Anyone who has taken a single class in English literature has heard of the monomyth. It’s the idea that there is only one type of story that can be told: the hero’s journey. NO, NO, NO, forty thousand times, NO! I’m going to shatter this misconception into a thousand tiny pieces.
First of all, the very concept of the monomyth breaks the fundamental law of classification: you must have at least two daughter categories for each parent category. I’ve taken a few classes on public speaking and other forms of presentation, and my instructors always said the exact same thing when talking about MS PowerPoint: “you can’t have an A without a B,” referring, of course, to subordinate bullet points. This is the single best example of the fundamental law of classification that I can think of. So, the first and simplest problem I have with the monomyth is this: if all stories are the same on some level, then that doesn’t mean you’ve classified all stories together, you’ve simply re-defined what a story IS. I guess if you don’t have a hero’s journey, then you don’t have a story, right? Oh, I’m just getting started. If you majored in English literature and you never once had a disagreement with any of your professors, you should stop reading now, because this article is only going to get worse.
Normally, I do not care about the source of an idea when evaluating its validity. “Never confuse the author with the art,” goes the old saying, but in the case of the monomyth, its source is actually important. Joseph Campbell codified the monomyth as a literary trope, even though he didn’t actually invent the term; James Joyce did. The reason that I can’t separate the monomyth from Campbell is simply because of how he came up with the idea: religion. Campbell was a theologian, and he studied comparative world religions quite extensively, finding core similarities between all of them, then callously proclaimed this to be some profound development that unites all people, all stories, into one. Campbell apparently believed in the psychic unity of humanity, which, for lack of a better word, infected his work. Humans, while social, are not eusocial, otherwise human society would be much more cohesive, rather like an ant colony. On this planet, only insects have hive minds. Inaccurate information has no practical application, and cannot serve as the foundation for a sound theory. A common analogy is “building a house on shifting sand.” Well, I can say, with certainty, that the monomyth is not a monolith, because it’s already losing bricks.
The first of these fallen bricks is the simple fact that not everyone is the hero of their own story. Not everyone wishes to be the leader, the centre of attention, or even particularly exceptional. Some people just want to live a tolerable life, while others wish to devote themselves to another, and see that other person as the hero of their story. Yes, for those exceptions to the rule of “everyone is the hero of their own story,” such stories don’t have much to them, which is why no-one bothers to tell them. Accounts of lives of common people from ages past are so scarce for the same reason that hardly anyone knows what ordinary houses looked like long ago – stories that make for compelling entertainment do not concern themselves with the mundane. However, one must acknowledge that even mundane activities can be enjoyable in the moment, not everyone needs to go on a grand adventure to have a life worth living, and to think that only the grandiose is worthy of attention is to diminish all those precious moments that life has. The anti-religious cynic in me smells theistic hubris in this entire notion, so I might be a tad biased.
Speaking of deriding the mundane, have you ever noticed how many heroes have royal or otherwise exceptional heritage, yet are raised as commoners? The “lost prince” trope is as old as royalty itself, in all likelihood, and the oldest example I can think of off the top of my head is the story of Perseus, bastard son of Zeus and a human queen, who was raised by fishermen. Oh, that poor princely demigod, so oppressed living amongst commoners! Perhaps my complete irreverence toward royalty is cultural, seeing as I was born in a country that butchered its royalty over a hundred years ago, but what’s with the contempt toward commoners in literature? Fine, fine, that’s not the message that the story of Perseus is meant to convey, but more recent stories use this trope a lot, from Cinderella (not always a princess, but usually trapped in an abusive household) to Harry Potter. Displacement certainly makes for a nice setup, but it need not be limited to a “downgrade.” This isn’t a problem with the monomyth, specifically, it’s just a noisome trope, and I could make some guesses as to where it comes from, but that’s a rant for another time.
Now then, even if we assume that everyone is the hero of their own story, then what about stories that have multiple main characters? Is the story then multiple stories within one? Some would say yes, while others would claim that there can truly be only one main character. Fine then, how does a critic determine who the main character is, then? Some would say that it’s the title character, but not every story is named after one of its characters. Some would say that it’s the first character introduced, but I can think of another exception right off the top of my head: Journey to the West. The main character is the monk, Xuanzang (a.k.a. Tripitaka, but that’s actually the name of the text he is sent to retrieve), but he isn’t even mentioned in the first seven chapters, all of which detail the various hijinks of the Monkey King, Son Wukong, instead. For a better-known example in the 21st century, who is the main character in A Song of Ice and Fire? Chew on that for a while, because I maintain there are at least six, three of whom were introduced in the very first book, and are still alive by the end of the fifth (except for Jon, he almost made it to the end of A Dance with Dragons). Some of the point-of-view (POV) characters in the series fit the character template for a classic hero quite well, while others do not fit without some dizzying mental gymnastics. I could say that they don’t fit at all, but staunch adherents to the monomyth insist that all stories fit, even if they must use the most contrived allegories in order to make that so.
