The Hero’s Journey: Should Writers Read Joseph Campbell?

If you have any interest in writing or narrative theory, you have probably come across the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey was first identified and described by Joseph Campbell, a writer, lecturer and professor of mythology, in his most famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After decades of reading and studying the myths of the world, Joseph Campbell wrote this book to describe the patterns he found common to myths from every culture in every corner of the world. This basic pattern he called the hero’s journey, or the “monomyth.” The Hero with a Thousand Faces began to gain popular traction in the 70’s and 80’s, following the release of the Star Wars trilogy, which writer/director George Lucas described as being heavily influenced by Campbell’s work (he frequently calls Campbell his “Yoda”). Then, in the early 90’s, Christopher Vogler, a development executive working for Disney at the time, who was also a student of Campbell’s work (and friends with the people who created The Hero’s Journey, a documentary film about Campbell’s work and life), created a 7-page synopsis of the hero’s journey to help him evaluate and remedy the many scripts that crossed his desk, and he circulated the memo to his colleagues at Disney. Word of this spread to other studios who hounded Vogler for a copy of his synopsis. Eventually, Vogler turned that 7-page memo into a guide for writers, called The Writer’s Journey, which went on to become hugely successful and went a long way to popularizing Campbell’s work as a template for creating successful, powerful stories.

So what, precisely, is the hero’s journey? Campbell describes it in its most basic form as follows: “The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life” (quoted from Pathways to Bliss).

Today, the Hero Journey has become a well known method by which writers construct and shape their work. And following Vogler, many other similar books and writing guides were written, and a quick Google search for the hero’s journey will yield over 15 millions results. So, this all begs the question: if you are a writer, when there are so many guide books and synopses on the internet do you really need to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces itself? Well, despite being biased towards giving a quick, loud, and emphatic YES! to that question, the short answer is actually no, you don’t.

Here’s why:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces was not written to be a “how-to” writing guide. It’s not Save the Cat!. If your interest in the hero’s journey is strictly towards using it as a writing guide, you’ll probably be better served by one of the many books actually written for that purpose, like Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

– Books like The Writer’s Journey which are specifically geared towards writers and the writing process specifically teach the hero journey by relating it to modern stories, especially film. Seeing how the hero journey operates in modern stories and mediums is probably more immediately useful to a writer than adapting the journey from myths – which follow far different logic than modern tales. These kinds of books also typically adapt the hero journey into the standard three- (or five-) act structure, which again, will likely be more practical than Campbell’s work itself.

– Guides to the hero journey present it more succinctly than Campbell does, and if it is your intention simply to learn the pattern in broad strokes, you may find Campbell’s work cumbersome as the bulk of his book is actually demonstrating each step of the journey through relating different myths.

– If you’re already writing “successful” stories (i.e. they entertain readers, whether or not they “sell”), you’re probably already writing the hero’s journey and just aren’t consciously aware of it. Actually, this is rather Campbell’s point. The hero’s journey didn’t appear in every culture in the world because someone went around teaching it, it came out of an experience and expression of life itself, something innate in the human spirit. It’s not something that needs to be taught explicitly, it exists.

Unless you are interested in writing a script, book, or story exclusively for profit (and there’s nothing wrong with that), you probably should at least consider reading Campbell’s work, even though it is certainly not without its critics. Recently, it has become somewhat trendy to reject the hero’s journey as an effective, or desirable template for writing. Largely, I believe, this is due to the fact that Campbell’s work has found its most ardent supporters in Hollywood screenwriters, and has gained a reputation for creating generic action and adventure movies. And certainly, many, many, many mainstream Hollywood movies fit the hero’s journey structure neatly. But, I would argue, just because this is how Campbell’s work has tended to be used, doesn’t mean it is the only way it can be used: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Here’s why you should read Campbell:

– While I have not read every synopsis and adaptation of the hero’s journey as a writing manual, of the many I have read I can tell you that the strong tendency is to oversimplify Campbell’s work, and in some cases, actually misinterpret it. Most of the time, when writers talk about the hero journey, they are actually talking about Vogler, not Campbell. What is mistaken or left out of the discussion of the hero’s journey seriously undermines its complexity and potential:

