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Why I Seldom Teach The Hero's Journey Anymore -- And What I Teach Instead

02/24/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

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Back when I was in grad school myth was seldom spoken of in public without a sneer. Kid stuff! Only recently had Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers opened the discussion with their influential television series The Power of Myth.

Today, you hear about myth everywhere: in sales (for the ancient Greeks Nike was a goddess and Atlas a god), marketing strategy guides, motivational presentations in corporate boardrooms. Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time, Star Wars, The Avengers, Maleficent, and the list goes on and on. The public is starved for myth, as philologist JRR Tolkien learned when he published The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. NASA's new shuttle is named Orion.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell writes,

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.

We need adequate stories that bring magic and make meaning. Without them we swallow isms, fads, slogans, gadgets, violent fundamentalisms, and we are lucky if the worst we get is emotional indigestion.

Campbell believed that all myths the world over told one story. Borrowing a word from James Joyce, he called this one story the Monomyth. The Monomyth is the Hero's Journey.

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.

The great spiritual teachers, culture bringers, warriors, and saints: these are examples of Heroes who obey a Call to Adventure to descend into the depths of the time and of themselves, fight the dragon (whatever its form), obtain the great treasure it guards, and bring it back to the dayworld. This heroic Monomyth fleshes out the archetype of Initiation:

Separation > Initiation > Return

It is a dangerous path. Heroes can die or go mad walking it. They do it under compulsion, for they bring new ways of seeing and being that nourish their cultures of origin and, through story, humanity as a whole.

It's easy to see why the Hero's Journey is so popular in the States. We eat, sleep, and breathe the ideals of the Hero, at least in vulgar form. Every other movie poster shows a man holding a gun. Everyone who does a simple decent thing by returning a lost wallet or pulling a drunk from out in front of a bus is nominated a Hero by the press. Star Wars rode the Journey to success despite such poor writing that the actors complained about their childish Flash Gordonesque lines. The Superbowl is nothing more (nor less) than a clashing competition of well-paid helmeted Heroes.

Campbell himself set the stage for this dilution of the Hero. A young man going off to war is a Hero, he told Moyers. A woman giving birth is a Hero. The baby is a Hero for coming out intact. Do something tough that involves an inner change and you too can be a Hero.

The more mythology I've read and taught over the years, starting with teaching the Hero's Journey to men who'd done time for violent crimes, the less happy I've been with this presentation of the Hero.

First of all, the Hero isn't always a good guy. Gilgamesh, the first great Hero figure in Western lore, hacked down a forest, gave the goddess Ishtar the brush-off, and raped his women subjects. Herakles destroyed his own family. Cuchulainn got into such battle frenzies that he had to be plunged into nine vats of water just to cool off after a fight. He died as reckless as he had always been.

Nor does the archetype Hero fit everyone who attains to it. Through many myths it carries quite specific features, including impulsivity that needs tempering, eloquence that wants training, lethally assertive cunning, large appetites, and an attraction to danger. ("Risk is our business" says James Kirk.) The Hero also tends to swing between loyalty and cynicism, Lancelot providing a characteristic hot-cold example.

The Hero of myth may or may not undergo transformation. In Asian cultures he tends not to. Peach Boy is pretty much the same after his adventures as before. But Campbell's Hero suffers inner change as a model to his entire society. That is true of Thor and Odysseus, but not of Beowulf or Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Furthermore, the Hero always constellates the monster. In a sense he is the monster. When one appears, the other soon follows.

Where are the Heroines in all this? In her book The Heroine's Journey Maureen Murdock tells of putting that question to Campbell. His reply was that women don't have a Hero's Journey because they are a goal of the Journey. They are the Prize. Myths say otherwise in figures like Brunhild, Antigone, Miao-shan, Atalanta, Empress Jingu, Maid Marion, Princess Bari, and Oonagh, who saved her husband Fionn from a giant he wouldn't face. As for gay or trans Heroes (as many are), well, you're out of luck.

That, in brief, is the Hero as myth sees him, not as Campbell does. We never see clearly what we overidentify with.

We Americans have a troubling history of overidentification with this archetype. We don't have it: it has us. Psychological possession. Look at the violence-spreading bullies we put into public office. Republicans hate Obama in part because, like Apollo, he shoots from a distance. Like Apollo he's into health care. No heroic swagger. Never mind the high-tech drone arrows, blare his conservative opponents: send in the boots on the ground so they can save the world, or at least the profit. The oil must flow.

What in the end does the Hero's Journey offer people who are not Heroes? A way to understand them, perhaps, but certainly not a path open to everyone.

Because of these objections I've stopped teaching the Hero's Journey except to those who naturally resonate with Hero figures. I continue to appreciate Campbell's work and his enthusiasm and love for myth even while recognizing limitations.

As I've studied myth I've pondered what model might surface from tales that deal with how non-Heroes journey, struggle, and with a bit of luck find fulfillment.

I call this The Journey of Reenchantment:

Stage 1: Islands and Oases of Childhood Magic

We all come in with this, even when born into impoverishment. Dolls and plants speak to us. Animals make magic. Fabulous beasts hide under the bed. Dream and daytime merge.

