Video Essays on the Monomyth

Venusian Broon

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I've been following Maggie Mae Fish for quite a while now, thoroughly recommend her content. She recently did a two-parter on Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth that I found very interesting and thought that fellow writers might also find entertaining and food for thought.

Also in the notes in the second video there are a few links to articles that are "Alternatives and Critiques of the Hero's Journey". I haven't been through them all, but if you have a lazy Sunday afternoon and need something to read...


 
I wonder how content being created in recent decades will age with their sexist and racist attacks on previous people's viewpoints. Probably as badly as the content that came in the decades before. plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh?
 
A long, long time ago, a teacher said to our class "Be a splitter, not a lumper." I'm sure they knew what they meant, but I suspect the meaning is a bit flexible. This was in the context of the scientific method, and I suspect he was steering us in the direction of reductionism. That's another word I think I know the meaning of, but can never be quite sure.

I've read just a little bit about "The Hero's Journey" and think it distills down good places to put conflict and character development into our tales.

The "call to adventure", also called the inciting event, is just such an easy way to bring us to the action quickly and provider dramatic contrast (regular life, life torn apart). Not all stores need that, though. Often describing a world in strife with allusions to the fact that previously the world was ours or just like ours is enough to make the contrast.

The "reluctant hero" is a bit of a trope, but it works because it is an easy way to work conflict into the story, and it's the internal conflict, which is a big bang for your writing buck. A hero who is scared/not interested/scarred but overcomes that to join the battle has already given you a more interesting story than the hero who jumps in right away.

The mentor trope is widespread, because it's a way to work in character development. The key aspect is character growth. A mentor is easily understood and accepted, but not necessary - characters can learn by trial and error or from their friends/peers.

Helpers and mentors are there because it is harder, but not impossible, to have a story with just one person in it. Castaway is a very good example of a compelling story told (almost) with just one person. The writer(s) very cleverly use our human compulsion for socialization to work Wilson into the world in a believable manner.

The supernatural aid is, of course, specific to fantasy and Sci Fi, not obligatory and I'm not a bit fan because it's usually a Deus ex machina to get our heroes out of deep doo-doo, and I'd rather they got out with the help of smarts, gumption or their friends.

I don't know if Revelation is obligatory. It is a character development jump/plot twist/complication which can be called by other names I suppose.

Atonement and return, the denouement, doesn't always have to have atonement nor return - our hero could keep sailing the sea, finding more adventure. The gift of the goddess is again, fairly variable.

So, in the end, the hero's journey is one distillation of tropes and techniques, that can be used, and has been commonly used for heroic tales and is useful to keep in mind.
 
Am I missing something? I thought Campbell was a guy who compared a number of hero myths and noted their similarities. But the videos suggest that he is revered as a philosopher on matters of daily life.


Who looks at Campbell that way? Or is this a conflict that only exists within the comparative lit departments of a handful of universities?
 
In watching the first video, I'm not following the argument. Campbell seems to be making a point about the function of heroic myths, but Ms. Fish is saying that he's wrong because a character like Odysseus is portrayed in some cultures as a villain. Would Campbell's points about the function of a heroic myth apply to a version of the myth that is not heroic?

There's also the problem of understanding (on my part) whether Campbell is analyzing the myths of the past - from back when we actively created them - or if he is providing a framework that applies to how we see ourselves. His commentary about women in myths seems to reflect how they were portrayed during the majority of the patriarchal history of humans (where real stories of female warriors are rare), rather than how they should be portrayed in new fiction or in society.

This blurring between myth, purposeful fiction and reality makes the video's commentary hard to follow. Luke Skywalker is constructed around the shape of Campbell's myth schema, but Luke is not a mythic figure who's life is asserted to have been real, but a pointedly fictional creation that we enjoy largely because of the departure from reality. Nor does there seem to be an assertion that modern 'heroes' have lives that are Campbellian. They might be dramatized that way for the purpose of commercializing their histories (Sergeant York), but we largely accept that men and women that achieve some sort of heroic fame could come about it without a seven part story arc - and that their heroics don't imply a state of grace in later life.

Is anyone else finding it hard to see the lines between myth, fiction and reality in the analysis? Am I wrong to view modern people as somewhat inoculated against belief in classic mythic heroes as well as supernatural forces?
 
I tried, but I just found her too annoying. I'm too old for this internet lark.

For what it's worth, I've never found the idea of the monomyth much use as a writer. It's certainly not any use for me in plotting (I'm not really into coming of age stories as it is), and it feels both weirdly specific and too vague, somehow.
 
