Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is Bunk

We were discussing Campbell’s conception that a wheel-shaped pattern called the Hero’s Journey underpins folk tale and myth for all foundational heroic stories, across all cultures and generations.

I admit to be deeply unimpressed with Joseph Campbell’s writing, after reading three or four of his books. Allow me to say why.

His conceit is that “The Hero’s Journey” begins when some difficulty, a curse or pollution, arises within the safe walls of the home or ordered community where the young hero resides. The hero is reluctant to quest for a solution at first; then goes along the road to adventure; along the way, he receives wise counsel from a mentor, perhaps a wizard or supernatural animal; he enters the perilous realm of the unknown as if entering a cave; he encounters allies and enemies; he suffers a supreme challenge, or death; he is reborn anew; he walks the road of return to find again the known world, now armed with the magic sword, special wisdom, or elixir of life needed to cure the curse; he benefits the community, restores order, and becomes king.

As our own Mary Catelli observes, the problem is that every story could be tortured into the Hero’s Journey.

Please note that, if read in a sufficiently loose way, these steps are not any particular portrayal of human psychology. These steps are the rising action, climax, falling action of any drama.

Joseph Campbell’s effort is the same as the attempt made by Robert Graves in “The White Goddess” to torture everything from astrology to alphabetic writing into being the by-products of an alleged primordial matriarchal religion for which there is simply zero anthropological proof.

All one need do to fit data into a previously invented scheme of things, is to use terms sufficiently ambiguous to cover like cases, and then simply ignore contrary cases. This is why fortune tellers issue fortunes so vaguely-worded: the wording can be stretched to match any outcome. “If you attack Persia, a great empire will fall.”

One can, to  be sure, match up the story of Jonah or Odysseus rather nicely to Joseph Campbell’s story wheel — for both, at first, are reluctant to go, and both spend time either in the underworld or in the belly of the whale.

Moreover, the journey of Aeneas hits many of the same marks as Odysseus because it was a deliberate homage and copy.

But then, Jonah never returns home to set right anything wrong that was wrong there. Nothing is wrong at home; there are no suitors menacing his wife and child. The problem in his story rests in Nineveh. Likewise, Aeneas never goes back to rebuild Troy: it is vanished. Rome is the new Troy; that is the whole point of the poem.

Now, Campbell, or any sufficiently flexible contortionists, can wiggle out of these exceptions by saying the return home is not crucial, or building a second home is the same as returning home, or something of the sort.

But without a return to the starting point, the story is a line or an arc but not a wheel, and whole metaphor erected by Campbell breaks down.

The case becomes worse with tales like Milton’s PARADISE LOST or Homer’s ILIAD. If the Iliad is meant to be the whole story of the rape of Helen and the war with Troy, up to and including the deception of the Trojan Horse and the disasters of the return journeys, some storylines of some of the heroes can be fitted in to the wheel scheme, but not others.

Menelaus returns with his stolen queen on his arm, to set right in Sparta what was wronged when Paris stole her; but his brother Agamemnon is axed to death in the bath by his queen, and she is killed by he son in turn, who is chased by Furies to Athens, and granted clemency by Athena.

But the ILIAD itself only concerns the wrath of Achilles over a dispute over shares of the war-loot, the death of Patroclus and the death of Hector, and the courtesy Achilles shows Priam by returning the body for a proper burial.

One can sort of pin these story elements in place around the wheel, by calling the Achaean war effort “the community”, the injustice of the war-loot division what sets the community out of balance, leading to Achilles sulking in his tent, the death of Patroclus being the crisis that transforms Achilles by stirring him to war-lust again, and the grant of his armor and shield from his divine mother could be something like the sword or elixir meant to solve the problem — but then, in that analysis, Achilles’ reconciliation over the loot dispute would have been the resolution of the story, not the real ending, which is the truce during which the games of Hector’s funeral are held.

Trying to pin the elements of Milton’s PARADISE LOST, either with or without PARADISE REGAINED, however, cannot be done. Satan’s rebellion in heaven is the disruption that gives birth to sin, but he, in Milton, is the only one who undertakes a journey, crosses chaos, commits a crime, and returns in triumph to boast to his hellish peers, only to be turned into a snake. This makes everything worse on earth, but also worse in hell, that is, in the community from which he started worse for everyone, and redoubling the divine wrath under whose interdict they suffer. I suppose one could call this the villain’s journey.

The journey of the Fall of Man, the redemption at the Calvary, and the descent of the New Jerusalem, form an arc, not a wheel, and only the first act of these three-act drama is onstage in PARADISE LOST. The second two acts are foreshadowed, and the beginning of the first act–for the Fall of Angels came before the Fall of Man — is told in flashback, but the other elements of Campbell’s wheel cannot be fitted to this narrative, or, I should say, cannot be fitted without contortion.

The angel Raphael could be considered a supernatural mentor warning Adam beforehand not to fall, the eating of the apple could be the death, but if so, the promise of a redeemer in years to come, or the visions shown by Michael of the fate of Adam’s children is the road of return — which is a difficult parallel to make.

Disney’s BAMBI or THE LION KING can be twisted to fit the wheel of Campbell without much effort, albeit which points are considered the journey into the unknown, the death and resurrection, and the triumphant return might be open to debate.

In both cases, the birth of the son at the opening of the film is parallel to birth of the grandson, and the invasion either by Man and his guns and dogs and forest fire or by singing, goose-stepping jackals, is survived.

