the hero myth

I am just old enough to have seen the original Star Wars movie at the theatres, when it first came out. I've been thinking a lot about that experience, and about the hype that followed, now that I've finished reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The "Star Wars proof", as I've come to think of it, rests on the following syllogism:

  1. George Lucas deliberately wrote Star Wars to follow the monomyth as defined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  
  2. Star Wars was and is a huge hit, and a cultural phenomenon!  
  3. Therefore, if writers want a huge hit (or just a successful story, period), they should follow the example of Star Wars and use the monomyth in their own writing. 

As with all syllogisms, it needs to be tested point by point.

#1 is certainly true, on its face — as I mentioned last blog post, Lucas is on the record with his admiration of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

#2 is also certainly true. Star Wars Day was started by an ad congratulating Margaret Thatcher, for pity's sakes. Star Wars fandom shows up in places as mainstream as Friends — that episode is going to be mostly opaque if you don't know the references.

#3 is where the syllogism breaks down, as syllogisms often do (1. I like fish, 2. Cats like fish, 3. I am a cat). The conclusion of the syllogism assumes that Star Wars was a hit because it was written to follow the structure of the monomyth.

I spent some time reading discussion boards on this topic while I was getting this blog post ready, wanting to make sure my own memory of seeing it on its first theatre release weren't faulty. It doesn't seem like it was (do some Googling for commentary if you want to see third-party opinions). People do mention The Hero's Journey, but they also talk about how the good characters and bad characters were easy to tell apart, how there were so many recognisable tropes from the old adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, how wonderful the special effects were. They also point out (and I'm glad I'm also not the only one here) that while adults liked Star Wars, it was the kids who loved it.

Funny thing about that. You'd think Luke Skywalker would be the character all the kids wanted to be. But I remember seven-year-old-me chose Leia, not just because she was the token woman, but because she had attitude and could fire a blaster. My second choices were C3PO and Obi-Wan Kenobi. My younger brother (he was four when he saw it) became an instant R2D2 fan. I remember local magazines having C3PO and R2D2 on the cover; not so much the so-called hero. (Which is not to say Mark Hamill did a poor job; on the contrary, he gave Luke's quiet moments (like those bits on the Millennium Falcon) a depth that rounded out the character in far more ways than any lines he was given to say.)

Then there's the whole Han Solo arc. Never mind the farm boy who saves the galaxy, Han is a down-and-out smuggler who gets the princess. He's the guy who goes from only having himself, his ship, and his one-wookiee crew as priorities, to being a full-out fighter in the Rebellion. He's the survivor who discovers principles. There's a reason why fans freaked out and started the "Han shot first" meme, when Lucas tweaked the film after its initial release.

The paradox is that the films are so widely loved, yet so much of the writing is reviled. Most of the dislike is aimed at the sequels-which-are-really-prequels, but it's cast a more analytical eye on the original trilogy as well. If the Force is something you inherit, why doesn't Leia seem to have it? Why are there virtually no other female characters besides Leia (and don't bring up that senator)? What the hell was Obi Wan doing all those years in the desert? Baby-sitting from a distance is no way to keep occupied.

I'm just not convinced people love Star Wars because it's such a great example of the Hero's Journey. I love it for the characters, and the setting, and yeah, the special effects. The plot, meh — it beggars belief just a few too many times. Consider all the "you can't hit an exhaust hatch with two torpedoes which have to bank at a right angle almost immediately after being fired" theories:

So what am I getting at? Just this: having read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I'm just not convinced it's ultimately that useful. Better to read the original myths, or to work through a plot approach with a stronger focus on structure, like Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer.

the monomyth of objectivity

D. Paul Angel and Sonia Lal invited me to read up on mythology theory with them, and although it's been a frustrating trip (reading the book, not reading it with them in particular), I'm glad I did.

It's not too often I consider abandoning a book after the first sentence, especially if it's a book on mythology and story theory, but I wasn't quite expecting this:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinae, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously[sic] constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

That's the start of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it was at that point that I had to remind myself it was written in 1949, although that only partially excuses it. Consider that the above quote appears under the main title of "The Monomyth." Isn't it a little weird to be actively othering people at the very moment you are stating a thesis that all of humanity's mythology boils down to a small set of super-stories?

