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Joseph Campbell?s Monomyth and its Applications

Jessi Langer

?It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.? This quote from Joseph Campbell?s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces exemplifies the idea that myths are our way of expressing universal truths common to every member of the human race. Not only do they contain startlingly similar symbols from one culture to the next, but they are all contained within a ?basic, magic ring? which Campbell calls the monomyth. Every myth in every culture abides by the structure of the monomyth; the structure is comparable to a skeleton upon which every human story is fleshed out. Joseph Campbell, in ?The Hero with a Thousand Faces,? has identified the basic structure of human mythology and how it relates to human experience; the examples of Star Wars, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and various Japanese myths will be used to show that this theory is universally applicable to every culture and time period in human history.

The contemporary tale of Star Wars is a modern myth, encompassing many elements of classical myth; it also follows Campbell?s outline of the Hero?s Journey almost step-by-step in a very traditional pattern, beginning with the call to adventure and ending with the restoration of the galaxy. Its creator, George Lucas, actually took many of Joseph Campbell?s ideas into account when writing the story; in fact, there is a picture of Luke Skywalker, Star Wars? protagonist, on the cover of ?The Hero with a Thousand Faces.? Some have used this connection to explain the unbelievable success of Star Wars. Christopher Vogler, a story analyst for major movie studios and the author of a book called ?The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters,? contends that the reason movies such as Star Wars were so popular, almost bordering on “religious experience”, was because they “reflected the universally satisfying patterns Campbell found in myths.”

The entire pattern of the Monomyth appears in both the first Star Wars movie and in the trilogy as a whole; however, the events are more clearly demarcated in the first movie alone. The call to adventure occurs when Ben Kenobi saves Luke from the sandpeople, and Luke sees the message from Princess Leia. According to Campbell, ?the herald or announcer of the adventure?is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world;? although Leia herself is far from loathly or terrifying, the Rebel Alliance which she represents is a force which opposes the galactic norm of the Empire.

Luke refuses this call and returns to his home; Campbell states that ?the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one?s own interest,? and here, Luke is interested more in attaining his own life goal of becoming a starfighter pilot than of undertaking what he sees to be a doomed journey with a ?crazy old man.? However, when get gets there, he finds that his aunt and uncle have been murdered: he cannot return to his normal life, but must follow the hero?s path. This follows Campbell?s assertion that ?one is bound in by the walls of childhood; the father and mother stand as threshold guardians?? and as Luke?s surrogate parents, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru fill this spot. They are the guardians to this stage of the journey, and through their death, Luke is able to move on to the next stage, the obtaining of ?supernatural aid.? Luke gets this ?supernatural aid? component from Ben Kenobi, who fits the bill of a ?little old crone or an old man? and uses the Force, which is a feat akin to magic and the ?amulet against the?forces that [Luke] is about to pass?; Ben is not only a mystic, but acts as a mentor to Luke, and ?represents the benign, protecting power of destiny.? Ben assists him in the crossing of the first threshold, which takes place at Mos Eisley, where Luke and Ben meet Han and Chewie. The threshold separates the ?limits of the hero?s present sphere, or life horizon?, which is Tatooine, from the ?darkness, the unknown, and danger,? which is represented here by the vast, dangerous expanse of space. Notable imagery here is the marked contrast between the bright, twin-sunned desert world and the perpetual, all-pervasive darkness of space. The threshold guardian, who makes a personal appearance only in the new, remastered version of the 1977 classic, is none other than Jabba the Hutt. This ?dangerous presence? appears ?just beyond the protected zone of the village boundary,? although in this case, it is by appearing in the village of Mos Eisley, a dangerous place in itself, that Jabba asserts his danger.

Once Luke and company have flouted Jabba and blasted off through the threshold, they are ready to enter the ?belly of the whale,? represented by the Death Star. ?Instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, the hero is swallowed,? in this case, pulled by tractor beam, ?into the unknown and would appear to have died,? according to Campbell; the passage into the ?Death Star? certainly fits with this symbolic death, from which rebirth is possible. Here Luke passes through a ?dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms,? characterized greatly by the anonymity and cold sinisterness of the stormtroopers. The series of trials, the ?multitude of preliminary victories and unretainable ecstasies,? includes the fight with the stormtroopers over Princess Leia in the cell block (a preliminary victory) and the encounter with the monster in the trash-masher (Leia?s safety is an unretainable ecstasy because as soon as Luke finds her, they are confronted by this creature.) Next, or, rather, during all this is going on, the ?meeting with the goddess? takes place, the goddess (and only female in the film) being Leia. Leia, who holds the Death Star plans, represents the goddess-like power and also the ability for Luke to achieve these same powers by saving her; although Luke, being Leia?s brother, cannot by today?s society?s standards take part in a ?mystical marriage,? he does achieve friendship (and a small, chaste kiss) with the woman. Luke and company emerge from the Death Star, and in the process of doing so are symbolically reborn, having escaped death. They carry with them the ?ultimate boon,? the prize, in the form of both Leia and the plans to the Death Star which will allow the Rebels to destroy it. These things represent the ?elixir for the restoration of society,? at least, a society following the common ideal of freedom as opposed to oppression. The fact that Leia is Luke?s twin sister represents here the restoration of the balance between his male and female side. This, along with the obtaining of the plans (representative of the power to destroy the Death Star) and the realization that now that Ben Kenobi can no longer wield the Force and so Luke must take over that role as well, contributes to Luke?s apotheosis.