– Most of these guides focus on a single turn of the hero’s journey, ignoring the larger cosmological context in which Campbell places it (Stealing Fire from the Gods by James Bonnet is about the only one I’ve read that addresses this at all). Mythological systems describe the universe from conception to death. If you imagine this process as a twelve hour cycle on a clock, the hero journey is a single round of the second hand. Ignoring the larger context eliminates much of the diverse potential for Campbell’s work. Not only does the cosmologic cycle include stories about the beginning, life, and end of the universe, it also describes a cycle of “hero eras” and how one generation is succeeded by the next.

– Most of these kinds of books speak about a generic “hero” – which is most likely to be interpreted as an action or fantasy hero. Campbell’s work describes many types of heroes: the primordial hero, the warrior, the lover, the emperor or tyrant, the world redeemer, and the saint. He also describes the recurring patterns in the childhood of the hero.

– As an example of guide books misinterpreting Campbell, most of these books will include a circular diagram of the journey, something that looks like this:

HerosJourneyrightpath

In this diagram, and about 95% of the others I’ve seen, the journey proceeds to the right, in clockwise direction – including the diagram in The Writer’s Journey. The “key” diagram in The Hero with a Thousand Faces heads to the left, in counter-clockwise direction. Nitpicking? Maybe. But Campbell repeatedly describes the hero journey as “the left hand path,” and this does matter. But I’ll let him explain: “There are two kinds of maturity, however. There is that of a traditional society, where the individual moves over into the role of the authority which has been that of the society. Let’s say he becomes the executor, the one who administers the rituals that carry the sense of the culture. He continues in the way of the primary mask. On the other hand, in our culture world we have a more open view. The individual at this time may be able to have the sense of a destiny and a world work of his own of which the society has no notion. We begin to get a separating. The individual begins to find his own path and the drag, you might say, of the primary mask is gradually thrown off. This is what is known as the left-hand path. The right-hand path is that of living in the context of the ideology and mask system – persona system – of one’s local village compound. The left-hand path is that of the individual quest” (quoted from Transformations of Myth Through Time). The hero must leave the boundaries of their society in order to bring back to the world what it lacks. This renewal from beyond is the point of the hero journey. This is a subtle thing, but it matters. Otherwise the hero journey is simply a set of empty plot points.

– Another misinterpretation is of the term “monomyth.” As mono means “one,” this term is understandably interpreted as meaning the hero journey is the sole pattern of story: one myth. But the term monomyth was actually coined by James Joyce, a major influence on Campbell’s work, and it’s definition is “an archetypal story that springs from the collective unconscious” (quoted from Pathways to Bliss). The hero’s journey is not the hidden structure of all stories, it is simply a narrative pattern that occurs in all cultural traditions – therefore appearing to originate in “the collective unconscious.” Creation myths, for example, are not hero journeys.

– The hero’s journey is often interpreted as only appropriate or relevant to the action and fantasy genres. But a story which follows the hero’s journey does not necessarily need to be littered with “fantasy” imagery (i.e. dragons, magical weapons and the like), nor does it necessarily need to be an external, action oriented journey. Along with Joyce, the other major influence on Campbell’s work is psychologist Carl Jung. In fact, many of the hero’s journey guides credit Campbell with the archetypes typically encountered on these kinds of journeys, the wise old man being an example, but the archetypes are from Jung’s work with the symbolism of dreams. But the dominant influence Jung had on Campbell’s understanding of myth was that myths are meant to be read symbolically – not historically – as analogies, and supporters of, psychological transformation. Every story is, to some extent, about a character (or group of characters), who either change, help their culture/society to change, or are destroyed by their inability or unwillingness to change (think of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and the importance of the main character’s “fatal flaw”). The hero’s journey is, at base, about psychological transformation and sometimes, the refusal of it. The archetypes and the journey’s pattern need not be pasted into a narrative at face value, for example, a dragon doesn’t have to be a dragon, it could be a CEO who makes economic decisions regardless of the human cost. The pattern is far more open than it appears, and far more flexible than it is often presented. For example, in a lecture transcribed in Myths to Live By, Campbell discusses the relationship between mythic imagery and schizophrenia, and relates the “night sea journey” of a British soldier who experienced a schizophrenic episode due to PTSD. The journey can be entirely internal and emotional. As Campbell says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “the prime function of mythology and rite is to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.”

