Beginner’s note: I want to stress that this is a fun-times blog for me. I’m not a student of mythology (yet). I haven’t read any supplemental books on Campbell or any criticism. This isn’t an academic blog. I’m a nerd with a laptop and no summer job. Is this reminder mostly to keep people from yelling at me and hurting my feelings? Absolutely! But if you’re a more knowledgeable student of mythology and want to share your insights, please, start a conversation. I’d love to chat and learn!
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For this blog’s very first post, I’ve decided to go meta (or something). It’s a post which is pretty standard in its message, and that’s exactly the point. The message is, in essence, “Storytellers and storylisteners like the same story told over and over and over, and that’s okay.” To Joseph Campbell and his particular approach in The Hero With A Thousand Faces¹, this means something for psychoanalysis. I have blessedly little to say about psychoanalysis. So, instead, I’ll try to make this message mean something for modern storytelling, in all its wondrous forms.
The prologue to The Hero is entitled “The Monomyth,” which is pretty self-explanatory: there’s only one story that mythology and fairytale has ever told. Underneath the particulars of each myth and tall tale lies the same storytelling urge, the same skeleton of meaning. It’s a simple enough claim, if not to prove then at least to make. (Or maybe it is easy to prove as well; I haven’t read all the myths in the world, so maybe I underestimate Campbell’s point-proving prowess.) After all, Shakespeare retold stories that had existed for centuries in 1601, and we’re retelling Shakespeare’s retold stories now, centuries later.
The interesting part starts when Campbell asks what all that means.
What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach? (4)
For Campbell, this leads into a long discussion about dreams, rites of passage, and doctors of psychoanalysis. Like I said, I know nothing about psychoanalysis; I won’t touch that part. But I’m fascinated by his classification of mythology as a way to “carry the human spirit forward” as a rite of passage in itself (11). Rites of passage, by definition, grow us; they help us mature past a point of dependence on something. For Campbell, it’s something rather straightforward and specific, such as a child’s dependence on its mother.
Maybe I overstep my dilettante bounds, but I think the monomyth is a more general, overarching rite of passage than that. Knowledge of, appreciation for, and love for mythology – for all the oldest stories that have stuck with us for so long, for some vital reason – help us move past an immature dependence on the purely physical. Fairytales and wild folktales provide a reality that goes past our immediate appetites, into Possibilities and Higher Callings and Weird Talking Animals that Hopefully Don’t Exist, but at least if you run into them, you know what to do, and even if you don’t run into them, that’s not to say that they aren’t there. Myths help us remember that we’re more than carbon-based programs to whom survival is the only objective.
We’ve* tried for a long time to move past the basics, past the monomyth, past the story. We tried to write new, original stories; we tried to create tales that surpassed the expected. We turned ‘original’ into a value statement. And, from where I’m standing, it’s all failed pretty spectacularly. Not because all stories marketed as NEW and FRESH and SHOCKING have been terrible – they haven’t, by a long shot – but because the best stories this ‘original’ urge has created have been incredibly faithful to what we’ve always loved: the story. Sure, it got marketed as something no one had ever done before, but the only things that changed were the hero’s gender and the CGI effects, the setting and the antagonist’s motivations. Nothing really changed; they just sold us that line to sell copies. What are superheroes except Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Susanoo in color-coded armor?
The movie industry is getting a lot of flak recently for franchises: for digging up dead ones, for stretching out existing ones, for making new ones when they should have just stayed one movie with an cute and morally ambiguous ending and quirky music and a Julie Andrews cameo and the small cheese-puff army staying in the background as occasional comic relief, dadgummit. (I have trust issues.) Nothing is original, people will say; everything is a remake or a book-to-movie transition or a remake of a book-to-movie transition. But, to be honest, I’m okay with this current state of affairs. The search for ‘new stories’ is a losing game, and I’m glad we’re doing away with even pretending to play. It’s not like Marvel is doing anything radical – Homer did Civil War already, complete with shield imagery. And I like the whole book-to-movie-to-TV-to-stage-to-the-stars thing. We’re finding the lasting stories that can withstand multiple tellings. (Sidenote: Fifty Shades is an outlier and won’t be counted.)
I like the retelling age. I like that we’re not trying to shuffle off our natural copycat impulse, that we recognize that some stories – the story – is worth hearing again, in all the ways that our great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents knew. Is the “YA Fairytale Retellings” table at Books-A-Million filled with great literature? Nah. Most of it is pretty unbearable, in my opinion. Is Rick Riordan out of fricking control? Yes. He’s drunk on his own power and will probably become one of his own overpowered villain-gods, to be cast down by a lovable band of misfits seconds before chaos and spin-offs engulf the world.
I think it all says something, though. Maybe we’re rediscovering what we’ve had for thousands of years: heroes fighting evil, girls toeing off against witches, trips to the underworld, reemergences and returns home. All that good stuff. If it takes a handful of bad adaptions to tell a good one – if we have to listen to some other poets at the fire before we find Homer – I’m okay with that.
* When I say “we,” I of course speak from a limited perspective, specifically from an American perspective. I don’t know much about storytelling elsewhere, except that they watch The Amazing World of Gumball and Adventure Time in Paris, France. I don’t know if TAWoG fits the monomyth or not; that’s a topic for a later post.
¹ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Cleveland & New York: Meridian Books, 1968.