A Moratorium On The Monomyth
Of all genres, fantasy is generally closest to mining the heroic journey archetypes for its inspiration. For some authors, the intent is to uphold these ideals; others wish to subvert them. Even ones who choose to subvert the tropes are acknowledging the power of that trope.
The monomyth, as described by Campbell, was a structure that myths all around the world followed. Stories with this pattern ranged from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer’s Odyssey to The Ramayana, and beyond. Campbell outlined seventeen stages myths go through, although he was careful to point out that most of the stories don’t follow all seventeen. Rama, from the Ramayana, for instance, never refused the Call to Adventure—to do so would be to undermine his role. (One could argue that his father attempted to refuse on his behalf.)
It’s an integral piece of our storytelling history, and something that anyone planning on writing fantasy should know. However, there are problems with the monomyth that are often ignored.
Descriptive, Not Prescriptive
When Campbell wrote his magnum opus, The Masks of God, he was using his broad knowledge of existing myths from around the world to find the similarities between them. But the myths, of course, were written before Campbell had categorized them. He was describing what he found.
Since Campbell’s monomyth has become so popular, most people interested in writing have at least a rough idea of what it consists of. It’s in numerous books and movies. Star Wars is the most prominent example, and George Lucas has talked extensively about how Campbell influenced his films. The Matrix and the latest Star Trek also follow the monomyth so pointedly that there’s no chance it wasn’t intentional.
But all of these people are using the Hero’s Journey like a roadmap for plotting and characterization. Homer never used it. Neither did the anonymous author of Gilgamesh. Their stories simply happened to have certain similar characteristics.
This is a necessary evil; for it to be universal it has to be vague. Campbell himself admits that the Hero’s Journey often doesn’t take place in the precise order that his version is outlined in, and several of the steps are often ignored. This makes its use as an analytical tool somewhat limited.
Depending on the myth, several of the steps only count if we’re willing to allow metaphor to flourish. Gilgamesh never goes to the land of the dead. He meets a sage who can teach him immortality, and fails the test of staying awake for a week, which will result in his eventual death from age. But he will not return from the afterlife as Master of Two Worlds.
This seems like a strange contrast to the previous point. Ultimately, if a story follows the steps laid out, it’s considered an epic. If it doesn’t, it’s not an epic. This can lead to some problems—Beowulf doesn’t follow the monomyth much at all, since it operates as three separate stories. Njal’s Saga, despite being filled with blood vengeance and scheming lawyers, follows an entire community, rather than a single character. Therefore, it also doesn’t follow the monomyth.
What happens when a culture has myths that don’t conform easily to Campbell’s mythology? They’re simply considered non-epic myths, and that can mean they’re viewed as less important. And that brings me to the next point.
It’s a Man’s Story
Campbell was studying ancient myths, and the focus of those old myths was on men. The primary role of the woman was either in the Temptation stage, or the Meeting with the Goddess. This continues the unfortunate virgin/whore dichotomy.
There were heroines in myth, of course. The Sumerian myth of Inanna or the Greek myth of Persephone both have women descending into hell. And any modern writer could switch the gender without too much difficulty. But the core of the monomyth is one focused on masculine maturation.
Hollywood has the Hero’s Journey down pat; screenwriting books use it constantly. Novelists use it as well. Too many use it as shorthand for character development, and often the concepts of the Hero’s Journey don’t fit organically into the plot. We instead get shoe-horned scenes that force us out of the story.
Campbell’s monomyth is important to know, but as writers we need to be willing to push against its boundaries and break it. We need to criticize it with a thousand cuts and let it lie fallow in the earth.
Only after it dies can it be reborn.