Joseph Campbell‘s proposal of the monomyth has stood the test of time, and cinema. The concept, which he derived from a thirteenth century German Grail Romance called Parzival, was straightforward enough: the Hero, tasked with a (Holy) Quest, goes through a sequence of stages, trials and victories, before he returns from where he started from. Yes, I did use the masculine pronoun; we’ll get to that in a moment.
Campbell called this sequence the Monomyth, otherwise known as the Hero’s Journey. His books on the subject, starting with The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and culminating in what many consider his Magnum Opus, The Power of Myth (1988), spanned a career that would shape generations of artists across all media.
Famously, George Lucas attributed the success of Star Wars to his reading of Campbell; he referred to him as “my Yoda”. The Power of Myth, which was an interview series with famed journalist Bill Moyers, was filmed at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch.
Since then, Hollywood has been using Campbell’s Monomyth as a guide for films. If this intrigues you, here are two titles that have documented and shaped Tinseltown’s relationship with Campbell:
First, there is The Writer’s Journey in Myth: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler.
Vogler follows Campbell’s lead: first he breaks down primal narrative archetypes. These are:
- Mentor: Wise Old Man or Woman
- Threshold Guardian
Then he proceeds to the Monomyth itself, the hero’s journey, which he divides into 12 stages:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Crossing the First Threshold
- Approach to the Inmost Cave
- The Ordeal
- The Road Back
- The Elixir
Towards the end of the text, Vogler adds a filmography.
This, in turn, leads directly to another book on the subject: Stuart Voytilla’s Myth & the Movies: Discovering the Myth Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films, with a foreword by our previous author, Christopher Vogler.
While it is dated, it does present the wide array of genres that seem to follow the general archetypal pattern laid out by Campbell, one which continues to this day.
Campbell himself worked with a seventeen-stage model:
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Supernatural aid
- Crossing the threshold
- Belly of the whale
- The road of trials
- The meeting with the goddess
- Woman as temptress
- Atonement with the father
- The ultimate boon
- Refusal of the return
- The magic flight
- Rescue from without
- The crossing of the return threshold
- Master of two worlds
- Freedom to live
Now, let’s consider the most Gender biased points in Campbell’s 17-point thesis:
7. The meeting with the goddess
8. Woman as temptress
Here’s what Campbell has to say about the meeting with the goddess, point 7:
“The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity. And when the adventurer, in this context, is not a youth but a maid, she is the one who, by her qualities, her beauty, or her yearning, is fit to become the consort of an immortal. Then the heavenly husband descends to her and conducts her to his bed—whether she will or not. And if she has shunned him, the scales fall from her eyes; if she has sought him, her desire finds its peace.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton Classic Edition, 109-110)
And now, to point 8, Woman as temptress:
“But when it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul…The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton Classic Edition, 112)
Maureen Murdock, a former student of Joseph Campbell, asked him about the Heroine’s Journey.
Campbell’s pithy reply: she doesn’t have one.
“Women don’t need to make the journey,” he told Murdock. “All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
In other words, the woman is the object of the Quest. She isn’t even a person, since she’s the place where people (i.e., men) are trying to get to.
This prompted Murdock to write a response, in the form of a book: The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness.
I have a great deal of respect for what Campbell contributed to the field of comparative mythology. I wouldn’t be writing these words if it wasn’t for his work…but honestly, it’s time for a new paradigm.
Some will argue that all we have to do is substitute the word heroine for hero, woman for man, and maybe that’s a solution.
Or maybe it’s time to rethink the whole journey; no one, male or female, LGBTQI, or A*, should be the object of anyone’s quest. It eliminates agency, it demeans personhood, and it removes free will.
[*LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual and asexual and everything else]
If you read Campbell’s inspiration, Parzival, his bias makes sense. Parzival’s quest for the Holy Grail is tied with his quest for his abandoned wife, Queen Condwiramurs, who is the second the most underdeveloped woman in the entire story.
The award for the first most underdeveloped female is the Grail maiden, who is married off to his half-brother, Feirifez. She is as much an object as the Grail that she represents…
In the case of Odysseus, Penelope waited, but she waited creatively, weaving and unweaving her tapestries.
Condwiramurs, too weak to protect to her own kingdom in the first place, merely waits.
The narrative of Parzival does contain strong, developed women: his mother, the witch Cundry and the recurring character of his cousin Segune.
But all Condwiramurs does is wait.
Then again, after all, she is the object of Parzival’s quest.
To reiterate Campbell: “Women don’t need to make the journey; all she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
Sorry, Joe. All of us need to make the journey, regardless of gender, orientation or identity.
I don’t know what exactly the new myth, the Polymyth, will look like. But given that the Monomyth objectifies at least half of the human race…
It’s time for a better story.
Let’s tell it.