How Monomyth Theories Get It Wrong About Fiction
Illustration of a type of "monomyth":
In Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell compares world literature and mythology and focuses on the similarities that unite (supposedly) all human fiction. This is where we get concepts like "the hero's journey". His idea is that most, or all, fiction would follow these patterns. Indeed, you can say that many pop culture giants like Star Wars: A New Hope, Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix follow the "monomyth" pattern of a "hero's journey" story. So, knowing that underlying framework on which all story is based makes us better writers, right?
I don't think so. I struggle with Campbell and others' idea of universality in literature. Certainly, some universal ideas must exist, because we're all the same species and all inhabit the same planet. But what I don't like is that this "monomyth" idea basically glosses over the essential differences that make cultures, tribes, nations, groups, and individuals unique.
Here are my main gripes about the "monomyth".
1. It Ignores Unique Aspects of Works of Fiction
Monomyth concepts like archetypes are generalizations. While I'd be lying if I said generalizations were never useful, they don't paint a complete picture of a story, character, or anything else because they're not getting all the specific qualities that make that thing unique.
For example, if I say Sayaka, a character in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, is "a sad teenage girl, suffering because of unrequited love", that is true. And it can unite the reader's mind between Sayaka and other such girls from other fictional works they're familiar with, helping them understand her. But not all sad teenage girls suffering from unrequited love are alike, either. Some of them, like Sayaka, tangle with the supernatural, trying to make a deal with the devil to obtain their love. Others live in a strictly realistic world, and have to find more mundane coping methods like therapy, talking to a friend, finding someone else who does return their love, or confiding in a parent. To give Sayaka then some kind of pithy label like "Sad Unrequited Love Girl", "Lovesick Teen", etc. is to generalize her, ignoring everything that makes her special and unique as a character. It ignores everything that makes her story different from others. As such, the comparisons between her and similar fictional characters can't run very deep, and are only helpful for literary analysis up to a point.
To me, monomyth theories are like saying "all beverages are liquids occupying a container" as if that were enough to tell you the difference between a cosmopolitan and a mojito. Just because two stories contain the same basic elements does not make them the same. And it's just intellectually lazy to treat them as if they were the same, by ignoring all the mountains of rich detail that make them different. For example, a literature teacher might say Harry Potter and The Hobbit are both "hero's journeys". In both cases, however, the "hero" leans heavily on help from others. And that's, like I said, not a very useful comparison. Describing the aspects of something that make it a "hero's journey" and not just a trip to the supermarket don't actually say all that much about particularities of that work of fiction that make it stand out. I might be able to describe a dozen novels using monomyth nomenclature, but doing so means leaving out a lot about each one that is significant.
2. It Discourages Reading and Connoisseurship
Whether you want to blame technology, the kids themselves, their parents, or higher demands of schools, children reading for fun is on the decline (1). But to encourage reading, kids, teens, and adults all need to know what they're getting from a book that they can't get from a TV program, cartoon, or web video.
Basically, while other media can be clever, what makes fiction books a "higher art" than TV is the amount of work each author puts into the craft of writing. Writers are, for the most part, creative individuals with profound, interesting things to say, veiled by metaphors and analogies the astute reader will pick up on. Reading and getting a lot out of reading requires literary connoisseurship, which requires familiarity with great works of literature. The Bible and Shakespeare are often referenced in classic literature, and those works of literature go on to be referenced and symbolically referred to in contemporary literature. Watching the movie Easy A without having read or being familiar with The Scarlet Letter is technically possible, but yields less intellectual pleasure than experiencing the movie with some knowledge of the book it symbolically connects to.
Monomyth studies, however, discourage that intellectually stimulating pursuit of literary connoisseurship. Why bother reading both the Aeneid AND Watership Down if they're essentially the same story? Well, because they're fundamentally NOT the same story at all, if you look closer than their superficial similarities. They're the same type of story; foundation myths. And that's where the similarities end. I worry that people might dismiss literature as a discipline altogether if they decide that all of it boils down into one story, or a few story types.