Before I continue to the next point, I should mention what the classic hero archetype is. This is the journey between the known and the unknown, and it is supposed to be circular. Even if the hero doesn’t return home, specifically, they must venture into the unknown, and return to a life they knew before their adventure, having somehow grown because of it. The “unknown” is so vague that one could say that every stage of an “ordinary” life is another adventure, but what if no return journey is ever made? What if the “unknown” becomes the new ordinary, as it does when people move to new places? Does becoming accustomed to the new life count as a return to normalcy? I would say no, because war stories exist. By “war story,” I am referring to any personal account of a soldier at war, even if it’s complete fiction. War certainly counts as an adventure, according to the criteria of the monomyth, and volunteering or getting drafted is definitely the “call” to adventure, but what about the following stages? Soldiers at war typically don’t spend more than 10% of their time actually in combat, and it doesn’t take long for many of them to get used to their new living arrangement on a military base, possibly in a foreign country, with a whole new group of friends, not school-mates, but brothers-in-arms. Combat is a different story, but there doesn’t need to be combat for a compelling story: how much fighting did they do in M*A*S*H*? That’s right, none, but all of those characters knew they were at war.
Right, so not everyone is a hero, not every prominent character is the centre of the story, stories can have more than one main character, and not every character adheres to the classic hero archetype. The next fallen brick I’ll look at is the transformation at the bottom of the hero’s journey (the deepest part of the unknown). This is usually when an ordinary character truly becomes a hero. This transformation usually takes place immediately after some sort of revelation. Campbell referred to this as “death and rebirth,” following the religious archetype, but no-one insists that this must be a literal death and rebirth. A substantial character change works to fit this archetype, but what about those characters that have the revelation and either make the wrong choice or fail to learn from the experience at all? This is where the religious basis for the monomyth absolutely infuriates me, because those who are devout do not learn. A requirement of faith is that it remain intact even some revelation challenges it, so no highly religious character can undergo any development. Furthermore, transformation is a common backstory for villains as well, and even though many villains are portrayed as the heroes of their own stories, there are still plenty that are one-dimensional non-characters that exist only as obstacles for the heroes to overcome. Ah, but the devout will probably inform me that the cementing of faith is the transformation from an ordinary person to a hero. If that is your argument, I have nothing more to say to you, because you’ve already made up your mind. However, for those who are still capable of changing their minds, keep reading.
The final stage of the “unknown” part of the hero’s journey is sometimes called “atonement,” another needlessly religious term. Strangely enough, this is the stage of the journey when things start to look up, and the hero begins to triumph with greater and greater ease against their challenges before crossing the threshold back into their comfort zone. This fallen brick irritates me almost as much as the last one for a very simple reason: it implies that the hero is being punished for everything that has happened thus far, even though that would best be set before any sort of transformation. One could also construe this phase as the hero’s “duty” before returning to a normal life, but how many times could a character go through alternating temptations, transformations, and atonements before finally going home? Once again, no story need fit this pattern. A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, goes through this thirteen times before finally showing any sign of resolution, earning the criticism of being highly repetitive (but not from me). However, another criticism of this type of story is that the characters don’t drive the plot, are “just along for the ride,” and therefore, there isn’t a real story. To those who say this about A Series of Unfortunate Events, I would respond with “read Memoirs from the House of the Dead sometime then.” I’m getting off track, because Russian literature rarely possesses the same tropes as English literature. However, this does remind me of a flaw with Campbell’s methods: he looked at stories from around the world through a decidedly Western lens, not realising that he was dealing with vastly different cultures. Then again, for someone who spoke so highly of Sanskrit, he wasn’t very good at translating it, so a lot of his apparent cognitive dissonance could simply be attributed to poor linguistic skills. Strangely enough, this ties in to religiosity, because “Western” monotheism is lost in translation, and I’m not even referring to the original languages of biblical scriptures (still not capitalising). There are two words I can name off the top of my head from Greek that have no direct translation in English (I can name quite a few in Russian as well, but that’s not relevant): pistis and nous. The former appears throughout the bible, and the latter is best known from The Iliad. The meaning of pistis is still discussed today, so I have to wonder what sort of linguistic barrier Campbell encountered and didn’t even know it. After all, the more you study anything, the more complicated it always turns out to be, yet the monomyth is supposed to be simple.
The last criticism of the monomyth that I will discuss isn’t even my own, but it is possibly the most scathing, likening it to the poison words of a charlatan. The monomyth is analogous to a horoscope, so vague that, regardless of what actually happens, the template still fits the story. Whatever doesn’t fit may simply be dismissed as allegory, such that every story ever told still fits the monomyth template perfectly. This is a logical fallacy commonly known as “moving the goalposts,” and it requires a tremendous amount of mental gymnastics. Regardless of how many tropes are defied, expectations subverted, revelations that have failed to sink in, transformations that don’t happen, and journeys cut short, somehow, the monomyth still applies! In other words, the monomyth is already known to be useless, and I just wasted twenty-two hundred words.