Stage 2: Disenchantment, Forgetfulness, and Adaptation

As we get older we learn to adapt to the outer world, and to societies often unfriendly to the world of fantasy in which we live. Birds stop speaking to us. Imaginary friends go away. We try to be grown up.

Stage 3: Alienation from the Magical

Often we stand apart from the magic for so long that we forget it was there at all. From this springs the odd idea that fantasies and fairy tales are only for children. Creativity gives way to commutes, paperwork, and "practicality," as though loss of wonder were practical. (My impression is that about 80 to 90 percent of Americans live at this level. The rest don't say much, in public anyway.)

Stage 4: Rupture and Underworld Descent (if you're lucky)

When we detach for too long from the numinous, glamorous, intuitive side of life, it has a way of summoning us, usually through our own unconscious in the appearance of symptoms, nightmares, or just prolonged dissatisfaction. Troubles may confront us. What we take for normal and real turns inside out; nothing is as it seems. This is life telling us, "You were made for more." The truly unfortunate are they who receive no further signals.

Stage 5: The First Seeking

What more? We go looking, discontented, confused, but resolved to seek what meaning and revelation can be found. We ask the big questions of ourselves. We question values and begin to study the worldview we look through instead of taking it for granted.

Stage 6: Reemergence, Gradual or Otherwise

Usually this phase ends with a feeling of relief. Vital energies flow once again. We haven't found The Goal, perhaps, or The Source or The Prize or whatever the great answer is, but the very act of sustained searching for a path brings renewed life and yearning.

Stage 7: More Seeking

So we keep looking, learning new truths along the way, entering new relationships, finding mentors, discarding toxic people who deplete us, perhaps finding new occupations, certainly new interests. A common thought in this stage is, "Perhaps things weren't so bleak as they seemed." You're right: they aren't.

Stage 8: Finding the Magic Door

In Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf, lost and discontented Harry Haller walks down a dark, rainy street one evening and comes unexpectedly to an alley containing a neon sign with flashing words: Magic Theater -- Entrance Not For Everyone. Eventually he goes inside -- and awakens to the richness of his own imagination. You round a corner one day, and suddenly things make sense in a deep way. What was fragmented connects. Meaning appears. Your heart opens.

Stage 9: Learning to Live in Both Worlds

Campbell refers to being a "master" of both worlds, but for the less heroic, the role of the wayfarer or witness might fit better. We learn to live in the liminal zone between cultures, identities, spiritualities, aware of conscious decisions and unconscious promptings, logical rules and imagined ideals from the depths, the dayworld of consensus reality and the moonlit realm of intuition and dream. We have outgrown the urge to reduce each dimension of being to the other.

Stage 10: Opening the Door for Others

Which prepares us for mentoring others in how we got to this stage. The Hero would go on stage, appear before the royal court, lead a tickertape parade; we might prefer informal conversation, a bit of writing, a presentation or two, civic participation. We share how we moved from innocence to disenchantment to reenchantment and invite others to find their own path.

Mythology presents many archetypes and characters besides the bold Hero. Manawydan, for example. Welsh stories remember him not as a Hero, but as an older friend of Pryderi, a powerful lord who finds a magic castle in his kingdom one day and decides to stride in. Pryderi is a Hero.

"Let's think this over" cautions Manawydan, but the young ruler dashes in and disappears. When his mother Rhiannon comes looking for him, Manawydan gives her the same advice, but she too disappears, and so does the castle.

"Now what do we do?" asks Pryderi's distraught wife Cigfa. Go to war? Slay a dragon?

"Since our entire land has altered in appearance," Manawydan says, "let's find a way to make a living until an answer to these riddles reveals itself." This the two of them do, working so well at various crafts that jealous craftsmen drive them from town to town. Each time Manawydan patiently learns a new skill, starts over -- and thinks.

When he plants a field and finds its wheat eaten just before the harvest, he replants the field. But this time he waits up through the night in concealment nearby. Mice emerge from the shadows to eat his stalks of wheat.

As he emerges and they dash in all directions, he catches a slower and fatter mouse. Knowing by now that he is being watched, he erects a tiny gallows.

Whereupon a robed stranger approaches and asks, "What are you doing?"

"Preparing to hang a thief."

"What thief?"

From his glove Manawydan pulls the mouse. "This thief."

Unsuccessful at convincing Manawydan to spare the "thief," the robed man leaves. Soon a druid approaches. After a similar conversation he leaves. An archdruid, equally unsuccessful, begs Manawydan to stop as he prepares to hoist the mouse:

"In return for the life of this mouse I want Pryderi and Rhiannon safely returned."

The stranger sees no point in further deception; Manawydan obviously sees through him. "I agree."

"I'm not finished. I also want you to lift your spell from this land."

"Done."

"And to know the identity of his mouse."

"My pregnant wife."

"And to know who you are and why you have worked this ill magic."

The archdruid is actually a powerful wizard with a grudge against Pryderi's father and mother.

"My last condition is that you forswear all further vengeance against all of us."

When Pryderi and Rhiannon reappear they apologize to Manawydan for being impulsive and thank him not only for arranging their safe return, but for negotiating to end a long-standing family feud. Everyone goes away satisfied, and the land recovers its health.

And we receive a story of post-heroic patience, wisdom, and forgiveness of the kind that bring lasting healing, happiness, and reconciliation.