– To the above point, many writers complain they find the hero’s journey too confining, and don’t want to create stories that have conventional structure or patterns. Again, the hero’s journey is not a list of plot points. Campbell’s work, including the hero’s journey, was heavily influenced by the work of James Joyce, which couldn’t be called conventional even by the loosest standards. The mistake is interpreting the hero’s journey as a formula: Campbell says no such thing.

– Many of the books that are based on, or use, the hero’s journey or “mythic structure” of some kind, present it as a “magic formula” that will instantly impregnate your story with depth, power, and emotional resonance. This is absolutely untrue. Granted, if you follow the “formula,” you will very likely create a sense of familiarity (which can be a major asset), and you’re not likely to have major structural problems (though that largely depends on your characters as well), but this pattern will not make your story “mythic.” Most of these kinds of guides de-mythologize the hero’s journey. You must remember, the mythologies Campbell is referring to and drawing this from were, and are, religious and cosmological beliefs. Now, releasing a writing guide full of references to “God” and similar concepts is probably not wise: not all people believe in such things, and these kinds of terms are laden with too many secondary associations to be meaningful – Campbell himself relates a story of attending a lecture but needing to interrupt the speaker to ask him what he meant when he said God (Myths to Live By). But if there is one thing Campbell is absolutely clear on, it is that mythology must be, in order to be mythology, “transparent to transcendence.” Myths have “one leg in the field of time and the other in the eternal. The image of a god may look like a human or animal form, but its reference is transcendent of that. … a myth points past itself to something indescribable, an allegory is merely a story or image that teaches a practical lesson” (quoted from Pathways to Bliss). A myth is about how an individual, in a particular society, relates to life: the grand, cosmological mystery of life, and his everyday, practical life, and how one interacts with the other. Without the sense of something beyond the material world, something which ignites wonder, awe, and what James Joyce calls “esthetic arrest,” the dimension of the spirit, you do not have mythology. You have ideology. As Campbell puts it in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, great art “[breaks] windows through the wall of culture to eternity.”

– The point is that the hero’s journey is not a formula. A formula will give you ideology. In The Hero’s Journey, a biographical film made about Joseph Campbell, and it’s companion book of the same name, Campbell explains that he wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces for two groups of people: his students, and artists. But it’s meant to be rather more like a clue, or a signpost, than a rule book for artists. It’s easy to hear The Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired Star Wars and then think if you follow the pattern you’ll make something which connects in the same way, but George Lucas did not use the hero’s journey as a template. Describing the process of writing Star Wars, Lucas relates: “I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I started working, started doing research, started writing, and a year went by. I wrote many drafts of this work and then I stumbled across The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was the first time that I really began to focus. Once I read that book I said to myself, This is what I’ve been doing. This is it. I had been reading other doctors – Freudians, and also dealing with am ample supply of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, and all the other mythical heroes of our times. But The Hero with a Thousand Faces was the first time a book began to focus what I had already been doing intuitively” (quoted from The Hero’s Journey). The hero’s journey helped George Lucas recognize what he was trying to say, it didn’t tell him what to say.

