“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
Many people who pay attention to narrative, from amateur cinephiles to cultural critics, have become disillusioned or even bored with the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Much of the blame for this must lie at the feet of Christopher Vogler, the Hollywood development executive whose passion for Joseph Campbell’s work cannot be doubted, but whose neutered rendition of the Hero’s Journey into a 12-step formula lacks the moral and transcendent dimensions of the archetypal Heroic Quest. His is a blueprint for hitting the notes that make a story appear to follow the heroic route, but dispenses with the deep meanings underlying these steps – why they occur in the journey and what is interesting about them and what they mean at a metaphysical level. In Joseph Campbell’s thinking, the Hero’s Journey is a route to transcendence; in Vogler’s, it is the destination itself.
In a conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell told him, “Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature ... The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you.” The Hero’s Journey and all myths, those that can be understood through this monomyth and those that fall outside of it, are only as valuable as they are indicative of and instructive towards life itself. Art is always meditative: It asks questions about what is unknown or it reminds us of what has long been understood, and it provides us with a place in which to reflect on these things. Art can help us find new paths through the dark forest or draw our attention back to the route we lost sight of.
With this in mind, I have come to understand the Hero’s Journey as a three-component, three-act story: The hero begins with a dichotomy representing a positive-negative duality in his or her life. This is most commonly a desire and counterbalancing fear, such as a desire for structure and intolerance of disorder. The hero undertakes a journey to conquer the negative aspect of this polarity, either by overcoming it (as in stories of facing fears, such as the hero who leaves her harmonious world to throw herself into chaos) or by negating it (as in stories of chasing one’s desire to avoid the fear, such as the hero who pursues the promise of power so she won’t have to risk powerlessness). Finally, the hero reconciles the two poles of their duality by realising that the two are actually one (that chaos and harmony, for example, when balanced augment each other).
This is the approach that I will take to this Hero’s Journey series, which seeks not to illustrate Campbell’s monomyth or demonstrate its validity through literary and cinematic works, but rather to illuminate artistic works through the lens of the Hero’s Journey. Ultimately, I hope this will yield some deeper insights into who we are as people, where we might choose to go and how we might travel through life, and what our individual role is in the wider world. Art Of Conversation always looks to see how our lives are reflected in art and how art is manifest in our daily lives. In the preface to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes, “Without regarding this as the last word on the subject, one can nevertheless permit it to serve as an approach.” This series, then, is just one approach.
Table of Contents
5. The Temple
6. The Return
• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
• The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
• Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
• Lost (especially the final season)
• The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
• The Fountain, dir. Darren Aronofsky
• La Commedia, Dante
• The Gospels (especially the crucifixion narrative)
• Greek mythology