hero with a thousand faces

The Hero's Cycle: How to approach a story

Last time, we talked about Myth Makers, and I have say, this is a hard post for me to write.  I have talked about the hero's cycle before, most notably when I defended it from the cretins at io9 in my Why the Hero's Cycle Simply is.  The main reason I am having a hard time with this post is time.  There are books about it, and not one come close to describing it in the depth it deserves.  I will try my best to keep this short and to the point.


Joseph Campbell (circa 1984)
Image via Wikipedia

Joseph Campbell had an insight about the architectural underpining of every great story ever written.  He called this story the Monomyth or Hero's Cycle.  Any time you have a story about good verses evil ,or struggle, or the search to get or destroy something, the monomyth is there.  I have yet to find a story that doesn't follow the monomyth.

He presented it in his wonderful book Hero with a Thousand Faces.  While many writers have used it to inspire their fiction, Campbell's purpose was to teach people how to read a story and discover its meaning.

The Lens of Mythology

Stories look very different when you read them through the monomyth.

Hero's Cycle

Most stories start at the Call to Adventure, but that is always the case.  Any part of the cycle may contain an entire cycle within it, or they may be skipped in their entirety.

How to see the Monomyth

The cycle helps you isolate where you are in the story and dig into it a little deeper.

The call to adventure is the event that leads the hero to embark on the adventure.  The hero is ignorant about the true nature of the world and something causes them to seek a remedy for this ignorance.

Along the way they encounter a helper who is a part of the world they do not understand.  This helper could be good or evil.  Their motives are not important.  Their function is to give the hero the courage they need to cross the threshold of adventure.

A crisis befalls the hero and they find themselves somehow lost in unfamiliar ground.  They have no idea where they are or how they can ever get back.  It is too late.  They are committed to the adventure now.

The hero is tested to their limits, and constantly tempted to give up.  Along the way, the encounter more helpers.  Some may be the same as before, but his real challenge to is realize that there is something about them he has to incorporate into himself.  Unless he grows, taking on their positive characteristics and rejecting their negative ones, he will not be able to complete his task.

Next, he is face to face with the solution to the problem.  He has this last chance to decide if he really wants it or not, and how he is going to acquire it.

After he has gained the solution, he has to go back or get out.  If he was meant to have the solution, he will be aided in his flight.  If not, he will be pursued in his flight, the negative forces trying to destroy him.

The final challenge is to cross the return threshold and survive.  All of the negative powers are allied against him to make their last stand.

On the other side of the threshold, the hero must get the elixer to those who need it, completing his quest.

Every story follows this basic pattern.

How to use the Monomyth

Once you have isolated the individual parts, you can see the underlying core of the story.  The trick is to understand that this entire adventure has been a journey to mature and develop the mind of the hero.  Every element presented a psychological or archetypal piece of the puzzle that would make the hero into a hero.

After a while, it becomes second nature to see a story in this way, and to glean from it meaning that the writer might not have even realized was there.  It is a valuable tool to both the writer and the reader/viewer.

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Why The Hero's Journey Simply Is

When idiots speak, I tend to ignore them, but when they make it worse, then I cannot stay silent. I felt that I had to say something, especially since it is the last time I will ever read or site io9 for anything.

When Charlie Anders wrote, New Proof That Every Scifi Epic Is Based On Joseph Campbell, I thought, "No one could be that stupid." The Hero's Cycle described by Joseph Campbell is the underlying structure of folk tales, legends, and myths found around the world. In fact, every well crafted story will follow the cycle, as it is the natural progression of events.

Then Charlie poured salt in the wound with, Eight Reasons Why the Hero's Journey Sucks. Let me take them one by one...

If Charlie had not been stoned while reading Hero with a Thousand Faces, something might have sunk in... O that is not me attacking this poor blogger, to quote the article:

Hey, we got stoned and read The Hero With A Thousand Faces in college, just like everybody else, and we thought it was super deep.

At any rate, let us examine the eight points.

  • It's a formula.

All story telling is formula. Beginning, middle, end. Inciting event, rising action, climax, denouement.

But over time, lazy writers like George Lucas have used it as a checklist.

While I will never defend the multitude lazy writers that are ruining fiction, it is equally lazy to blame mythopoeism for lazy writers. There is no story that does not follow the Cycle, so to say the the formula is boring is to say that every story is boring. Bad writers are boring, put the blame where it is due.

  • It discourages originality

To prove this point the author claims that Firefly/Serenity is original and as such does not follow the Heroes Cycle. Lets test that using the plot description from Wikipedia:

Call to Adventure

The crew of Serenity lands on an Outer Rim planet, planning to rob a local security firm of its payroll. Serenity's captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds is accosted by Simon, irate over Mal's decision to include River in the heist and expose her to danger. Mal overrules Simon's objections and the heist proceeds. All goes according to plan until River detects the arrival of the Reavers, a horde of feral, spacefaring cannibals. As the Reavers massacre the town's inhabitants, the raid-team narrowly escapes back Serenity, where Simon, outraged over River's near-death experience, declares that he and River will be leaving Serenity at the next spaceport.