I got the impression that this was an academic book written to be read by other academics, which in the America of 1949 would have meant white, Western, and male. It's easy to say that Campbell was simply writing for his intended audience, and for that audience, the notion that they could have anything in common with non-Westerners was radical. And yes, I concede the book was published only four years after the close of World War Two, when there was an immense amount of anti-Asian propaganda (and sanctions) to recover from.

But something nagged at me when I read the prologue, and continues to nag now that I've read Chapter One and am reading Chapter Two. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was also published in 1949. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was less than ten years away. Hitchcock's Rope, featuring a gay couple as the two main characters, was released in 1948. The idea that even Western culture was multi-faceted, albeit in a lopsided, one-aspect-dominating, sort of way was around. There's only so many times one can dismiss a different point of view as an aberration.

I've also found myself comparing The Hero with a Thousand Faces to CP Snow's The Two Cultures. Although Snow didn't publish his Two Cultures lecture in book form until 1959, he formulated the observations and ideas for it in the 1930s. Snow discusses the two cultures of science and the humanities as realms populated entirely by men, since that was (mostly) the reality of the university population at the time. The difference is that it doesn't matter. Snow's very thesis argues that the differences between the cultures of science and the humanities aren't bridgeable by more diverse demographics in either discipline, because they are endemic to the sub-cultures of the disciplines themselves. He argues scientists need to learn to respect the humanities, and the humanists better appreciate science. There may not be any non-white, non-male, non-Western people in the academic world Snow describes, but there is room for them.

I just don't see how there is room for other voices in the "monomyth" Campbell describes. Instead, it seems like he's appropriating from the other and claiming that really they're just like white, Western, male, (presumably straight) him. Abrahamic religions are accorded the distinction of being "higher mythologies" than pagan religions; Campbell even blithely announces that the goddess "is incarnate in every woman." The notion that the goddess may also be present in every man, or that the god may be present in every woman, is (as of halfway through Chapter 2) absent — curious when stories of gender-shifting entities appear in myths from all over the world, including the story of Tiresias from Greek mythology. Curiouser still given how many Greek myths Campbell has already used to illustrate his points even in these early parts of the book.

Instead, Campbell's monomyth theory is reminding me of two things. One is of nushu script from China, a form of writing only practised by women, from when women were barred from traditional education. How many stories were written down in nushu, or told between other peoples not allowed to express themselves through official channels, and which therefore never got considered by Western academics such as Campbell?

The other thing The Hero with a Thousand Faces reminds me of is a brilliant, and funny, essay written by Donna Haraway: "A Political Physiology of Dominance," which is included in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. In it, she traces the history of our understanding of primate social structures, showing that many aspects of the way apes organise themselves were not discovered until women like Jane Goodall became primatologists. Before then, researchers were overly focused on proving human patriarchal society was both natural and normal. They were literally blind to all but a fraction of the actual primate power structure, because the remainder didn't serve their ends. Note: It wasn't that they were wrong about the part they observed; it's just that they assumed it was the whole, instead of a portion of the whole.

And, finally, that's my thing about Campbell's book. It's brilliant as far as it goes, but it only goes as far as 1949 Western academia. de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is now read in the context of having been written by a Frenchwoman in the 1940s — it's understood that while a lot of it still holds true, and a lot of it is important for an historical perspective on feminism, there are portions which are out-of-date, or have simply been proven wrong since. Howl is still a well-regarded poem, but it's important now to know it was written in the 1950s. Snow's two cultures are still visible throughout academia, but when reading his book, it is necessary to bear in mind he developed his ideas in the 1930s and chose his language for an academic lecture audience in the 1950s.

But Campbell's work seems to live on context-free, as if it's absolute truth, as if the Freudian theories it depends upon so heavily haven't been debunked or updated in the decades since. On the copy I got from my community library (third edition, New World Library, published 2008), there's a quote from George Lucas of Star Wars fame:

In the three decades since I discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it has continued to fascinate and inspire me. Joseph Campbell peers through centuries and shows us that we are all connected by a basic need to hear stories and understand ourselves. As a book, it is wonderful to read; as illumination into the human condition, it is a revelation.

That may well shine some light on the ongoing diversity problems in Hollywood films, but it doesn't say much for our critical understanding of mythology. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Campbell doesn't deserve his accolades. What I am saying is we need to acknowledge that even he was constrained by the mores of his times. Better to declare the direction and flavour of one's subjectivity than to lie and claim objectivity when one has none.

So: that's the context in which I'm reading the book. Next blog post (when I get a chapter or two along) will look at what aspects of the book can be of use to fiction writers.