The hero’s journey is a familiar tale. It’s an archetype that follows The Hero on a quest where challenges are faced, insights are gained, after which the hero returns home transformed. That’s it. Simple, and very well used (see The Matrix, StarWars, The Lion King, etc).
Join host Lottie Bazley as she takes us on a journey with a new storyline. This one includes flipping this well-known narrative on its head to find different perspectives, and rejecting the all encompassing confines of the hero’s journey.
Lottie speaks with author and academic Emily Hauser, as well as Professor of Classical and Early Mediterranean Studies Joel Christensen. Listen in for their takes on how heroic most heroes really are (not very), and more importantly, what we lose when we ignore other narratives and what we gain when we invite the background characters to center stage.
Lottie Bazley: I think we're all fairly familiar with the hero's journey, even if we don't know we are. It goes a little something like this. Once upon a time, there was a ... Well, usually a man-
Hero: Ah, nothing like a ride first thing in the morn.
Lottie Bazley: ... Going about his day like any other day.
Hero: I'm having a regular day.
Lottie Bazley: When suddenly-
Hero: Whoa, steady my trusty steed.
Lottie Bazley: ... Adventure calls.
Hero: Who goes there?
Damsel: It is I, a damsel in distress. Please lead a quest to far-off lands. A group of people needs to be freed.
Lottie Bazley: But out of a sense of duty, obligation, fear, or even insecurity, our hero resists.
Hero: I cannot. I'm expected home to sup by half past six this eve. And a new Legend of Zelda's just dropped.
Damsel: Pray, I beg of you. This is our most desperate hour. You're my only hope.
Hero: I shan't. But I must.
Lottie Bazley: From there, our hero will probably meet a mentor and face temptation.
Hero: Hello there.
Lottie Bazley: There's even a section called 'the belly of the whale.'
Hero: How did I even get in here?
Lottie Bazley: Picture any kind of dark, cavernous area from where our hero will emerge changed. This symbolizes a rebirth.
Hero: I am reborn.
Lottie Bazley: We've got the road of trials where difficulties will be faced.
Hero: Where did I leave that horse?
Lottie Bazley: And our hero may even meet with failure. But fear not. The ultimate goal will be achieved. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. There's more.
Hero: All right.
Lottie Bazley: The hero will first refuse-
Hero: I shan't.
Lottie Bazley: ... Then agree to return home.
Hero: But I must.
Lottie Bazley: Henceforth, our main man will be free from fear of death, which in turn means freedom to live. Sound familiar? This is a storytelling formula that dates back to at least 750 BC. Think Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Beowulf. But more recent, heavy-hitting Hollywood movies also follow an incredibly similar path. Think The Lion King-
Video clip: The sun will set on my time here and will rise with you.
Lottie Bazley: ... The Matrix-
Video clip: He is the one.
Lottie Bazley: ... Star Wars-
Video clip: You were the chosen one.
Lottie Bazley: ... And countless others. Storytelling is at the heart of what so many of us do, but as communicators, we have to ask ourselves, what are the limitations of relying on the hero's journey? Do we need it to tell a compelling story? Is it really all it's cracked up to be? Or more importantly, can the run-of-the-mill hero's journey end up backfiring?
This is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, and I'm your host, Lottie Bazely. In this episode, we are diving deep into the hero's journey, the monomyth.
Okay, so what actually is the monomyth? Essentially, it's a template identified by Joseph Campbell in the late 1940s. Campbell was an American writer and professor of literature who worked in comparative mythology and religion. He wrote a hugely influential book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which details his theory of the monomyth. He believed there's a single archetypal story lying at the heart of all stories. We just mentioned Star Wars. Steven Spielberg was the first Hollywood hotshot to credit Joseph Campbell as an influence. The monomyth, or hero's journey, has traditionally held a lot of sway in how our stories are told. But come on. I mean, one story across all space and time?
This sounded a little convenient to us. So we turned to the experts. We'll be hearing from Emily Hauser, an academic and author who is telling epic tales from a different point of view by emboldening characters who were normally seen as secondary or even insignificant. But first, once upon a time in rural Maine, USA, there was a young boy named Joel Christensen.
Joel Christensen: We never watched movies together as a family, we never watched television. Most of our time was spent going to libraries and accruing insane fees for our overdue books. And my earliest memories are really around books.
