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The Hero Has a Thousand Faces? Maybe Not.

Doubtless, every successful novelist has heard of Joseph Campbell. Certainly, every writer who has taken a university course on creative writing has encountered his most famous work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Pantheon Press, 1949). After all, is it not required reading? Yes, it undoubtedly is. Did not Time magazine place the book on its list of the 100 best and most influential books in English? Yes, it did. Has it not been translated into 20 languages and sold over a million copies? Yes, it has. Even George Lucas credits Campbell for being an inspiration for his Star Wars franchise.

As for me, although I’d taken the traditional survey course in English Literature (mainly poetry) during my first year of university, I didn’t pursue the subject (although I was so inspired I really did consider the idea of majoring in English). My subsequent profession was such that, after graduation, I didn’t have the opportunity to take a writing course until I was into my new career as a fantasy writer. This opportunity came about upon moving to Vancouver in 2011 and living on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus. At this point I was three years into writing the first draft of The Ravenstones and determined to continue on the publishing path. All this to say, not only had I never been tasked with reading Campbell’s famous book, I’d never even come across it during my academic studies.

In fact, it was only in 2019 that I first encountered Campbell’s key premise. That arose through reading Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs (Signal Books, 2015).

Here is ‘The Hero’s Journey’ according to Higgs’ retelling (quoting Campbell):

‘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.’

Campbell studied the great foundational myths and literary classics as well as the new psychological theories of the Twentieth Century to arrive at this overarching theory, what he called a monomyth (a word borrowed from James Joyce). According to Higgs, Campbell believed that at the heart of all the myths and stories which mankind has dreamt ‘lies one single archetypal story of profound psychological importance.’ (p. 140)

It seems that story-telling is largely based on this trope and that any author who follows it is in excellent company (Watership Down, The Odyssey, the Harry Potter series; the Sony video game, Journey; the characters of Wolverine and Batman, to name but a few). Common aspects to each story are the ordinary commonplace hero, a call to adventure, an older mentor, the trials, the journey, the confrontation with and defeat of evil and, finally, the hero returns home, rewarded and transformed.

For those of you interested, the following short biography of Campbell from the Joseph Campbell Foundation website is well worth reading.

Using Christopher Vogler’s 12 stages of the hero’s journey, Dan Bronzite (movieoutline.com) adapts the story-telling arc to movie making in a useful and thoughtful post.

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return With the Elixer

Now, without realizing it, that’s the process, more or less, I used in writing The Ravenstones  – a tale of an modest (often reluctant and self-doubting) individual (in my case a polar bear) who is pressed into action. Through undergoing trials and confronting adversity, the character becomes a hero, fighting against the odds and overcoming evil. The first six stages for Eirwen can be found in the first twelve chapters of Eirwen and Fridis. After that, things become more complicated, especially because we’re talking about a story arc that takes seven volumes to complete and a boatload of characters.

Higgs, however, goes on to say that Campbell was wrong. It was, Higgs claims, an invention of Campbell’s own making, one that he based on prevailing 20th century notions of individualism and projected onto the stories of the ages, the evidence fitting the theory instead of the other way around. Now, according to Higgs, in the 21st century, audiences are drawn to a collection of heroes, à la Game of Thrones, The Wire and  Marvel’s team of superheroes, with various interrelated perspectives, troubles and complex story arcs. While Campbell did allow for the hero to find allies along the way, I think Higgs has uncovered a key and important difference. The relationships between a complex network of different characters, Higgs says (p. 142), can engage us more than a story of a single hero being brave. “In the twenty-first century audiences are drawn to complicated, lengthy engagements with characters…The superhero films in the ‘Marvel Comic Universe’ are all connected, because Marvel understand that the sum is greater than the parts.” (pp. 142-3)

I must have understood this distinction instinctually. The Ravenstones begins with the story of Eirwen, our hero #1 who starts the quest and his story follows along this traditional arc. But, at this point, things change and I’d have to go along with Higgs. In fact, after stage 4, I would add a new stage 5 – Meeting the Sidekick – and stage 6 – The Sidekick Becomes an Equal Member of the Team.

(Spoiler Alert!) Readers of the series will know that within a few chapters, the team had already grown to include a duck and a raven. Before one is halfway through the first volume, the list of characters has grown exponentially, although allies and villains are not so clearcut. By Volume 3, Olwen and Eisa, the rest of the heroes (and their foes) are introduced. By Volume 4, the ‘A team’ has solidified and become four, each member with his or her own story arc and each having to overcome ‘demons’, ‘doubts’ and adversity to achieve his or her own quest, while supporting the team’s overarching greater objective. And like the MCU, while there are major and minor members of the team of heroes, each one plays a consequential role and each one is essential to good triumphing over evil.

As to whether our heroes ever reach the final stage (Returning with the Elixer) readers will have to be patient.

Higgs finishes his chapter about science fiction with the following: “If science fiction is our cultural early-warning system, its move away from individualism tells us something about the direction we are headed. This should grab our attention, especially when, in the years after the Second World War, it became apparent just how dark the cult of the self could get.” (p. 143) A thought well worth remembering.

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