The Hero’s Journey Has Ended

Comparative mythology allows us to see certain recurring patterns within different mythologies. This tends to be most useful in reconstructing the stories and beliefs of the past. For example, by analyzing common themes and linguistics in Indo-European stories, mythologists have roughly reconstructed Proto-Indo-European beliefs, at least to some extent.

We see a recurring theme of a sky god/warrior bringing down a massive serpent/dragon, or tales of a younger race of gods overthrowing an older order.

We cannot even begin to speak of comparative mythology without considering Joseph Campbell, famed for his book, Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell was a literature professor and student of mythology and religion, but he was heavily influence by Jung’s work in psychology, and by earlier anthropological work in creating a single narrative.

While I respect the contributions Campbell has made to comparative mythology and its study, I don’t share his conclusions. I reject the Hero’s Journey (the “monomyth”), archetypes, 7 basic plots, and any other reductive device for streamlining characters and arcs. These techniques strip individual stories of nuance and leave adherents prone to confirmation bias, finding evidence for their views as they reframe narratives to fit their conceptions.

Folklorists have long criticized the monomyth approach for the simple reason that, once the principle is accepted, readers of a story will invariably gravitate to versions of that tale they think adhere to their view. They see confirmation whether it was there or not, and fail to see what lies in contradiction. It’s human nature to unconsciously ignore evidence outside our conceptions, and requires conscientious effort to overcome this bias. And there are many versions of myths and folktales, varying over time and geography, contradicting one another, and changing according to the teller’s agendas.

Folklorist Alan Dundes says of Campbell, “there is no single idea promulgated by amateurs that have done more harm to serious folklore study than the notion of archetype.” Meanwhile, another folklorist, Barre Toelken, writes: “Campbell could construct a monomyth of the hero only by citing those stories that fit his preconceived mold, and leaving out equally valid stories… which did not fit the pattern.”

Most academic studies in the past two or three decades have moved away from any sort of universal categorization, toward more nuanced approaches. 

This is to say nothing of the well-documented feminist criticism that the hero’s journey very poorly represents the struggles encountered by female protagonists.

The Hero’s Journey famously inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars. Which is fine and good. Star Wars is fun. That does not mean this theory, which managed to leap from a psychologist’s ruminations into mainstream consciousness, has not had its day or should continue serving as a tool for analyzing either myths or modern tales.

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