Lottie Bazley: Young Joel was introduced to classical myth in seventh grade, and it's fair to say it was not love at first sight.
Joel Christensen: We read Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which is sort of like a standard old textbook for myth. And to be honest, I despised it.
Lottie Bazley: But this early disdain evolved in high school when Joel was faced with a choice.
Joel Christensen: My father was deaf and he was unemployed a lot when I was a kid, and I actually learned to speak from him. And so I went through many years of speech therapy in order to be able to speak with the fluency I do now. And so modern languages have always been a challenge for me, just making the sounds, distinguishing between them. And so I took sort of the cowards way out and I took Latin, because I was like, "Well, I don't have to speak it."
Lottie Bazley: This decision put Joel on a path with serious repercussions. He went on to become a professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Joel Christensen: I work primarily on Homeric epic and early Greek poetry, but where I think that intersects with the subject of this episode is that I focus a lot on myth and narrative.
Lottie Bazley: And this is why our hero is with us today, because Joel studies what the West refers to as 'the classics,' the earliest of which are Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. There's also The Bacchae of Euripides and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. Woo. That is a lot of s's.
And hey, no shame if you haven't read any of these. Neither have I. That is precisely what Joel's here for, and he is going to tell us all about it. So let's start with a more in-depth look at the hero's journey.
Joel Christensen: The basic story arc is that a hero or a figure is born outside of their rightful place in the universe, right? They're born outside their place in the universe and they have to struggle in some way to get back to their proper cultural position, right? Oedipus traveling back to his home city to reclaim his rightful kingship or Luke Skywalker struggling through to learn the force and to claim his place in righting the balance of the universe. And then what happens is you struggle, you reintegrate into a community, and then there's some type of fall afterwards or some sort of separation.
Often what gets left out of the heroic narrative, really what kind of happens in Empire Strikes Back, is that the hero literally has to go to hell in some way to go fight the forces of death and then come back to it and in some way have symbolically conquered death, and then you sort of get back to the beginning. The core sort of structure of the heroic narrative is actually a simple withdrawal and return pattern, but it's a return with difference. Either the place has changed or the person has. And in the classic sort of unfolding of the hero's journey, you have buddies to help you along the way, there's a call to action from some divine figure, there's magic involved. And then again, at the end, you have reintegration and sort of the end of the story.
Lottie Bazley: Okay. So those are the basics. But straight away, Joel has issues with the heroic-ness of these so-called heroes.
Joel Christensen: The dramatic part of ancient Greek myth is that heroes screw up their lives.
A classic example of this is Heracles. He's born outside his proper place in the universe because Zeus had sex with someone he shouldn't. He has to labor to get back into the good graces of the gods. He challenges death. Eventually he's raised to the gods. But he also kills his first wife and all his children, and he is killed by his final wife. And he does lots of terrible things along the way. They ruin the lives of everyone around them and they end up alone and dying. The challenging of death doesn't result in anything but death.
And so I think the danger of the monomyth, or at least the way it's used, is that it is offered by many proponents of Joseph Campbell and his work as a redemptive and contemplative process, that you go through these stages of the monomyth and you in some way become a hero. And that's misunderstanding that being a hero is not a good thing in the ancient world. It is just a fact. It is not a, let's say, reward to be desired.
Lottie Bazley: To claim every story across all cultures and time can fit into one set narrative not only makes humans sound incredibly boring and unimaginative; it doesn't quite ring true. Joel says that's because it isn't.
Joel Christensen: The heroic pattern, or the monomyth, as it's described by Campbell, doesn't actually exist in its ideal form. So one of the first things that I think is problematic about the monomyth is that it's a series of details that have been selected from a range of different cultures and different times to make a whole narrative pattern with little regard for the importance of the difference of the details for the cultures from which they're drawn. And so the monomyth that we get, even in attempts to try to adapt it to women, to people of culture, is really a selection for male figures who are never really attached or encumbered by families.
Lottie Bazley: Joel says the real challenge with a monomyth narrative is that there is only one type of person who has any control.
Joel Christensen: If you are not the male hero, your best hope is to be the female damsel who's saved or the helper or some sidekick. So in addition to not giving people who don't look, sound and act like me a sense of agency and belonging, I think that the heroic narrative, the monomyth, is dangerous because it also doesn't give us a map on how to age, on how to take care of each other when there's not a crisis, on how to be a parent, or really how to love another person when you can't be the hero in their story.