Of course, the dark forces have not suddenly allied themselves with Luke, and so give ?lively pursuit? when he tries to make the return journey. It is only by sacrificing the life of Ben Kenobi, and by blasting their way out of the Death Star with TIE fighters at their afterburners that Luke, Han and Chewbacca can return with the prize to the forest moon of Yavin. However, the return is not complete until Luke has destroyed the threat, the Death Star: although it is Luke who returns to the Death Star to destroy it, the planet-killing weapon of the Death Star is the guardian of the return threshold, as the boon of freedom cannot be bestowed upon the galaxy until this final threshold is crossed and the danger is completely averted. It is during this episode where we see Luke?s transformation from simple farm-boy into godlike being: he gains the power of the Force, the mystical power. By using his newfound ability he becomes ?master of the two worlds?, able to pass back and forth between the mystical and mundane and to call upon the power of the Force at will, and only now is he able to ?re-emerge from the kingdom of dread? and bestow the boon of freedom upon civilization.

While Star Wars is a modern incarnation of the monomyth, the ideas contained within Campbell?s book permeate, indeed, constitute, the stories of every ancient culture in human history, from the Classical stories of the Greeks and Romans to Native American creation myths to the tales of the ancient Japanese. The monomyth idea applies to any story, for in any story, the hero has a goal, and must face obstacles in obtaining that goal. Campbell also tells us that there are certain symbols in mythology that are common to many cultures, and to many myths. The myth of the eight-headed serpent is an example of the use of the snake to represent evil, a symbol echoed in the Judeo-Christian religious mythology we call the Bible. The naga legend of India, of half-human, half-snakes, and the mae myth of the Melanesians, in which shape-shifting snakes take the forms of women and trick young fishermen, are examples of the image of the snake as trickster. The Japanese myth, however, has a twist in that the hero of the story outwits the snake.

This particular hero?s journey is rather uncomplicated but unconventional; it skips a few steps, and combines some, adhering to the very basic structure of the monomyth but jumbling the sequence a bit. The call to adventure consists of a summons from his king; in this case, the herald of the call is not loathly or terrifying but is nevertheless a great power and commands obedience. The hero?s mission is to slay an eight-headed serpent, which has been terrorizing the people of the kingdom, and restore the boon of freedom to the people as in Star Wars. The multiple heads of the creature imply some sort of trickery, just as to call a person ?two-faced? implies deviousness. The snake is both the guardian to the threshold of the sacred-marriage stage and the trial that the hero must face in order to obtain the boon. To overcome the guardian, the hero sets out sake for the beast on its annual killing visit to the kingdom, which the snake drinks, thereby becoming drunk and vulnerable enough for the hero to be able to cut off all its heads, killing it. The boon, freedom for the kingdom from fear of the snake, is achieved; the hero?s ascent to godliness is that by marrying the princess, as he was promised if he killed the monster, he would become a prince. The marriage to the princess also incorporates the idea of the ?mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World,? or, in this case, the princess of the kingdom who affords the hero similar powers. The marriage also represents a spiritual awakening and a reunification with his feminine side; a completion, if you will. The hero?s apotheosis is now complete, as is his journey, as he has restored freedom to the kingdom.

