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Saturday, March 25, 2017
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The Power of Myth

by Dwight Longenecker

One of the most influential forces in American cinema of the second half of the twentieth century is a man who was not a film maker at all. The self styled ‘mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, became a mentor for the new breed of film makers of the 1970s. John Boorman and Francis Copolla have acknowledged their debt to his work. His influences are seen in the work of Steven Spielberg, and most especially in the films of George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. Lucas was actually friends with Campbell, and admits that Campbell’s writings helped him structure his famous inter galactic fantasy saga.

In his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell outlined the essential structure at the heart of all the world’s great stories. Having studied James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Campbell borrowed the term ‘monomyth’ and expanded the concept to illustrate how the structure of the hero’s quest undergirds the world’s myths, legends and folk tales. The ‘monomyth’ is very simple: in Campbell’s words, “The hero ventures forth from a world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell broke this basic structure down into twenty or so stages. He believed that the hero’s quest is not only the root structure of all great stories, but it was so because the hero’s quest is the basic structure for life’s adventure. He thought the quest-based story structure was universal because it represented not only the dynamic of the human life cycle, but also the more important cycle of inner development and spiritual growth. The adventure was not only to be an outward quest, but an inner one. In fact, Campbell taught, it is the inner growth of the hero that is most important to the telling of the tale. Campbell said, “it is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way…the passage of the hero may be over ground incidentally; fundamentally it is inward.”

By the 1970’s film makers were at a crossing point. Like most art forms, film had grown organically according to the demands of the marketplace. At first there was no particular theory, and creative writers and directors developed a visual method for story telling by trial and error. The successful film directors and screenwriters had an instinct for a good story, but there was very little to help writers analyse what made a story work. Christopher Vogler was working for the Disney studios when he came across Campbell’s work. He wrote a little booklet to guide story editors, and from that work came his now classic guide to screenwriting, The Writer’s Journey. Vogler acknowledges his debt to Campbell and believes that Campbell’s work has provided a basic template for all screenwriters.

As a result, most mainstream Hollywood films now follow the structure of the hero’s myth at least in part. Early in the film the audience is introduced to the Hero’s ‘Ordinary World’. The hero then experiences some sort of ‘Call to Adventure’. He refuses the call, meets a mentor and then embarks on the adventure. The outward journey goes through several other stages before the predicted resolution as the hero claims the prize and then returns with the great boon for the redemption and good of his old world, and the people in it.

If the formula is followed slavishly the result is an exciting, but predictable blockbuster. The same stock characters show up. The plot follows the same turning points, and even the ‘twists’ in the plot turn out to be predictable. This is not always a bad thing. Very often an audience enjoys an adventure film because there is an element of predictability about it. The expected form becomes a language of its own and the audience knows what to expect and enjoys the result just as much as a reader looks forward to their favourite mystery writer’s annual offering.

While this hero’s quest provides a template which is sometimes formulaic, the good screenwriter is always able to use the structure to surprise the audience, genuinely turn the plot and carry the audience into a new understanding of reality. At the same time, the good screenwriter and director are aware of the deeper aspects of good story-telling, and they use the emotional turning points of the plot to engage their audience in moral choices and spiritually positive decisions.

Joseph Campbell was a great believer in the power of myth, and believed that the mysterious language, symbols and plot lines in mythic literature connected humanity with the deep movements of the human psyche within the collective unconscious.

Brought up as a Catholic in New York City, Campbell was entranced by the beauty and mystical quality of Catholic worship. He was also fascinated by the folktales and culture of Native Americans. As he grew older, Campbell drifted from the Catholic faith. He was dismayed by the results of the second Vatican Council, believing that the Church had sold her patrimony. He relished the mystery of the ancient Mass with its rich symbolism and multi layered rituals and meaning. He thought the Catholic Church had got rid of the only thing it was good at to turn her liturgy into a string of banal greeting card sentiments, and her clergy into social workers. Campbell’s own end point was a mish mash of New Age beliefs. Basically syncretistic and agnostic, he relied heavily on the work of Carl Jung, and believed that salvation lay within psychology and self help.

Joseph Campbell’s work has been picked up by all the usual New Age suspects. With its mix of shallow mysticism, depth psychology and self help, it offers an intriguing matrix with which to view the world. However, withoug genuine faith, mysticism and the work of grace, Campbell’s thought (like all New Age prognostications and therapies) remains an interesting theory.

Nevertheless, although in his public expression Joseph Campbell left the Catholic faith, it can be argued that the Catholic faith didn’t leave him. The Catholic religion was Campbell’s first (and arguably) deepest inspiration and it provided the initial driving force for his search for truth within the stories of mankind. Since Campbell has been so influential in the popular culture of our time, it is worth remembering that while he cannot be called a ‘Catholic thinker’, the roots of his thought and his search for truth are locked deep within his Catholic boyhood, and his basic insights can help illuminate our understanding of stories, film and literature.

How very deep that faith was within Campbell is proved by the story I heard when conducting a seminar on preaching in Vermont. I mentioned Campbell’s work in the context of structuring stories for use in homilies. A participant on the course was a deacon who was, for many years, a professor of phenomenology and religious psychology. He had met Campbell several times and was a student of the religious philosopher Mircea Eleade. The deacon told me that on his deathbed Joseph Campbell was received back into communion with the Catholic faith.

The essence of Campbell’s work is his analysis of the structure of stories. The hero launches out from his ordinary world to gain a great treasure, but he always returns. If it is true that Campbell returned to the Catholic faith, then his own life went through a similar cycle. He went away from the church, and returned, bringing with him a new understanding of the ‘mono myth’ and how it works within the human heart. Perhaps he came ‘home to Rome’ with a fresh way to appreciate not only the world’s great stories, but also the great Judeo-Christian story which culminates in the greatest story ever told—the story of Christ’s own heroic descent to this world to win the prize of mankind’s salvation. As C.S.Lewis observed, “This was a myth that really happened.” By showing us how myth works Campbell unlocks another dimension of our own redemption.


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