, charmless event movies like Man of Steel.

So what is the theory? It goes as follows. The Hero lives in the Ordinary World he longs to escape from. Somewhere very dusty helps, whether it’s Kansas or Tatooine. He receives the Call to Adventure from the Herald, traditionally an eagle bearing a scroll, though it often takes the form of a purring Judi Dench. The Hero refuses the Call, but is driven on after meeting the Mentor: cue a swirly-cloaked figure uttering something about destiny. That’s Alec Guinness. With his Mentor’s help, he Crosses the First Threshold into a special world of magic — or, rather, a world of special effects. He meets his Allies and Enemies in a series of Trials and approaches the Inmost Cave, where he faces the Supreme Ordeal. (Remember Luke Skywalker, along with Han Solo and Chewbacca, trying to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star?) Almost dying, he Seizes the Reward and then embarks on the Road Back home. In the final act, he faces death again, but undergoes Resurrection. Finally, he returns to where he began, bearing the Elixir of Life or some kind of imperishable wisdom. “There’s no place like home”, “May the Force be with you”, Rose to the drowning Jack in Titanic: “I’ll never let go!”

Look at the original format of The X Factor or American Idol and you’ll see the mark of Campbell goes far wider than Hollywood. These shows are all about the journey. They start by stressing the ordinary world of the contestant, who crosses the first threshold into the rehearsal room and goes through to the dingy cavern of boot camp. The contestant is then spirited off to meet the mentor on some exotic island before walking out onto the stage for the live shows. This is the supreme ordeal. When the results are announced, our hero is resurrected week after week until the finale, when the winner passes on the wisdom of “live your dreams!” It’s such a shame that we know the record label will drop the winner after a handful of hits. The journey has overwhelmed the destination. All must have prizes and today everyone’s a hero, meaning no one. 

Despite the law of diminishing returns, Campbell’s defence of myth has proved more galvanising for writers (and the paying public) than the academic cult of Derrida. I took my degree in the early 1990s at the high point of post-structuralism, when we proclaimed the death of the author. Who cared what the author said when deconstruction was the key to unlock the power of every text? So we faithfully deconstructed every text to reveal its infinite possibilities, even if every deconstruction led to the same joyful interpretation that every word was, firstly, essentially meaningless and, secondly, a prophesy of Derrida’s genius. Modernism had cut us free from the bourgeois noose of narrative and we revelled in our “carnivalesque” celebration of all things plotless and Virginia Woolf. Of course, it was nonsense. Plot didn’t die with Woolf, it just upped sticks to Warner Brothers, leaving a fissure that has yet to be bridged between the beautifully written yet rather aimless literary novel and the pacy, entertaining work of genre fiction stuffed full of clichés. 

The main problem with the Hero’s Journey is indicated by its other name: the monomyth. Ironically for a theory desperate to prove its cultural plurality and escape from the perceived parochialism of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it becomes a dogma, monolithic and monotonous. It offers us a McMyth, one that leaves out all the mess, and without the mess — “the fury and the mire of human veins” — there is no magic. Today, writers are learning the McHero’s Journey before they have developed any feeling for the real thing. Take the crooked taproot of English poetry, the ballad, in which the central action takes place offstage. Try selling that to Steven Spielberg. Instead, idiosyncrasy, peculiarity — sheer damned dottiness — are replaced with ABC plotting. We see this in Tim Burton’s atrocious Alice in Wonderland, where the cold, dead hand of Campbell has replaced Carroll’s whimsical dream with a cut-and-paste quest myth in which Alice must slay the Jabberwocky and learn to believe in herself. Girl power!

When you return to the myths that Campbell loved, you discover that none of them tell the entire monomyth. They possess all sorts of kinks and quirks far removed from the suave flow of Star Wars. One dreads to imagine, for instance, what amends the writers of the Gospels would have made if the Hero’s Journey had been thrust into their hands. Jesus would break bread at Emmaus, lead his disciples in a chorus of “Circle of Life”, take them on a flight around Jerusalem — which would then turn into a spaceship — and finish by exhorting them to “look within, folks!” Instead we get fleeting moments of recognition, whispers of secret teachings and that scene at the end of St John’s Gospel when Jesus asks Peter “do you love me?” three times. It is all very odd. But it is a curious fact that when people are sincere they never stick to the point; they surprise us with tangents and unexpected details. It’s the well-rehearsed liar who never deviates from the subject. That’s why many stories improved by the Hero’s Journey ring hollow. Perhaps the answer lies in abandoning our Key to All Mythologies, whether Derridean or Gilgameshian, and returning to the antiquated ideal of the literary canon. Imagine this: a body of different voices, saying things differently at different times with different ideas. How revolutionary would that be? 

There we could let the subject rest, if it weren’t for a sting in the tale. A shocking piece of correspondence between Campbell and the German novelist Thomas Mann from 1941 — just as the former was beginning to write The Hero With A Thousand Faces — reveals how easily mythic equivalence becomes moral equivalence. Responding to a talk Campbell gave entitled “Permanent Human Values”, Mann wrote angrily: “It is strange: you are a friend of my books, which therefore in your opinion probably have something to do with Permanent Human Values. Well, these books are banned in Germany and in all countries where Germany rules today. And whoever reads them, whoever sells them, whoever would even publicly praise my name, would end up in a concentration camp, and his teeth would be beaten in and his kidneys smashed.” 

Why was Mann so incensed? In Campbell’s talk we find this: “We are all groping in a valley of tears, and if a Mr Hitler collides with a Mr Churchill, we are not in conscience bound to believe that a devil collides with a saint.” That’s sickening enough. But worse, Campbell refused to be corrected. In his diary he sneered that Mann’s letter “exhibited a finally temporal-political orientation, and not only that, but a fairly trivial and personal view of even the temporal-political”. 

Trivial? What a fool. What could be more important than to draw a clear and emphatic distinction between democracy and fascism? Campbell, it seems, was on the path to the New Age fallacy that we can turn all belief systems into equally delightful fairy tales, mix them together, and somehow be left with any values whatsoever. If we “follow our bliss” at the expense of truth, if we replace facts with feelings, if we ditch morality in search of experience, then we may find ourselves on a slippery slope from the courage of our common sense convictions to mere relativism. At the nadir lies a hippy-dippy indifference to the absolute horror of the Holocaust and the dying embers of civilisation. 

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