Not every myth, however, encompasses every part, or even most parts, of the hero?s journey; some focus on one particular part in order to make one particular point. The myth of Izanaki and Izanami is one such myth, reminiscent of the Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Izanaki?s love for his ?sister-wife? Izanami is so great that he travels to the underworld in order to be reunited with her. Like Persephone, Izanami is somewhat trapped in the underworld because she has eaten of its sustenance; however, like Eurydice, she has the chance to return to the world of the living if Izanaki does not look at her. However, Izanaki does, and sees her rotting corpse. This scares him, and he runs from her, eventually placing a ?rock which it would take a thousand men to lift? between them. The rock represents the ?protecting veil which we all have held, ever since, between our eyes and the grave.? Izanami?s descent into the underworld perhaps represents a fall from spiritual grace, and her brother-husband?s attempted rescue of her symbolizes an attempt to save her from her fate. The aspect of the monomyth shown here is that of the ?magic flight? on the return journey; when Izanaki sees the true form of Izanami, which is that of a permanently corrupted corpse, he attempts to flee and save his own spiritual being from the same fate. Opposing forces pursue him, and he must erect the barrier between life and death, between spiritual well-being and spiritual decay, in order to save himself. In a way he has failed, because he did not succeed in his quest to save Izanami; however, he has also succeeded, because he has placed a barrier between the ?overworld? and the spiritual corruption of the underworld.

Stories don?t have to be actual religious myths in order to adhere to the monomyth; in fact, every story ever told, provided it has a plot, is a retelling of at least some part of the monomyth, either literally or symbolically. The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not a complete hero?s journey, as it is not the last of Gawain?s adventures. Rather, it is the beginning and the middle of a journey, beginning with the call to adventure. The herald of the call in this case, the Green Knight, is a ?beast;? his green color must also be noted, as the ?dark forest? is a typical circumstance of the call, and may be symbolized by the green, and by the ?long-legged, large-limbed? appearance of the Knight. His less-than-gentlemanly entrance is the literary equivalent of the ?spontaneous appearance of the figure of the herald in the psyche that is ripe for transformation.?

By taking the Green Knight?s challenge and striking him the blow, Gawain heeds the call to adventure. The adventure is literally to find the Green Knight and to take back the same killing blow; one could say that the symbolic ?adventure? in this case is the journey from fear of mortality to courage, the journey from faithlessness to faith, from faltering spirituality to full. Once Gawain knows what is in store for him ? a killing blow to the neck ? he does not turn away, but rather faces his duty with growing courage, although he is ?sad? when he speaks with Arthur about what he must do.

It is when Gawain reaches the dwelling of the Green Knight that he faces the threshold guardian, in the guise of Lady Bertilak, the lady of the house, who attempts to seduce Gawain and cause him to stray from his righteous path. The image of the guardian as temptress is quite common; Campbell mentions ?sirens of mysteriously seductive, nostalgic beauty? to symbolize ?fancied dangerous delight? to which the hero must not give in. This would not only be a failure of the journey to righteousness and courage, but would also cause Gawain?s death as we find out later. Twice Gawain faces the guardian?s poisonous kisses, and twice he spurns them. He refuses to be physically or spiritually defiled by the sin of adultery. However, when the Lady offers Gawain a ?magic girdle? that she promises will save him from death, his survival instinct wins and he does not defer. His journey is not yet finished, for he is not ready for apotheosis until he is truly able to enter the deathlike belly of the whale and experience a rebirth; until he develops faith and conquers his fear of death, rebirth is impossible.

Gawain faces the second threshold guardian on the day when Lord Bertilak, who had been sent to King Arthur?s court in the guise of the Green Knight, is to strike him the lethal blow. Lord Bertilak is not truly a threshold guardian in and of himself but rather is an extension of his wife the guardian, as he merely carries out the consequences of the decisions that Gawain has made regarding the advances and tests of his wife. Twice the axe descends, and twice it does not cut. The third time, however, Bertilak nicks Gawain?s neck, as punishment for the untruth of the girdle. Gawain has been tricked, and has not completely achieved the knightly ideal of perfect courage and perfect faith; therefore, he has not completed his hero?s journey, and will, of course, return in later installments of the King Arthur story.

Myths and stories are of the utmost importance to us as humans. We tell them and read them to amuse ourselves and to understand ourselves; indeed, each of us is on his or her own hero?s journey through life. We all receive the call to adventure many times over our lives, sometimes for more important and prominent experiences than others, but always for learning and growth. Personal growth, the growth of the hero, is the common theme that ties the monomyth together and cements it: whether a hero succeeds or fails on his journey, he always learns something, as do we all in our journey through life. Each of us faces the guardians of the thresholds separating one stage of life from the next: they are needed in order to gauge our readiness to move on. If we cannot defeat them, we are not ready to move to the next level of understanding or the next part of life. Our lives are filled with trials, each of which both scares us and gives us confidence once we overcome it. We enter the belly of the whale at particularly painful times, such as the breakup of a marriage or the death of a loved one, and emerge a changed, even reborn. Each time we have painful learning experiences, we have obtained the boon of knowledge, and we bring this back to share with the world in the form of music, literature, any form of communication. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has not only provided us with a blueprint of the stories we tell, but of who we are as humans and why we do the things we do.


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