The New Mythology is the Old Mythology Pt. 2

“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.” —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

  1. The Hero’s Journey Comes Full Circle

Both sci-fi and fantasy—today’s ‘speculative fiction’—can claim an ancient lineage. It’s not hard to hear echoes of humanity’s earliest epics in it—the Gilgamesh story from Mesopotamia and the later Greek epics of Homer, and subsequent cultural mythology. That was Jung’s great discovery—that all cultures carry the same basic set of myths, or what he dubbed ‘archetypes.’ The hallmarks of great literature are all there (see Part 1). James Joyce in Ulysses used the classic Homeric tale as a kind of plot point blueprint but inverted it so that the ‘heroic’ narrative is part of an internal rather than an external landscape for action. It was a masterpiece of turning the banality of everyday life in Dublin circa 1900 into a mock-heroic epic laced with characteristically Irish wit and irreverence. On the negative side, Ulysses helped usher in the stream-of-consciousness trope that lesser writers use as an excuse for sloppy writing.

James Joyce inverted the Hero’s Journey in Ulysses. Courtesy Poetry Foundation

Joseph Campbell’s insights into the Hero’s Journey—a term he coined—elucidated in his academic treatise The Hero With A Thousand Faces and later in the PBS TV series The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, taught a generation of filmmakers about Jungian archetypes. George Lucas, co-creator of the Star Wars series, has openly acknowledged his debt to Campbell. Christopher Vogler, author of the screenwriter’s manual The Writer’s Journey sums it up beautifully: “The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling, the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world. It’s difficult to avoid the sensation that the Hero’s Journey exists somewhere, somehow, as an eternal reality, a Platonic ideal form, a divine model. From this model, infinite and highly varied copies can be produced, each resonating with the essential spirit of the form.”[1]

Bill Moyers was crucial in articulating Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey to a mass audience. Courtesy

Campbell saw the spiritual side of the Hero’s Journey, the ultimate quest being inner transformation, not wealth or fame in the outer world. It’s no surprise that the mainstream media’s relentlessly materialistic fixation has landed us in an ecological and social crisis. “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit,” Campbell said. “We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour.”[2] As Bill Moyers explained in his wonderful book-length conversation with Campbell, The Power of Myth, “he was describing the hero’s journey not just as a courageous act but as a life lived in self-discovery.”[3] It’s up to us to step up, pay attention to the clues the universe is giving us, and keep moving forward, ever-renewed by the unfolding journey. Arguably, people can be separated into two groups: Those who take up the challenge of growth and those who don’t. The latter tend to crystallize at an early age, gradually becoming fossilized caricatures of themselves. (And after about age 40, change only becomes more difficult, regardless of what the self-help gurus tell you.) So you have the syndrome of the 70-year-old man who still tries to act like a lusty teenager, or aging women spending fortunes on Botox and plastic surgery to stay ‘forever young.’ Campbell would probably say they refused the ‘call to adventure,’ took a leave of absence in their own hero’s journey. They are the true tragic figures. Western society is particularly good at producing such tragic, bitter self-caricatures.

Yet here again the Hero’s Journey archetype comes to our aid. Certainly there are what Campbell called ‘threshold guardians’ that will try to prevent us from even attempting the journey. These can take almost any form and are often internal—our own fears and doubts. In Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo first sees the ring the shot pans down to shoot through the circle of the ring upward, framing Frodo entirely within it. Suddenly the ring is massive, all-encircling. It’s a visual metaphor of what’s to come—the quest that will take up years of his life and pitch Middle Earth into a war. The look on Frodo’s face—appropriately—is fear. And sometimes the heroine tries to ignore or reject the quest. But as we all know if we’ve read enough, fate will conspire to place her on the path anyway. It’s the universe’s way of teaching us that there are some forces beyond our control. No amount of prayer, positive thinking or ‘good energy’ will stop a hurricane. And as we age, the forces beyond our control come from within. It takes a heroic spirit to bear the indignities of aging. It’s unlikely we’ll be flying around on a broomstick like Dumbledore in Harry Potter when we’re as old as he is. We either learn to live with it gracefully or turn into a dessicated, embittered husk. What we do learn from a fantasy character like Dumbledore is to never let the ‘wild child’ in us entirely die out.

Frodo must confront his own fears of the Hero’s Journey, part of the inner transformation that must take place. Courtesy Wikimedia

Implicit in the Hero’s Journey is the realization that there are not only ages, but stages, of life. Once the fervor of hormone-driven youth has expended itself in the production of a family, it’s time to move on to the next stage, not find a way to remain eternally youthful. As we age and grow, ideally we should be progressing from the materialistic preoccupations of youth through a process of spiritual development. The storyteller’s art is to blow the myth of daily existence up to the ‘big screen,’ exaggerate for effect. So while our divorce, problems with our kids, career setbacks, business failures and so on may not exactly be Jason and the Argonauts or Harry Potter, it’s our personal odyssey. And sometimes the personal becomes entwined with the historical—the Homeric epic the Fall of Troy meets The Prince of Tides. One naturally reflects the other, like mirrors echoing each other ad infinitum. The structure lives in our unconscious. No wonder then that we act it out at both the personal and national level.

  1. The Trap of Narcissism

At what point does focus on inner work become narcissism?

