The Myth of the Monomyth

Can we rehabilitate the Hero’s Journey for our 21st Century world?

I grew up on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, but my enthusiasm has been tempered lately by mythologists and folklorists who absolutely hate this theory.

The monomyth has been called sexist, racist, colonialist, and harmful to the expression and appreciation of world cultures. But why? And is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for understanding some part of mythology in the context of our 21st Century world?

I was six when I saw the original Star Wars movie, and I was hooked. From then on, I measured all other stories using Star Wars as my personal yardstick.

I began to notice that a wide variety of stories would often start with a Luke Skywalker character called to an adventure by a Ben Kenobi character. The Luke Skywalker character would often undertake a quest to save a Priness Leia Organa character from a Darth Vader character, often with help from a Han Solo character and one or two C3P0 and R2D2 characters. I filled notebooks with every example I could find and engaged friends with my evolving theory that Star Wars could explain the story structure underlying a huge portion of the movies and books we all enjoyed.

What I’d independently reconstructed was the monomyth theory of Joseph Campbell, building upon the archetypal figures of Carl Jung, as adapted and applied by George Lucas and other filmmakers who sought to emulate his success.

Campbell summarized the monomyth as:

“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.”

Campbell’s theory was that this story template resonated with the human psyche, and had been present in the storytelling of diverse world cultures from humanity’s earliest days.

The monomyth theory was presented in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell’s 1949 book on comparative mythology. In the 1980s, with the success of the monomyth-fueled Star Wars original trilogy, PBS aired a discussion between Campbell and Bill Moyers in a program called The Power of Myth, which brought the monomyth to an even greater level of notoriety. Since then, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, and others have refined the monomyth and extended it to the novel-writing and screenwriting process.

At a workshop during the 2021 Arisia conference in January, I joined fellow panelists in a discussion of the more troubling aspects of Campbell’s work.

First, while there are many myths that generally fit into the model proposed by Campbell, there are as many or more that do not, including such foundational stories as the myths of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Therefore, the monomyth should always be presented with a caveat that it is not as universal as Campbell claimed it to be.

Second, the Heroine’s Journey is not accounted for. The Hero’s Journey has been called a masculine myth, based on traditional stories of male protagonists, generating new stories that best fit male protagonists, and appealing more strongly to male audiences. Other templates are required for more feminine storytelling. These include 45 Master Characters, a writing guide by Victoria Lynn Schmidt based on the theories of Campbellian psychotherapist Maureen Murdoch.

Third, the monomyth has been described as a hammer in search of a nail. Some stories and characters can be mangled into the stations and archtypes of a Hero’s Journey only at the cost of better understanding the essential distinctions that make them unique and special. An overreliance on monomyth-inspired movies has made it harder for audiences and critics to appreciate the stories that don’t fit into that mold, increasing and perpetuating the dominance of the monomyth to the detriment of other forms of storytelling.

And fourth, the adaptation of non-European mythologies to a Eurocentric lens has been seen as a form of cultural appropriation or cultural colonization. The Hero’s Journey is based on those Jungian archtypes closest to the surface in the collective consciousness of Western cultures, while other world cultures may emphasize different archtypes. When we remove a story from the culture that created it and view that story through a Eurocentric lens, or even through a lens that falsely purports to be “universal,” we shortchange the story’s culture of origin.

So is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for understanding some part of mythology in the context of our 21st Century world? I’d like to think so, but only by first recognizing that the monomyth is just one tool of many in our mythological toolbox.

The monomyth can be used to build and analyze story structures, but how much better could it be if we were using the entire toolbox, and looking at our stories through all available lenses? Perhaps the real Hero’s Journey requires throwing away all of our preconceived maps entirely and following each story wherever it leads.

4 Comments

Thanks for this. Spot on. Unlike you, I have loathed the monomyth for decades, but I was not aware that others also are seeing through its arrogance. I blogged about this many moons ago and that post wasn’t nearly as good as this one. So congratulations.

Thanks. I’m not willing to abandon the Hero’s Journey entirely but I’m definitely moving it to a less prominent position. I like Stephen King’s writing advice about having many writing tools available and using the most appropriate ones as each story demands, which should also apply to theory and analysis.

Sure. I like Star Wars and The Matrix. But that story pattern doesn’t hold for every story.

True. One of the consequences of overusing the monomyth is that we fall into that mindset and have to work that much harder to appreciate stories that don’t fit the pattern. I’ve seen movies get panned by reviewers because they don’t fit neatly enough into the Hero’s Journey, and therefore the reviewers just don’t get the story. And because Hollywood is all about playing it safe and replicating what’s been “proven” to work, that’s mostly what we get.