Deconstructing the Heroic

So, I stumbled across a blog entry/article about the hero myth – which lists reasons why it blows: Eight Reasons Why the Hero Myth Sucks.

As someone who grew up reading and watching a lot of “heroic” fiction, I found it amusing and also irritating. I read the same books about the Hero Cycle as the author of the article, and other books by Campbell as well – and Graves and Frazer and Walker and other “pop anthropologists”.

Anyone from my generation (or perhaps more accurately my perspective) who watched the original Star Wars in its first release in 1977 [and the subsequent documentary series Campbell did with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth) which includes a discussion with George Lucas about how the Hero Myth influenced the writing and making of Star Wars] might at first get rankled or defensive about the “eight reasons” presented in the article.

Another point that might raise some ire is that it isn’t until the very last line of the piece that we get the supposition that the Hero Cycle is something that should be relegated to High Fantasy (which from the language used makes it appear as though the author despises this genre of storytelling) and that some other type of storytelling needs to be used to relate to us Sci-Fi adventures or tales – yet no example is given as to what that should be.

I guess the author feels that they made their point, now its up to someone else to “fix it.”

The article made me smile, and also caused me to think – some of the points which I agreed with, in part – and others I didn’t.

Let me get my negative issues out of the way first… it’s my blog post so naturally I get to voice my little opinion 🙂

Heros-JourneyThe Hero Cycle is something that has validity and influence. If you want to discuss it, read the Campbell book and the corresponding myths for yourself, find the similarities and differences and form your own opinion about them … rather than accept one person’s assertion that it is crap. This is typified by one line in the article that reduces the Hero Cycle’s relevance by implying that Campbell’s research was myopic and selective – which it may very well have been.

It’s not that I disagree with the article so much perhaps with its tone. And I own that, that’s my little peccadillo about presentation. I appreciate snark and sarcasm as much as anyone – but if you want to pass something off as jumping off point for discussion – then maybe you shouldn’t dismiss things as something you “read while stoned”. It implies that you are being clever, and being clever has nothing to do with being intelligent.

The comment section below the article boasts that the piece was written to spark debate, to open up a dialogue that will – I don’t know – lead to better story-telling? It just seems to me to be yet another example of using the internet to give voice to another in an endless stream of snarky, personal viewpoints and to beat one’s chest about one’s oh-so important, cynical and insightful opinion (much like my response :)). The article is even filed as a RANT, which implies something written in disgust, anger or as a whiny complaint. And it has the overall air of someone who hated the material when they read it and are basing a lot of their points on thirty years of sub-par entertainment that may or may not have used the Hero Cycle as a blueprint.

As far as this being placed in the Pro-Campbell camp, I guess you could say that is correct – a lot about what I’ll talk about will be supportive of the Hero Myth, but that isn’t to say that I have my issues with it – especially (as I believe what the article is really about) when it comes to present day movies, television, comics, graphic novels and books. For example, I have the personal opinion that Lucas ret-conned his ‘magnum opus’ to fit better with the cycle, rather than using it as a blueprint.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let’s proceed with the “8” points:

1. It’s a formula.

The text of this point isn’t so much an issue with Campbell’s theory, but with those writers or storytellers who have used it in a “lazy” fashion. I would argue that Campbell’s cycle isn’t just concerned with superheroes or legendary characters – it’s something ingrained in a lot of Hollywood media, because let’s be honest, trying to tell a satisfying story squeezed into one hundred and twenty minutes of film is going to require the filmmakers and storytellers hit certain points to consciously or subconsciously clue the viewer into what is going on – and a great number of books about writing screenplays and scripts are all about the cinematic “formula” that is required for a project to “succeed”. Do this in the first five minutes, that in the next ten; conflict, confrontation, resolution. Does that make them correct? For the most part (when it comes to the art of storytelling in film) perhaps, but there are quite a number of examples of films that break the mold and/or stand it on its head. There are a great number of films, books or stories that are hailed as great or significant that follow the “formula”. Jerry Maguire for example, is a hero cycle movie, as is just about every Tom Cruise movie.

