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(Photo: jdhancock/Flickr)

Are All Movie Heroes the Same Person?

• June 20, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: jdhancock/Flickr)

Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Monomyth suggests that all mythical and legendary tales told throughout human history share a common structure.

Perhaps you’ve heard they’re making another Star Wars film. Perhaps you’ve read up on the backgrounds of the new cast members and heard that the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o will also be joining the crew on their adventures in a galaxy far, far away. Maybe you delivered a furtive fist pump upon seeing the leaked production photos, which show actual physical buildings and creatures on set in Abu Dhabi, as opposed to studio rooms adorned with green screens. Whether you’re a fan of the nearly 40-year-old franchise or not, the hype surrounding its next installment—scheduled for release in December 2015—is pretty hard to ignore.

While several factors deserve credit for Star Wars’ ongoing popularity—the ballet-like lightsaber duels, the roguish charm of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, the massive amounts of toy merchandising—it’s quite possible that the space opera’s greatest strength lies in its reliance upon the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell.

From Harry Potter to The Matrix to Happy Gilmore, amateurs and experts alike have drawn connections between multiple modern narratives and Campbell’s theory.

For those who care about such things, the link between Star Wars creator George Lucas and Joseph Campbell, especially his 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is well known. During an award ceremony in 1985, after the original Star Wars trilogy had already seared itself onto the pop-culture collective consciousness, Lucas, in reference to Campbell, admitted, “If it hadn’t been for him, it’s possible I would still be trying to write Star Wars today.”

Campbell’s influence, however, extends far beyond Darth Vader and the gang. From Harry Potter to The Matrix to Happy Gilmore, amateurs and experts alike have drawn connections between multiple modern narratives and Campbell’s theory of the Monomyth, which asserts that various myths, legends, and fairy tales throughout human history share a common story structure involving a hero who departs from known reality in order to confront a series of trials and tribulations before returning home as an initiated master of both realms. The theory, of course, involves more intricacies and complexions—e.g. the call to adventure, the crossing of a threshold, the guidance of a mentor—but that’s the gist.

In the mid ’80s, a Hollywood executive named Christopher Vogler summarized Campbell’s ideas, which borrow from the work of Carl Jung, James Joyce, and the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, into a seven-page memo titled “A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” It begins by stating that Campbell’s book very well may become one of the most influential texts of the 20th century, and ends by claiming that the Monomyth, with its infinite flexibility, will “outlive us all.” Vogler gave his memo to executives at Disney (who now own the rights to both Star Wars and Marvel’s treasure chest of comic book superheroes) before winding up working on The Lion King—yet another widely adored film that leans heavily upon Campbell’s template. Eventually, Vogler turned his now-legendary document into a popular screenwriter’s guide titled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This helped spread the gospel of Campbell even further.

So here’s a question: Will we ever see an end to Campbell’s hand in the stories we tell? Will the Monomyth ever become irrelevant or meet its own extinction due to overuse? While no sensible person would ever claim that the Hero’s Journey (another name for it) is the only form of narrative on the market, the model has proven indisputably pervasive, undeniably powerful, and irrefutably profitable. But is it inescapable, too?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL WAS BORN in 1904 into an Irish Catholic family that lived just north of New York City. As a child, he became curious of Native American spirituality after attending a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden. He earned an undergraduate degree in English from Columbia University, and then wrote his master’s thesis on King Arthur and the Holy Grail. In the ensuing years, he continued his studies in Europe, moved into a cabin in upstate New York to read in isolation, and drove across America in his mother’s Model T Ford. He eventually landed a teaching position in the Literature Department at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, where he remained for nearly 40 years until his retirement. Here, his investigations into diverse religions, rituals, traditions, and folklores from around the globe began in earnest. He wrote, edited, lectured, and traveled extensively. Only in 1983, after Lucas invited him to the Skywalker Ranch in California, did Campbell see the original three Star Wars films for the first time. A year after his death, in 1987, PBS aired a six-part television documentary called The Power of Myth, which features extensive conversations between the journalist Bill Moyers and Campbell about his life’s work.

Critics of Campbell argue that in his quest to find parallels among a vast number of mythologies he glosses over the inherent nuances of specific tales told to specific audiences at specific moments in time. In other words, his research highlights similarity to the detriment of difference. Campbell’s theory, to some, results in a vagueness that borderlines on meaninglessness.

“Joe was a lumper,” Stephen Gerringer, a spokesperson for the Joseph Campbell Foundation, tells me over the phone. “Joe was a generalist. He felt there was a need for specialists, but a specialist would not be looking at the same types of things he was looking at. Those who focus on Hindu mythology in relation to the people of India … they’re not going to be making connections with Native Americans or Polynesians or Teutonic mythology in Europe.”

Campbell believed myth to be the outer projection of our inner psyche. To paraphrase a retort Campbell once offered his skeptics: “When they say the people in the Congo have five fingers on their right hand and I say the people in Alaska also have five fingers on their right hand, I’m called a generalist. When I say the people in the caves in 30,000 B.C. had five fingers on their right hand, too, I’m called a mystic.”

According to Richard Buchen, the special collections and reference librarian at Pacifica Graduate Institute, which houses Campbell’s personal archive, Campbell maintained that the Monomyth outlines a basic archetypal pattern that is, to some extent, “a recapitulation of growing up,” Buchen says. As Volger put it in his memo, Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces contains nothing new. “The ideas in it are older than the Pyramids,” Volger wrote, “older than Stonehenge, older than the earliest cave painting.”

While it’s wrong to think Campbell’s framework offers guaranteed success for any filmmaker or novelist or video game developer looking to produce a mega hit, it seems equally wrong to assume that the Monomyth is going away anytime soon. As suggested in the biography Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind, it was today’s myth-makers Campbell was seeking to inspire: “In my writing and my thinking and my work I’ve thought of myself as addressing artists and poets and writers,” Campbell said during a lecture in the last year of his life. “The rest of the world can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned.”

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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