3. Monomyth Examples Are Cherry-Picked
There are plenty of stories that do not fit into the monomyth at all. One example I keep thinking of is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. That story has no "hero", because it is divided up into essentially eight stories, stories of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters. But the stories are heavily based on real life, and real life does not follow neat little patterns like the monomyth. Like the Joy Luck Club, a lot of East Asian literature, including anime and manga, does not fit the "hero's journey" monomyth because of the lack of a singular hero, as collectivist cultures such as those of Korea, China, and Japan focus not on individuals, but on groups and society as a whole. That's not to say there are no East Asian hero's journeys, but the hero's journey does not apply to a lot of fiction from collectivist cultures. Which Power Ranger is "the hero"? Which Evangelion pilot is "the hero"? You can't decide that easily, because in a lot of Asian fiction, multiple heroes work together as a team. The team itself is "the hero", but the "hero" being a team is not something ever discussed by Campbell, who heavily focused on examples of heroes from Greek mythology.
In Campbell's day, I think that scholars made the mistake of thinking that Greek mythology, the Bible, and Western literature were human mythology and literature; that they could apply to the entire world. He searched Buddhist and Hindu texts for just enough similarities to The Bible to make them seem like they were the same, and the common cultural myth that all religious teachings are essentially the same was born. Never mind that in many cases different religions teach things that are completely opposed to each other; like the Jewish kosher dietary laws vs. the Hindu belief that all animals may be eaten save for the sacred ones, including cows (while some groups say that meat should be avoided altogether). If monomyth gives rise to mono-religion, how do we decide which animals to eat and not eat? How would we decide whether we went to heaven, hell, had no afterlife, or reincarnated endlessly until our souls could be freed from an endless recurring cycle? There are endless ethical and existential questions answered very differently by the world's different religions, whatever their similarities in myth.
Any way you slice it, monomyth examples are cherry-picked. People like Campbell selected a few stories that supported their ideas, glossing over not only dissimilarities between their example stories, but ignoring stories that don't fit the patterns they're trying to establish.
4. No Story Actually Is a Monomyth
The monomyth idea is supposed to represent a way to understand "universal" literature. But here is no single instance of a story that is present across every human culture and society. The monomyth simply does not exist.
The people who write monomyth concepts always have to add caveats, disclaimers if you will. This is because no fictional work completely follows any of their formulas in terms of exact order of events. Most fictional works have some elements of the monomyth, lacking others. There is a kind of folly in this, a desperate madness, trying to make stories as different as The Last Unicorn and The Little Mermaid the same - when they're different. It's dishonest to make huge, sweeping generalizations, like "in both, you have a beautiful, female hero, born as a supernatural creature, who must become human temporarily in order to get what she wants". But who these heroes are, what kinds of worlds they live in, what they want, and their antagonists are all totally different. Stories are not the same, and no amount of obsessive, frantic searching for similarities between all of them will ever make them all the same.
5. Monomyths Are Not Useful for Writers
Tropes are tools, but trying to follow a monomyth pattern when creating a fictional plot is a bad idea. Your goal probably isn't "I want to write something as lame and cliche as possible", whatever your purpose for writing.
What actually helps writers in my opinion is connoisseurship, reading and understanding a lot of literature and then figuring out:
- What stories are similar to the one I'm trying to create?
- How will my story be different, and how will it be similar to others like it?
- What am I trying to say that I don't think anyone has said before?
Writing is an art. It takes a lot of thought and planning. It takes skillfully combining the familiar with the fantastical, balancing the two so the story neither appears boring nor completely unconnected to reality. It takes being fresh and interesting, while giving the reader things they can connect with their personal experiences. It means, essentially, using old tropes in new ways. For example, the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin didn't invent things like castles, knights, princesses, lords, ladies, dragons, or magic. But what he does is use these fantasy elements in a provocative, interesting, original way. That means writers should try not to fit into some kind of monomyth mold! They should try to be different. So knowledge of the monomyth is not a useful tool for writing.
It has long been a popular fantasy among amateur students of myth that all peoples share the same stories. This is clearly an example of wishful thinking.— Alan Dundes, a professor of folklore
So, Campbell's idea of the "hero's journey" or monomyth is false, not academically credible, not universal, and not a useful tool for writers. Is it useful for anyone? Well, it is a good idea to compare stories with similar plots. But differences making each story unique are also important, and should be celebrated and treasured, instead of being swept under the rug to fit into some kind of crazy New Age hocus-pocus "theory" about stories in general. I love Evangelion because it isn't like Macross, and I love Macross because it isn't Evangelion. If every story were the same, what would even be the point of story-telling or story-listening?