So, as far as the author’s problem with Campbell’s Hero Myth for point one, it’s not about Campbell – it’s about the author’s dissatisfaction with mainstream media storytelling.

2. It discourages originality.

From an academic standpoint, this point ignores the tenet that we are mythic beings ourselves, and what the hero cycle is really about is each and every one of us.

The entire article bemoans the fact that the single hero is a tired, trite and overused chestnut in storytelling. It has no relevance today and should be thrown out in favor of – what? The article really doesn’t offer up any alternative. Even the examples given in this point don’t support the thesis: Firefly/Serenity ( I guess because its a about a crew on a spaceship rather than a single hero?) may not be about a single hero, but divides the hero mythic archtype among them and most damning James Robinson’s Starman — which has the hero following the blueprint of the myth – the call to action (he’s the son of hero), the rejection (he disdains his father), the trauma created because the hero refuses the call (his brother is murdered) — and so undermines the author’s intent. And so I guess as these are favorites of the author, they are excluded from the argument.

The whole point of a myth or a hero story is for the reader or viewer to put themselves into the shoes of the hero. It isn’t happening in front of them, they are taking part in it. Why do you think you identify with Luke Skywalker or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Because they are just like you – alone, confused and yes, chosen. If you don’t think you are the hero of your own story, then you are truly ego-less and will probably vanish in poof of enlightened magic dust any second now.

Has it discouraged originality? Perhaps – but again, this isn’t anything to do Campbell’s cycle, it has more to do with screenwriters and scribes attempting to duplicate Lucas’s success and with the symbiotic relationship with the media that is being created (the endless stream of crappy “hero” movies) and the masses who keep buying it. But I’d argue for every schlocky piece of junk that gets made for the SyFy channel, you will get one Big Hero Six or Wall-E that will take the hero myth and make it new for you.

3. Why is one hero special anyway?

The last two sentences of this point really do speak to what the author really seems to be dissatisfied with: their place in the cosmos and their seemingly helplessness about being able to do anything about it. They are everyman, just like the rest of us – as they point out in the first sentence of this point – all of us get the call to adventure, but not all of us are Peter Parker or Nelson Mandela or Beyonce or Christa McAuliffe. Most of us are just the faceless masses – which is exactly why the hero myth is retold over and over and over again. So we can be those people, or try to be those people – and to be better because of it. Not just sitting there consuming and then complaining when it doesn’t satisfy.

It’s not that the Hero Myth is at issue here – it’s about being bored and “over” stories that don’t speak to them.

4. The “hero” is always a d00d.

This point is short and bitter, and again, speaks to the author’s dissatisfaction, not any real insight into the Hero Cycle. Reducing it to “she’s hawt and he’s a guy” feeds into the very reasons why we still have a battle of the sexes. It offers no insight or solution to the issue – and disregards the fact that a number of female-centric ‘hero myth’ mainstream media role-reverses this notion, or ignores it entirely. Does Ripley require a “hawt” male to motivate her? No.

The hero isn’t always a d00d. Not by a long shot.

If you really breakdown the Hero Cycle, you would understand that the ‘goddess’ isn’t necessarily a woman – it is temptation or desire, plain and simple. But because we are human, because we are divided into male and female, it tends to be represented by desire for the feminine – because, they were tales told by men. You could write a thousand page treatise on why that sucks and make a much better case for why movies and other media are repetitive and unsatisfying.

5. It’s cheesy as hell.

It’s really hard to take the article seriously at this point. The language used here, suggests that the author is “so over” language and metaphor that doesn’t fit in their worldview. They dismiss it as New Age and cheesy, allowing the cynicism and ego to dictate what they perceive to be the truth about everything. Again, this point isn’t about the uselessness or criticism of Campbell’s theory. It’s a trite and childish response written in such a way as to belittle the things the author disdains.

6. He shoehorned a lot of myths into his theory.

This point seems to accuse Campbell of cherry picking – but in of itself is written as cherry picking. It ignores the main thrust of the theory to deride it as incorrect – kind of like saying that climate warming isn’t real because, “Look! What a terrible winter we are having.”