The crew disembarks at a trading post and enters a bar to meet with Fanty and Mingo, the men who hired Serenity for the heist. River wanders into the bar and observes a television advertisement, which causes her to immediately and brutally attack the other patrons. As she prepares to shoot Mal, Simon arrives and utters a code phrase, immediately rendering River unconscious. Thoroughly confused, Mal takes River and Simon back to Serenity, where Simon reveals that River was conditioned to be an Alliance assassin.

Supernatural Aid

Mal contacts Mr. Universe, a reclusive techno-geek who analyzes the bar security camera footage and discovers a subliminal message in the advertisement that, based on the quality of the encoding, reveals the involvement of the Alliance.

Crossing the First Threshold

Unknown to the crew, the message was placed by the Operative, a self-described monster with no name or rank, dispatched by the Alliance to retrieve River at all costs.

The Belly of the Whale

Mal receives a call from Inara Serra, a former passenger asking for help with local unrest. Despite recognizing the request as an Alliance trap, Mal visits Inara and meets the Operative, who offers to release Mal if he surrenders River. Mal refuses and, after being saved from defeat by Inara's quick thinking, escapes with her back to Serenity.

The Road of Trials

Aboard the ship, River reveals the existence of "Miranda," an Outer Rim planet deemed uninhabitable by the Alliance and located on the far side of a Reaver spacefleet. After the Operative wipes out all of Serenity's ports of refuge, Mal overrides his crew's protests, disguises Serenity as a Reaver vessel and sneaks through the Reaver spacefleet unmoleseted before landing on Miranda, a planet that while fully habitable contains only corpse-filled cities.

The Meeting with the Goddess/Atonement with the Father

A holographic diary entry from an Alliance officer explains the Alliance attempted to bring peace to the population by filling the atmosphere with an anti-aggression drug. The drug's effects were drastic, completely suppressing the population's motivation to self-sustain, except for the 0.1% who had the opposite reaction and became the hyper-violent Reavers.

The Ultimate Boon

Mal declares his intentions to broadcast this message to the solar system via Mr. Universe's powerful transmitters, aware of the Operative and the certain trap that awaits them.

The Magic Flight

As the Operative mobilizes an Alliance fleet above Mr. Universe's planet, Mal provokes the Reaver fleet into pursuing Serenity and leads it into a massive space battle with the Alliance. With both sides distracted, Serenity, pursued by a Reaver ship and the Operative in an escape pod, crash-lands at Mr. Universe's station. The Reavers kill Serenity's pilot Wash, the crew evacuates the ship and sets up defensive positions against the arriving Reavers, and Mal descends into the station to transmit the Miranda audio diary.

Rescue from Without

The crew's defense begins to crumple beneath the Reaver assault, while deep in the station, the Operative ambushes Mal. The crew retreats behind a blast door, which jams before it can close. With everyone wounded and ammunition low, River dives through the blast door and seals it, and immediately begins fighting the fierce Reavers.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

Meanwhile, Mal narrowly defeats the Operative and leaves him to watch the broadcast of the audio diary.

Master of the Two Worlds

As a wounded and exhausted Mal rejoins the crew, the blast doors open to reveal River standing victorious amid piles of dead Reavers. Alliance troops burst onto the scene, but the Operative, his faith in the Alliance shattered by the Miranda message, orders the soldiers to stand down.

Freedom to Live

The crew buries their deceased friends and repairs Serenity. As the ship prepares to leave, the Operative approaches Mal and warns him of certain retaliaton by the Alliance. Mal returns to Serenity's cockpit and with his new co-pilot River, blasts into space.

Oops... it follows the hero's cycle too... So was it original or not?

  • Why is one hero so special anyway?

The author thinks there can only be one hero... forgetting about the round table and the fact that even Star Wars had multiple heroes. This point cannot even be taken seriously.

  • The "hero" is always a d00d

In the limited sample the author chose, but as always forgetting the historical context. Most heroines have only come about recently. This is something that changes with time. The hero marries the goddess and finds atonement with the Father, because the goddess is the symbol of the beneficial powers of life and the Father represents the judgmental universal punisher.

  • It's cheesy as hell

The author takes Campbell out of context and mocks him. That is just lazy.

  • He shoehorned a lot of myths into his theory

In complaining that Campbell ignores East Asia and Africa is to pretend that he never wrote the Masks of God books among others. This point is too ignorant to discuss any more.

  • It confuses personal growth with solving problems

Campbell's monomyth is unrealistic and spreads the idea that war is therapy.

Campbell's monomyth makes the claim that we project our inner problems on others and that we cannot fix the problem until we see what it actually is. Yeah, this is unrealistic. No one would start a war with another nation for no real reason other than that they see their own personal demons in the other nation... that has never happened.

The Hero's Cycle does not describe fiction, but also the patterns in our own life. This author has obliviously done that with Campbell's work.

This is the last time I will read io9. Most of their posts have been bad since they started, but their intellectual laziness is too much for me to take anymore. I just had to defend Campbell from these idiotic and hollow arguments.

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