DUMBO can also fit this pattern, sort of, but only if we count drinking oneself into a hallucination to be a mythical death and rebirth.

For that matter, since DUMBO and the song Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer follow the same story arc, Rudolf can be a Campbell hero also: he is not called to any adventure, nor is he reluctant to go, but his shiny nose plunges him into the hell of being called names and exiled from reindeer games. Being shunned from leap-deer or high-toss-cockle is sort of like being dead, as far as sensitive young bucks are concerned. The same nose which cursed his life is turned into a blessing when Santa comes to ask him to guide the sleigh. Then all the reindeer love him, and he is promised to go down in history. Which is almost the same as being a king. Except not really.

But it almost fits. Almost.

Except that Rudolf himself, in the song, does not do any act, heroic or otherwise.

In the stop-motion animated Christmas special, Rudolf is given more to do: he gets to get clobbered by a monster defeated by Yukon Cornelius and Herbie the Dentist. But Cornelius goes over the cliff into the underworld, and emerges alive again as Cornelius the White, to have his monster, now tamed, place a star upon the highest bough, so this is almost like returning as king.

But it almost fits. Almost.

On the other hand, the vignette of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Disney’s equally famous FANTASIA does not seem to have any of these elements, because there the Apprentice creates the problem which the annoyed wizard solves merely by walking into the flooded chambers and raising his hands.

It would be a bit of a stretch to liken the moment when the dreaming apprentice wakes from his nap of vainglory, juggling stars and comets, to find himself in a whirlpool as a death and resurrection, nor is he the one who find a magic sword or secret of life to return and solve the problem. He does not even ring the bell and call for the sorcerer to save him. The Apprentice creates a problem by seeking to duck his chores, and his master solves it, and he gets swatted in the bum by a broom.

“Youth learns lesson” is a perfectly good plotline, at least as old and good and well-known as “Boy Meets Girl.” But neither one of them are “Jack Kills Giant” which is the type of hero-tale being here discussed.

Likewise, the title characters in SNOW WHITE,  SLEEPING BEAUTY and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST do indeed die, or are cast into enchanted sleep, and wake when true love breaks the curse. But, despite this, the wheel of the Hero’s Journey does not neatly fit over the story elements.

In the one case, the prince who breaks the spell is a different character from the princess who dies; in one case he is freed from prison by fairies and kills the dragon (who is the evil fairy disguised, or undisguised, as the case may be) with his magic sword; but in the other case the seven dwarves do all the work, chasing the witch to a clifftop, and the lightningbolt of divine wrath smites her and sends her toppling into a dark abyss, followed by sardonic vultures drifting down in lazy circles.

The first prince is imprisoned and released, and does get a magic sword, and does set things right, so this vaguely fits the wheel, if imprisonment is likened to hell and rebirth, and he actually gains a magic sword used to right what is wrong; but the second prince merely shows up and carries her off on his white charger to a castle in the clouds.

Belle the Inventor’s Daughter is more difficult to fit into the wheel, despite that she leaves the unknown for a dark wood, and, upon being kidnapped into a castle, is aided by talking furniture, since her coming to love the Beast is what breaks the curse, and, wakes him from his wounds, or perhaps (take your pick) resurrects him from death.

It is a whole different discussion to ask whether, if the princess resurrects the prince from death with a kiss, rather than being resurrected herself, this is the Heroine’s journey, and if it is really different from the Hero’s journey.

Some elements of any story can be fitted into the wheel of Campbell’s Hero Journey. The living puppet in Disney’s PINOCCHIO, for example, is literally swallowed by a whale, dies, and is resurrected by the Blue Fairy: but he is not called to adventure, but to school, plays truant, gets kidnapped, gets drunk, gets jackass ears and so on. The cricket is a talking animal meant to mentor him, although, watching the film closely, one sees he almost never does.

There is no prize won from the underworld to cure the community, because the problem was Pinocchio’s self-centeredness, not a curse on the town or anything of the sort. But the household is set back in order no less than when Odysseus kills the suitors, when Pinocchio  sacrifices his life for his father, because the household is now filled with fiddle-playing, and the boy and his father live happily ever after with the cricket, fish, and cat.

But in any case, I must ask, if anything is added to the discussion of the story by using Campbell’s nine-step wheel, particularly when steps can be skipped at will, or the nature of the step changed to increasingly loose metaphors?

Myself, as a Christian, am perfectly willing to believe that there is a Monomyth that was written into all human hearts and human history, since it is the story of the Passion of the Christ. Other stories of grain-kings and suffering servants, any tale of downfall and sacrifice and the redemption, any tale of betrayal and injustice, torture and death and hopes dashed and hopes reborn, kingship and triumph, ascension with a promise to return, will fit this Monomyth, which is the one true myth.

The difference between likening stories to the wheel of Campbell’s Hero Journey and the likening stories to the Passion of the Christ is that the Passion tale has wider application.

Nor is it odd that imperfect reflections of this story would not contain all the same elements in all the same order. This is the main drawback of the Monomyth of Campbell, but only to be expected from the Monomyth of Christ.

The universality of the appeal of the story and the reason why cultures and generations far separate, some with no common culture, would tell much the same tale about their holy children born in hiding, Chosen Ones long foretold, sages and moral teachers, kings and conquerors, saviors and lawgivers, demigods and gods, is this: The Monomyth of Christ was written into history and into the human heart by the Great Author who authored both.