Saturday, November 26, 2005

Myth of the Hero

The Hero With a Thousand Faces was the first and most famous book by the premier mythologist of our culture Joseph Campbell. It might well be considered the summary and table of contents for the tremendously voluminous studies of the infinite variety of myths worldwide, which made up his life work.

Although Joseph did not overcome his prejudice against Christianity until the twilight of his life, he was aware of some of the biblical dimensions of his monomyth.

If you're too lazy, or pressed for time, to pursue these links, here in microcosm is the hero myth: the hero leaves home, willing or otherwise, goes to a strange place(s), has archetypal adventures, learns something, returns home-- and may or may not be able to share the gifts he has received with those who remained behind.

Various artistic types have exhaustively described how one might use this outline to "write your own monomyth". To them it seems to mean inventing a story. To me it means looking at your own life in those terms: did you leave home? have you learned something? can you share it with those who remained? (In Christian circles it's known as evangelism!)

Preparatory to this exhaustive endeavor you might look at your own heroes in those terms. Here are a few examples (some of the following fit the story-- more or less for there is an infinite number of variations):

The O.T. has muiltiplied examples; Israel himself is a good one. He left home, went to Egypt (was there 400 years), returned with monotheism to the Promised Land (where he had formerly dwelt).

Joseph is the personal embodiment of the story. Expelled from home by his jealous brothers, he was sold as a slave to Egypt. He learned a lot there, became supergifted, shared those gifts with his father and brothers. (Home for Joseph and his family became Egypt!)

Moses fits Campbell's monomyth nicely. In his book he referred to Moses' departure up into the mountain, where he received the Ten Commandments, and brought them back home to his people. In a larger perspective Moses, a prince of Egypt, was forced to flee out in the wilderness. He spent 40 years there before he returned home with his gifts, namely the power to carry out his job of Deliverer.

William Blake's poetry-- and his life exemplify the monomyth. The Four Zoas, elaborated into the long poems, Milton and Jerusalem, tell the story of the expulsion from Eden, the breakup of unity, and through much travail the return to Eternity.

He also lived it, or perhaps it lived him: flaunting 'religious values' for the first half of his life, he experienced a Moment of Grace at about 40, after which he preached a (admittedly unorothox) gospel.

Abnegation is a prominent feature of this story, a quality that always touches my inmost chords. San Martin, the father of Argentina, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, many others gave up valuable goods to do something better for all of us. Re returning home you might say that Schweitzer, like Joseph, and Jesus realized that their home was in Heaven.

A more modern example is one of my favorites: I've posted on Karen Armstrong before (many times), but her story is so archetypal I must repeat it here (shortly). Cast out of the Garden in her twenties, she has labored like Hercules to bring the riches of religious history to us. That is the return of her exciting adventures, and hopefully she has found a better Garden than the convent.

Buddha and Jesus round out this survey; the similarities are obvious. Both left home (the palace or the right hand of God) to come to this vale of tears where they suffered with and for us, and now have gone back home. Hurrah!

I could add my story to all these heroes, but you've probably already heard it ad nauseum. What about yours?


crystal said...

This hero mythology that Campbell talks about is also great for writers to use in fiction ... I've used it in short stories and even George Lucas has said he used it in his Star Wars story :-)

Twyla said...

I've read Campbell over and over --- but only quoted in other books! I finally started reading my first book by him - Thou Art That (recommended by you) and am overwhelmed by it. I read a few paragraphs and sit and soak. I've already marked and highlighted it all up and want to go out and buy a dozen for folks I know. I can think of one young man in particular, on the verge of abandoning Christianity, who could be eternally impacted by this little book.

Ms. Armstrong is one of my (s)heros. Some others would include: Anne Lamott, Brother Lawrence, Sue Monk Kidd, Madame Guyon, Frank Laubach, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton and Thomas Kelly. It strikes me that each of these folks wrote about the journey. As I've traveled, stumbling and feeling my way through what appears to be uncharted territory, I've found untold comfort in the stories these fellow travelers have told, those who have gone before me. What joy to feel, while reading, just a bit less alone.

Larry said...

The hero mythology, it seems to me, is fairly archetypal, almost universal.

The stories Twyla is talking about almost invariably include a home, a departure, and a return. The Prodigal Son would be a good example.

The exception of course is for those who never leave home. The world may be divided between those who did and those who didn't.

In the theological realm those who don't will cling to the tried and true formulations they learned in childhood. Their politics is likely to be comparable.

Well you two ladies have gotten me to preaching. Thank you both, dear friends.

Twyla, you've got me onto a couple of new (for me) writers: Lamott and Kidd. And I mean to read Pride and Prejudice again.

Twyla said...

Larry - "Traveling Mercies" by Anne Lamott is her first spiritual memoir. Her fiction is fine, but the memoir is what moved me. She has a second one out now that I haven't read yet. I think it is titled "Plan B". When I first read Traveling Mercies, I was so thankful. It was my first glimpse into an off-the-beaten-path Christianity of someone I could relate to and that was living. :)

Sue Monk Kidd wrote a wonderful novel titled "The Secret Life of Bees". If I remember correctly, she was raised in a Baptist community and began having some difficulty aligning herself with traditional thought in her 40s. She wrote about that in "When the Heart Waits". She had been a "traditional" Christian writer up to that point and really struggled to free herself from constraints and find her own way.

Again, you are a tremendous inspiration to me. Thank you.

Jon said...

Thanks for sharing this, Larry. I visited the monomyth site, and will be creating a monomyth for Pleasantville.

Once we realize it, isn't it shocking to discover that we are on the hero's journey? And afterwards, isn't it amazing that we didn't see it before?

Larry said...