“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Joseph Campbell
About a hundred and fifty years ago, several scholars began to perceive a pattern in various hero stories told around the world. They discerned a remarkably consistent template of stages that the hero seems to go through in his quest. The details are different from culture to culture but the broad actions are the same.
This “Hero’s Journey,” or “Monomyth” was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero of a Thousand Faces,” along with a subsequent series of televised interviews with Bill Moyers in the 1980’s.
The framework of the monomyth can be found in our myths, legends, folklore, literature and even the stories we tell ourselves in movies and television shows. Screenwriters study the Hero’s Journey as an effective tool for storytelling. George Lucas has commented on the influence of Joseph Campbell’s book when he wrote the screenplay for the first Star Wars movie (part IV “A New Hope” in the current canon.) This template shows up time and again across genres and media.
What is it about the Hero’s Journey that captures our imagination? Like the parables of Jesus, these hero stories have a spiritual element to them. While we are entertained by the adventures of the hero, we also perceive that they are telling us a deeper truth about our own inward journey of the soul in its quest for meaning in life. All of the heroes you have encountered in myth, legend, literature, and even TV and movies, are merely yourself in disguise. All of the goals of the heroes, the quest for treasure, slaying the dragon, winning the princess (or the prince) and saving the kingdom, point towards the goal of our spiritual journey, to find God, to have a personal encounter with the divine.
We may not be facing down physical dragons but every day we struggle against the dragons of the mind that prevent us from finding our true selves. We are all on a spiritual journey. The destination of that journey, the culmination, is everlasting life, to be at one with God.
We really tell the same story over and over again, because it is our story, the story of our spiritual transformation. We just dress it up in different ways. And movies have become our most popular form of telling stories.
It should not surprise us that stories from different times and different cultures all over the world share a common structure, because they are all attempts to tell the story that all of humanity shares, the story of our salvation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
“The coming of God’s Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries. He makes everything converge on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the “First Covenant”. He announces him through the mouths of the prophets who succeeded one another in Israel. Moreover, he awakens in the hearts of the pagans a dim expectation of this coming.” CCC 522
Screenwriter and documentary filmmaker Phil Cousineau has said, “the monomyth …is a philosophical reading of the unity of mankind’s spiritual history, the Story behind the story.”
In this series of articles I hope to break down the stages of the Hero’s journey and reflect upon how it illuminates our own spiritual journey. If we can see ourselves as the hero of our own story by reflecting on the stories of our popular culture, we may gain some insight into where we are going, where we are on the journey, and what to do when we encounter those dragons of the mind. Which landmarks or guide posts have we already reached? What still lies ahead of us? Along with the pattern of the monomyth I also will look at the various stock characters we encounter in our movies and myths and how they show up in our lives over and over again.
In part II I will take a look at the broad outline of the Hero’s Journey and how it translates to our movies and and inward journey of the Spirit.