– Here is where we find the real relevance of the hero’s journey to the writer. As Campbell states over and over again in his work: “You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there’s a way or path, it is someone else’s path … You can take your instructions and guidance from others, but you must find your own path” (quoted from Pathways to Bliss). The hero’s journey isn’t meant to be a formula. It’s simply a lantern to help you see through your darkest point in the forest. In fact, I believe Campbell would disapprove of his work being used as some kind of commandment: “All I have done has been to try to show through the traditions that have come to us where this realm of the muses really is, and what happens when a real artist gets hold of it. I’ve seen it in the dance, as I say, with Jean’s work [Jean Erdman, his wife and a professional dancer] and in others like Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham or in the work of sculptors or painters. They don’t try to copy something that has been given to them; they see an experience of their own life in these terms and that takes knowing what the archetype is and forgetting it, then reading out of that something that kicks back all the way. I remember back in the 1940s and 1950s how there were a couple of very important artists who were just doing clichés. This whole thing of the archetypes came up and they were copying archetypes. That’s not what it’s all about; it’s to see and experience the archetypology of a living moment. What the artist must render is a living moment somehow, a living moment actually in action or an inward experience” (quoted from The Hero’s Journey). You learn the pattern and then forget it, you absorb it so it can speak through you: “If you are going to act on the basis of what you know, you cannot just hold onto your knowledge. You have to translate it into a movement. This is the whole thing in the arts. The student studies, studies, studies – learning the techniques, the rules, what it is he must strive for – and when he gets used to doing all of that, then he can move. ‘The creative act is not hanging on, but yielding to new creative movement.’ Think, for instance, of someone studying the piano. There is nothing worse than having somebody in the neighbourhood studying the piano, practising their exercises. There’s nothing at all beautiful about them. Their function is to give you facility. Then presently there comes a point when you have a facility, it happens automatically, and you do not have to think, ‘do… re… me… fa…’ Although analysis facilitates competent action, your spontaneity of action is inhibited when you are constantly thinking about the rules. This is true for everything. The one who attempts to be an artist and has not learned the craft is never going to be an artist. ‘If you find you are trying, go back to school. You’re not ready yet'” (quoted from Reflections on the Art of Living). Putting any kind of external structure on a story is artificial, the story must come from the heart, first, and then you recognize what you’re doing later: “a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart” (quoted from The Inner Reaches of Outer Space).

– Lastly, Joseph Campbell is a beautiful writer, and it is a beautiful book (as are all of his works), they exude love and a deep compassion for humanity and are absolutely worth reading.

Now, all of this isn’t to say you have to read Joseph Campbell. If it sounds that way it’s only because I am myself very interested in his ideas and they ring my internal bells of recognition. His work isn’t meant to be boiled down to 12 plot points: looking outside of yourself or to some authority figure for the “Answers” is the problem the hero’s journey sets out to avoid. Whether you’re attempting to find those Answers in Campbell, Vogler, or anyone else, the hero’s journey is a clue, not a highway. With each story you write you are learning how to write that individual story, which has never been written before, and yet has been written many times. The purpose of the hero’s journey is not to help you write a bestseller, but to help you recognize where you are in your own life and to navigate it, and if you are an artist, to help navigate your art. But if you are treating the hero’s journey as a formula, you have turned the boon to dust. This will either get under your skin, or it won’t. This is simply one lens through which to see story, and it may not be for you. That’s okay, we must, after all, all find our own way.

But Campbell is a wonderful guide.

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3 Responses to The Hero’s Journey: Should Writers Read Joseph Campbell?

  1. Definitely read KalBashir.com’s 2100+ stage hero’s journey analysis. Very in-depth and much more to it than Campbell and Vogler (but read them first).

    • I’m less interested in versions of the hero journey that present themselves as a “how-to write/structure a story” templates, hence why I’m not a huge fan of Vogler, but I will definitely check out your link. Thank you for the recommendation.

  2. , Do not seek illumination unesls you seek it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond. ~ Joseph Campbell I think, if you have even an INKLING to seek illumination, you should follow it. It is a part of yourself that is awakening. You should do what you can in that moment to nurture it. You may not make it to illumination, but no matter how far (or short) you get on your quest, you are going to get some precious amount of illumination. You also will be planting seeds telling the Universe that you have such a desire, and the Universe will begin bringing things about in your favor. Those little inklings will build and build. Certainly, if you desire enlightenment as a drowning man desires air, you will obtain enlightenment sooner. But to ignore the desire because it doesn’t overwhelm you would be to dishonor it, and to tell the Universe you have no interest in it. You won’t make changes in your life until your life is SO difficult you feel you have no other choice. Why wait? If you feel part of yourself desiring illumination or enlightenment, seek it now, no matter how strong or weak the desire. Send out those ripples of change. By so doing, no matter what timeline you are on in this life, you will increase in enlightenment, and share it with those around you.

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About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.