Lottie Bazley: The recent Barbie movie explored this in a really interesting way, flipping the bird at the patriarchy by making Barbie the center of the narrative. Notably, Ken felt pretty useless as a mere sidekick for Barbie. He had to go on his own separate journey to learn that he was kenough. The message? It's hard to be sidelined. Nobody likes it. But at the same time, sometimes we need to see other perspectives. We need opportunities to learn from points of view that might differ from our own.
Joel Christensen: One of the ways I think about is we need retraining on how to be an NPC, how to not be the main character in somebody else's story and be their aid. The monomyth doesn't teach you this. It teaches you to put yourself at the center of a story. And our sensory capacity, our neurobiology already puts us at the center of our story.
Lottie Bazley: NPC stands for 'non-playable character.' I love this. 'How to be an NPC' sounds a lot like 'how to be an ally.' It's about knowing when it's time to listen and learn from other points of view; to not always feel the need to control the conversation.
Joel Christensen: Just the fact that we are visually centered, that we are going around experiencing everything cut off from everybody else, it makes us all narcissists, right? And so I think we should have narratives that help us be more than ourselves instead of forcing us to double down on this sort of small experience that we have as individuals.
Lottie Bazley: So this brings us to the next hero in our decentralized story today, Emily Hauser.
She also studies ancient Greek and Latin text. And just so you know what that sounds like, here's Emily reading a bit of Sappho in ancient Greek.
Emily Hauser: Paine tae moi cernos isos teoisin emmen uner, otis enantios kai plasion adu poinei sa supakue, kai gelae sas imeroan.
Lottie Bazley: Okay. Absolutely no idea what was just said, but it makes me feel very sophisticated to listen to it. Emily is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter in England. One thing to keep in mind is that the writings and stories Emily studies are a closed canon. Unless a new papyrus is dug up in the desert, what we've got is all we'll ever have of that ancient world. But, and this is super important, this doesn't mean all the stories have already been told.
Emily Hauser: It's not an evolving world, so you can really kind of go back into that world. It's what we call a closed canon. So all of those texts are there, but what's really exciting is that there is this new phenomenon that's really been happening and hyping up in the last decade or so where particularly women writers are going back to this so-called closed canon and are writing back against these stories that everyone thought had had the last word and are saying, "Actually, we can see it from a different point of view."
Lottie Bazley: Emily is a part of that phenomenon. She has written three books that retell the stories of the ancient Greeks through characters that don't usually get much time in the spotlight.
Emily Hauser: The first one actually focuses on two women. Their names are Briseis and Chryseis, and they are two characters who crop up in the foundational text of ancient Greek literature, which is Homer's epic, The Iliad, which is an epic of men and war and guts and blood and death, and it's the process towards the Greeks taking Troy. And these two women start the entirety of the action. They're slave women who have been taken captive by the Greeks. There are two men, Achilles and Agamemnon, who are fighting over these women, which one gets which woman. So the other one gets pissed off and takes her for himself. But then the women, one of them gets shipped off halfway through the book without saying anything, The other one just gets passed from one man to another. It's this truly awful existence. This is the cost of the war. And to me, I felt that no one had paid attention to the fact that these women were actually at the center of the narrative, and that we can tell the narrative through their eyes.
Lottie Bazley: By focusing on the monomyth and its one type of hero, we cast aside all other perspectives for a very narrow view of the world.
Emily Hauser: We are losing the stories, not only of all the people who were deemed non-heroic, who might have had a heroic type experience, and yet somehow that doesn't fall into the pattern, but also all of the women, all of the enslaved people. You're just losing so much.
And when we can tease out those threads, we can tease out the stories of all of the incredible women; witches like Circe, goddesses like Calypso, kind of hopeful virgin brides like Nausikaa. There's all of these kinds of really interesting female characters just waiting in the wings, and we don't want to flatten it to just one man's journey.
Lottie Bazley: So there's been a trend to re- envision myths through the eyes of what used to be considered sideline characters. But Emily says it's important to keep in mind that this has also been going on for as long as stories have existed.