Campbell states that he is looking for the similarities between myths – an attempt to bring us together and to show that we are not so different as people and as cultures. Isn’t the definition of difference variation? And so choosing to see a difference as a variation is seen as shoddy, dime-store anthropology. Yet the author decries this because difference is apparently better than similarity – us vs. them is preferable than us and them. Which seems to me to be the real problem with media and storytelling – it’s repetitive. If the “hero” stories the author is so troubled by are similar, its because they celebrate violence, conflict and the division the keeps us at odds with one another – life is conflict, plain and simple.

7. It confuses personal growth with solving problems.

I’m not sure I can disagree fully with this point – there is validity in the statement that “defeating a great evil just requires fighting like hell and doing what has to be done”. Still, the phrase “there’s no time to meet the goddess or touch your magic wand” speaks to being tired of male-centered story-telling, not the underlying significance of the Monomyth.

The “article” ignores entirely what Campbell was getting at – the myth that is alive in your life. I guess because all the signposts are not clearly marked or because we are not named Theseus or Diana or Buffy or Leeloo that the mythic qualities of our lives are missed or even worse, ignored.

The author clearly does not like myth or metaphor. But every story, every great story – isn’t just about what’s on the surface. It’s what isn’t seen, it’s the story being told underneath that speaks to you. It isn’t that Luke Skywalker is the chosen one (at least not in the first release of Star Wars: Episode IV — maybe after Lucas ret-conned it to be so) – Luke is the little guy.

Luke is you.

And that’s what I think the author truly missed in this attempt to deconstruct the hero cycle. Or maybe they are just too cool for school and if it isn’t handed to them on the surface, then it isn’t worth the time.

To dismiss it as unrealistic misses the point entirely – myths are not supposed to be realistic. They are about heightened versions of ourselves. Just like Mal and the crew of the Serenity are heightened versions of ourselves, as Buffy is, or Ripley or Charlie Baltimore or Jerry Maguire or Bone or the rabbits of Watership Down.

8. (at least I think it’s point 8, it’s not marked as such in the article)

The bottom line is: give us messy stories in our Science Fiction.

And yet, no true examples of what messy sci-fi is are given – it’s just left hanging, as though it were so insightful and mind altering that it would be plain as the nose on your face.

The article itself falls victim to the very thing it seems to be against – lazy writing. It’s trite, it passes off opinion as fact and it offers no alternative solution to the issue it raises. It’s just complaining to complain.

Writing is hard work. Storytelling is hard work, especially in an age where it is delivered in such a high rate of speed. So what is the real problem with the Hero Myth?

Maybe its that we’ve been led to believe, as the author clearly does, that it doesn’t apply to you. It’s only for a select few, the special ones, the chosen ones. All you can do is sit back and watch and wish.

I’d like to think that the myth does apply to each and every one of us. It’s just that our lives are not condensed into two hours of celluloid or 500 pages of prose narrative. It’s hard to feel heroic when you irritable bowel syndrome, or the phone bill is due or you are sitting in a movie theater and watching another story about someone who isn’t you.

UPDATE: just want to add a quote from Campbell here, because I think it fits:

“It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and of your own mystery. This gives life a new radiance, a new harmony, a new splendor. Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” — Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers)

As was said in one of my favorite films from not too long ago “Holmes, you need to widen your gaze.”

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Heroic

  1. Well said! Thoughtful and right on target. Campbell is not a god,nor is his work without flaw. However, he gave us profound insight into the human experience, and the fact that his work has been debased and degraded into a “fiction formula” by some people is not Campbell’s fault. Vogler, who translated the monomyth into a screenwriter’s model, originally used the monomyth to find problems in story development, not to dictate story structure. Thank you for the clear rebuttal.

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  2. Just came across this and really enjoyed it, thanks! Perhaps part of the problem is in the name of the Hero Cycle, and all the connotations that ‘hero’ has come to assume. Campbell’s model fits plenty of medieval saints’ lives, for example, and they’re hardly traditional heroic stories. It’s too easy for modern readers to forget that myths were supposed to provide guidance rather than just exciting stories. The Hero’s Journey can help people through difficult changes in their own lives – even if they aren’t on a quest to save the world one battle at a time!

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