The Value In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

Over on his blog Mr. John C. Wright has an interesting post, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is Bunk. As always, Mr. Wright writes well, and the post is worth reading. That said, it struck me that the moment one hears about Campbell’s theory that all stories are some form of a primordial mono-myth it’s obviously bunk. This gets especially obvious when some fool tries to describe both Christianity and the Odyssey as at some fundamental level the same story. Obviously, this can be done if one is willing to make the mono-myth “stuff happened,” but at any meaningful level of detail this is idiotic. Not all ideas are the same and not everyone agrees on what life is, so they cannot all, even in principle, tell the same stories. Further, even within a single worldview there is more than one story it’s possible to tell, and even more than one story that people can think it important to tell.

This gets even worse if you just look at what the Hero’s Journey, the one tale that everyone tells, is supposed to be:

I’m sure that there’s some story that this describes, but if you actually know any stories, it’s just obvious that there’s many that don’t fit this pattern unless you’re willing to use interpretations so tortured that they’re probably banned by the Geneva conventions.

So, is this thing worthless? It clearly is worthless in the field of comparative religion. However, Campbell’s myth of the mono-myth influenced George Lucas when he was writing Star Wars, and given what the prequels were like, we can only assume for the better. There must, therefore, be something in it which can help someone.

It strikes me that the fundamental thing which Campbell does get right, which a great many people—secular people, that is—miss, is the value of domesticity. In the cycle above, the call to adventure and the return both reference the domestic life. What the cycle does not explicitly show, but what is none the less referenced by it, is that all of the other stuff in the cycle exists for the sake of the domestic. The point of the adventure is not the adventure, but in protecting or restoring or supporting the domestic that the hero left.

The main work of life consists in the details. This is related to how God loves beetles. Most of creation are moments we would not write books about; it is good to remember that the stuff that we do write books about are only really interesting because of how they affect (or would affect) the more important stuff we don’t write books about.

(As a side note, this is why gender-swapped female heroes always ring false—as distinct from heroes which were written as female, which ring true according to the skill of the author. It’s not merely that males and females tend to relate to other people differently. When it comes to exigent circumstances like an adventure, this tends to be more in the details than in the main actions (assuming the same abilities; characters with different abilities will naturally meet challenges differently). A big problem with gender-swapped heroes is that the domesticity to which they will return is not the same for males and females. Some aspects of domesticity are the same, some are complementary, some are just different—but the whole thing is not identical. The same adventure will tend to impact the characters differently because of how it impacts their ability to return to domesticity at the end of it. Becoming the greatest sword fighter in the land, who has killed dozens of other warriors in hand-to-hand combat, will affect things like marriage prospects differently for a male and a female. Adventures which don’t involve combat at all will still have different impacts because males and females will return differently, since they’re returning to different things. An adventure to return a magic item somewhere, which is done all by cunning and making alliances, may well be more satisfying for a female character because she was important and rose to the occasion, while it might be disappointing to a male character because it didn’t prove a damn thing about his worth as a warrior. He might need to learn lessons about service having to be what is needed, not what you want to do, that she probably wouldn’t. Both are only probable, of course; you can write approximately any story about a male or a female, the issue is that you have to write it for them, you can’t just write an androgynous story then pick the character afterwards, or worse, write it for the one then swap to the other without changing anything else. For a story to ring true, it needs to be written for the actual characters who are in it.)

If a person can get the importance of the domestic out of Campbell’s mythology, he will write a vastly better story than a person who does not realize that the adventure is in service of the mundane, not the other way around. Even if he only gets it at a subconscious level.

This is why, by the way, the scene of Luke Skywalker before the funeral pyre of Darth Vader was, perhaps, the best scene of the whole trilogy:

The two great domestic activities of life are birth and death. Birth brings us into this temporary world, and death brings us out of it. People on an adventure do not have time to do either properly, but they’re especially well known for not having time to ceremoniously bury their dead. Here, Luke has finished his adventure and has returned to the domestic. He is performing the ultimate domestic duty for his father: he is burying him. The death of the Emperor and the destruction of the Empire have wider ranging consequences than this, but this stands symbolically for them. It would never have been possible if the emperor had still lived. It’s also quite important to the emotional impact of the scene that Luke is alone while he does it. Families are small things and the domestic is most naturally private. Domestic things are worth doing even if no one knows about them.

That’s how you know that they’re more important than the stuff we write about.

7 thoughts on “The Value In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

  1. Mary

    Looks at “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” “The Six Swans.” “Kate Crackernuts.” “Catskin.” “The Feather of Finist the Falcon.”

    Girls are perfectly capable of adventures and living happily ever after because of them.

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    1. Two questions, because I’ve only so much as heard of one of those stories:
      1. Do you mean girls literally, as distinct from adult women?
      2. What I had in mind were the kinds of “hero’s journeys” that involve becoming a skilled warrior who has to kill skilled warriors who are trying to kill him. (obviously, I didn’t make it clear that I was talking about that subset.) Are these stories that kind of adventure?

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      1. Mary

        That’s not exactly the only type of adventure you can have. I think a quest that has you wear out three pairs of iron shoes and visit the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars qualifies as an adventure.

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        1. Yes, indeed there are many kinds of adventures. I do not mean, at all, to suggest that there is one real type as against fake types. I only meant to describe one particular type of adventure in that aside. I intend to edit the post to clarify, but what I meant to convey is that if an adult woman goes on a hero’s journey that entails her becoming better than all the men at the things that a woman wants a man to be good at, when she’s done if she chooses a husband she will have to settle for one who is beneath her, and deal with what that entails. And if she does not settle, she will have to deal with being alone (since, by hypothesis, she has become best). An adventure story which features an adult woman who does not become better than all the men at the things that women want men to be good at, of course, will not have this feature. Note: that would not be a lesser adventure, just a different kind of adventure.

          This is, of course, complicated by shifting contexts; what a male should be good at in peace time may be different than in war time, etc. Even so, there will be some tension if a woman is better at physically protecting her husband than he is at protecting her. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing. (Given how common divorce is when a woman earns more money than her husband, it may be insurmountable for a lot of women (not all).)

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          1. Mary

            But there are a lot of heroes whose journeys do not involve getting great at fighting. Soria Moria Castle. The Blue Mountains. The Greek Princess and the Young Gardener

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            1. I’ve substantially rewritten the paragraph we’ve been talking about. Would you mind re-reading it and giving me your thoughts on how it stands now? It is, I think, a much better representation of what I was trying to communicate.

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