Emily Hauser: This is one reason why I would push back against the idea of the hero's journey, is it suggests that literature and stories and the way we talk about ourselves can be cookie cutter and that we can all fit into one mold, and actually, since the beginning, literature has been pushing back against that idea. And so, yes, you get Homer kind of setting up the canonical point of view, but then straight away, a century or so later, you have these amazing poets like Sappho, a woman who pushes back against what Homer says. And she has a brilliant poem where she says, "Some people say that the best thing on earth are cavalry, infantry, a fleet of ships", That's Homer, "But I say it's whoever you love." And so she completely redirects the conversation. And I feel like people have been doing that from the beginning.
Lottie Bazley: Why is that? Because we as humans have always had some sense of 'know your audience.'
Emily Hauser: And that goes all the way back to Homer. The original bards would be performing at feasts, and in the Homeric epics, it is a bard performing to an audience of men. So what he's telling is stories about men. And in fact, there's one time where Penelope, the Queen of Ithaca, Odysseus's wife, comes down and she tries to change the story, and the bard, well, her son, basically says-
Homer: Whoa, whoa, mom. This isn't for you.
Emily Hauser: "... This isn't for you.” And I think what we need to be thinking about now in our modern world where we understand the relationality, but we also understand the diversity of our audiences, we need to stop doing what is happening in the Odyssey where you are only speaking to one audience and we need to start speaking to as many audiences as we can, and making that storytelling as diverse, as applicable, as relatable as we can.
Lottie Bazley: "This isn't for you." It's not a message we often want projected out into the world. But remember earlier in the episode we talked about Star Wars? We aren't all Luke Skywalkers. So even though this may not be for us, why do we keep going back for more?
Joel Christensen has some thoughts on that.
Joel Christensen: I mean, I think there is a simple pleasure and comfort in familiar story patterns. You know what's going to happen most of the time, but there's variations, and those slight variations make it kind of exciting. Like there are only so many ways you can play a basketball game. We have the same rules. Yet we watch the same things happen over and over again because we're not actually thinking about the whole pattern, we're living in the individual moments. So I think there's something cognitively reassuring about having much of the detail already settled. We're in a comfortable zone and we're watching several things. We're watching for specific things.
On the other hand, I don't think we can discount the impact of hearing the same stories so many times as a young child. Those patterns are so pervasive. And they work in part because they reflect essential aspects of the way our lives are ordered as human beings. It also builds on our anxieties about death and our hopes about a future. And so I don't think there's ever, for most people, I don't think there's anything ever dissatisfying about that hope that, "Maybe tomorrow I'll find out that I'm something more special than I actually am."
Lottie Bazley: Joel points out it is deeply seductive to think that we were born to make real change in the world. And this is essentially an optimistic story.
Joel Christensen: I mean, we don't read stories a lot about aging and falling apart, because with the exception of very few people who age nobly, we don't want to think about it, right? We sort of fix our personalities in youth and that optimism, and the monomyth brings us back to it. It's that eternal promise of return that I think keeps us coming back to the same stories.
Lottie Bazley: So how do we fix this?
Joel Christensen: I think the real solution for deficient narratives is more narratives to give people more choice, but also to educate people about how narrative functions and impacts us.
Lottie Bazley: There are billions of people in the world, and with them come billions of perspectives. There's no need to stuff everyone into the same little old box. It's obvious. We like a good story and a familiar one can bring us comfort. We've all got that show that we've watched a million times. For me, anything with Real Housewives in the title. But let's not let comfort and familiarity dull our storytelling senses. We humans have been doing this since the beginning of time. It comes naturally to us. But come on, we can still put some effort into it. Let's keep looking for new perspectives other than the hero's journey. Maybe that damsel in distress from the beginning of the episode didn't actually need saving. Or maybe she did need help, but let's ask her why.
Damsel: Listen, I was in the middle of my PhD, I just needed a little help, and this guy ends up killing half the town. And now he wants a parade? What?!
Hero: I am reborn.
Lottie Bazley: Today our guests were Joel Christensen, a professor at Brandeis University, who works primarily in Homeric epic and early Greek poetry; and Emily Hauser, author and senior lecturer in classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter. I'm Lottie Bazley, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Join us next time where we dive into oral storytelling with three matey women.
Sheila Laroque: Okay, so small caveat; there may or may not be a lot of truth to this, but I'm going to tell it in a way where it's a great story. So whatever. That's how storytelling is.
Lottie Bazley: If you enjoy the show, tell your pals, tell your dry cleaner, tell your grade school teacher. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and leave a review. Let us know what you think. See you on the flip side.