Campbell seems to be making a point about the function of heroic myths, but Ms. Fish is saying that he's wrong because a character like Odysseus is portrayed in some cultures as a villain. Would Campbell's points about the function of a heroic myth apply to a version of the myth that is not heroic?
I think your criticism is a valid one, and it probably stems from the idea that, semantically at least, hero is the opposite or antonym of villain. But in practice it's perfectly possible for the villain to follow the hero's journey (I mean, the video thumbnail even has a picture of Darth Vader...). Being lost in whether Odysseus is a "good" character or "bad" is to miss the point (and the cynic in me notes that criticising The Odyssey because "some cultures" view Odysseus as the villain is a reflection of Mae Smith's political prejudices rather than actual belief in the argument). It's the journey of transformation that's the point.

Almost all the great writers make a point that any character - or person - isn't inherently "bad" or "good" but defined by the decisions and actions they take. So "villains" can be redeemed, and "heroes" become transformed. And then you get characters who are representative of Satan (Voldemort, Sauron etc etc) who are less characters than they are embodiments of the temptations of power, tyranny etc.
For what it's worth, I've never found the idea of the monomyth much use as a writer. It's certainly not any use for me in plotting (I'm not really into coming of age stories as it is), and it feels both weirdly specific and too vague, somehow.
I agree; I think it's a very useful piece of work for understanding the underlying structure of certain stories (and, particularly, stories that have lasted a long time or seem set to last a long time) but I don't think it's very useful for a writer per se.
 
I became a fan of 'Slice of Life' films, after seeing Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet
It was an delicious antidote to the repetitive combination of 'Hero's Journey' and 'Morality Tale'.
Of course it is easier to pull off in film than in a novel. Reader expectation is a difficult beast if you are going to wrestle with it rather than feed it.
Though some, like James Joyce, have chosen to don the shorts and come running out of their corner...
 
Being lost in whether Odysseus is a "good" character or "bad" is to miss the point (and the cynic in me notes that criticising The Odyssey because "some cultures" view Odysseus as the villain is a reflection of Mae Smith's political prejudices rather than actual belief in the argument).
There does seem to be a prejudice there, I wish I could even ascertain the politics of it. It seems mainly like a personal grudge against Campbell for his popularity in pop culture. It is hard to believe academics take him all that seriously.
 
It is hard to believe academics take him all that seriously.
On the contrary I have found academics are the ones who continue to push this formulaic approach.
Most creative writing courses I have attended, with their sausage machine "Inciting incidents, character arcs, 'conflict'" and all the rest, lack any true spark of creativity.
 
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On the contrary I have found academics are the ones who continue to push this formulaic approach.
Most creative writing courses I have attended, with their sausage machine "Inciting incidents, character arcs, 'conflict'" and all the rest, lack any true spark of creativity.
I don't know if those concepts are really Campbell, even if they are borrowing his labels. Those are pretty standard story arc bits.

I tried to start a thread here on crafting plot, and it went nowhere. I have also observed people's book projects that were going nowhere because they didn't have some sort of motivated arc underlying their story. Those concepts, however hackkneed they sound, keep writers focused on the difficult big picture of plot construction. You don't have to use them, but you need to have something. Even a subversion of story arc is a kind of story arc.


However, I was not talking about creative writing coaches so much as literary criticism and anthropology academics.
 
I don't know if those concepts are really Campbell, even if they are borrowing his labels. Those are pretty standard story arc bits.

I tried to start a thread here on crafting plot, and it went nowhere. I have also observed people's book projects that were going nowhere because they didn't have some sort of motivated arc underlying their story. Those concepts, however hackkneed they sound, keep writers focused on the difficult big picture of plot construction. You don't have to use them, but you need to have something. Even a subversion of story arc is a kind of story arc.


However, I was not talking about creative writing coaches so much as literary criticism and anthropology academics.
I don't disagree. But I do think that plot evolves naturally out of the storytelling process.
Personally I would call myself a 'discovery writer', (which is the polite way to say pantser,) and those edges are softer, perhaps, but are there.
For plotters it might be different with the prerequisite of a framework to flesh out. But that is the oldest division in writing :)
 
I'm more of a plotter, but I can only see so much, and I certainly don't start writing a manuscript by thinking, "right, I want my story to be superimposed on this structure..." That sort of thing might be useful as an exercise in a creative writing course, or as a prompt, but stifles true creativity. Like I said, I think the monomyth idea is useful for understanding rather than replicating. And it's a loose structure, by definition; the cosmetics of it vary from generation to generation.

(BTW I'm not at the extreme end of the plotter spectrum; I can plot so far into a book and then the crystal ball starts to get a bit fuzzy, and I have to rely on my discovery side to carry on!)
 
Regardless of methodology, "story" has the same basic structure. We know it like we know the structure of a joke.
 

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