But at what point does deep psychology and archetypal consciousness become narcissism? Recent criticism such as James Hillman and Michael Ventura’s book We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse has lamented the excessive focus on the Self fostered by psychotherapeutic approaches, Jungian or otherwise. It’s certainly true that Western civilization as a whole has slid almost imperceptibly into a condition of extreme narcissism—a slide that began long before Facebook. Social media merely poured gasoline on an already smoldering fire, creating the 21st century phenomenon of the social media killer. The Narcissism Epidemic by psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell makes a good case for this view, though curiously they largely overlook the role of advertising strategy in this complex. Corporate consumerism’s relentless promotion of the individual is tied to a simple, overarching agenda—to sell more products. Selling a gasoline-powered leaf blower to every house on the block means far more profit than encouraging community tool-sharing. Basic psychological triggers like appeals to individual status, power and sexuality move product off the shelves fast. But the social cost is enormous—a steady, subtle creep of cultivated narcissism.

Still, is it really psychotherapy that’s to blame for the fall into narcissism? It may well be part of the syndrome, particularly the more ‘flaky’ or faddish self-help movements. But ultimately, individuals who are willing to do the heavy lifting to examine their shadow and hopefully become better-adjusted citizens are surely to be encouraged. By “better-adjusted” I do NOT mean adjusted to conform unquestioningly to the status quo like some survivor of an Orwellian ‘re-education’ program. This is why any civilized society worthy of the name must have journalists and artists who constantly question it and hold up the mirror to us. Here again, Campbell sets the record straight: “Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what’s threatening the world at this minute.”[4] More than a quarter century ago, he nailed it, and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Gilgamesh, semi-mythical king of ancient Uruk and the earliest template for the Hero figure.

As Moyers explains, Campbell was urging readers to use the archetypes as a means toward growth, not endless self-absorption, i.e. narcissism. This is what our corporate media ignores in its obsession with celebrity, which amounts to looking at the hero through the wrong end of the telescope. “One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero… is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society.”[5] Jungian psychotherapist John Weir Perry has argued that in the early stages of civilization, the very notion of individuality was unknown. As the city-states developed, the kings and nobles were seen as the living embodiment of heroic qualities. Their dramas, along with the ritual dramas they presided over for their people, were emblematic of the nation itself. Whether Gilgamesh or Jason, the great stories reinforce over and over again that self-serving egotism is punished by the gods. The best rulers— Plato’s philosopher-king model—saw their Hero’s Journey as one ultimately meant to benefit the nation over which they ruled. Unlike today’s ubiquitous lust for celebrity, the purpose of the quest is NOT to become rich and famous, though that may be a side effect. What’s expected is that they bring back a blessing to the community they serve. Over the millennia, the role of monarchs subsided as the sense of individual consciousness grew. “(I)t is evident that the world renewal that once took place on the collective level, in the great ceremonial festivals of the sacral kingships, has shifted over the centuries from its externalized form in myth and ritual traditions to its internalized counterpart in the spontaneous myth-making process of individuals,”[6] writes Perry. Yet the same conditions and injunctions apply to both individual and collective hero.

Fantasy author Ursula Le Guin has expressed dissatisfaction with a purely psychological or archetypal reading of fantasy and sci-fi, arguing that the exercise of imagination it stimulates ought to be sufficient. I can’t agree with Le Guin that “in general the ‘psychological’ approach to fantasy, explaining each element of the story in terms of its archetype or unconscious source or educative use, is deeply regressive…” However I do agree with her that “children need active imagination more than closed moralities.”[7] Certainly the wide-open imagination of the child is a priceless asset to a richer existence at any age, and can actually lead to greater problem-solving capacity as they mature. In a universe of chance it’s an amazing and magical faculty to possess. We might just as easily have evolved without it. So why not celebrate and engage it deeply in our stories? And I agree with her that an insistence on literature that is purely realist has a tendency to damp down imagination—surely a characteristic of early 21st century society, with its dominant corporate monoculture. “The literature of imagination, even when tragic,” writes Le Guin, “is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives, and therefore offers hope.”[8]

In the 21st century world, with its rapid slide into ‘technopoly’ (to use the term coined by Neil Postman)—a technologically-driven, corporate-totalitarian state—we can be glad the Hero’s Journey template comes hard-wired. That is if we pay attention to it. When our communities were smaller, more closely knit to each other and to the land, the campfire provided all the cultural instruction needed. Gradually that evolved as we become more of an indoors culture. (It’s easy to forget that humans once spent the majority of their waking hours outdoors, the opposite of now.) That evolution meant steadily more sophisticated means of storytelling. But whether it’s a grainy old 16mm film or state-of-the-art digital FX, the fundamentals of storytelling remain. Stories that stick with us touch us in a very deep place. These stories aren’t interested in clever for clever’s sake and the word ‘urbane’ probably isn’t in their lexicon. They put us in the boots of the hero, the heroine. We walk with them, run for cover, tremble, laugh nervously at the snap of a twig behind us. Their journey is our journey. The writer is there to help us draw the map. And as Ursula Le Guin so eloquently argues, it’s not a monoculture map. It’s the forever changing landscape of the imagination. What could be more fascinating?


[1] Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California, 1998, 2nd ed., Preface to the Second Edition, p. ix.

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor/Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 1.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, ibid, Introduction, pp. xiii, xiv.

[4] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, ibid, p.8.

[5] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor/Doubleday, ibid, Introduction, p.iv.

[6] John Weir Perry, The Heart of History: Individuality in Evolution, State University of New York Press, 1987, p. 56.

[7] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,’ from Cheek by Jowl (essays), Aquaduct Press, 2009, p. 86.

[8] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,’ ibid, p. 87.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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2 Responses to The New Mythology is the Old Mythology Pt. 2

  1. Art, this is such a helpful analysis of Campbell’s framework in the context of literary works and the shifting cultural focus from collective to individual concerns. Although I read some of his work a while ago, your essay makes me realize that it would be worth rereading.

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