Joseph Campbell's Monomyth: A Brief History and Introduction
Storytellers study myths to learn the narrative techniques that make them so powerful. And while interest stops at the technical for some, for many, that’s where it starts.
To study the most powerful stories of all time and what makes them powerful means swimming in deep waters. Most need a guide. Many turn to Campbell. The insights he’s delivered from the depths now permeate Hollywood and the storytelling professions. What follows is an introduction to his ideas through four lenses we use in the Joseph Campbell Writers’ Room: conceptual worlds, archetypal character, symbolic imagery, and mythic narratives.
History of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth
Before we get into his ideas though, a bit should be shared on Joseph Campbell’s entanglement with film history: When Arthur C. Clarke was stuck on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick gave him Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas says he could have never finished Star Wars had he not read it. George Miller claimed it had a huge influence on Mad Max. Boorman said the same about his films. And in 1985, Joseph Campbell was featured in an episode of American Masters on George Lucas, who had come to call him, his “Yoda."
That same year, a memo by Chris Vogler from the Disney story department became famous for demonstrating the Hero’s Journey and how it relates to film. In 1987, Campbell died. In 1988, a documentary series he recorded with Bill Moyers called, The Power of Myth, became one of the most successful programs in the history of public television. It was recorded on Skywalker Ranch and compared scenes from Star Wars to mythological motifs.
In 1992, Chris Vogler published Writers’ Journey, which taught the Hero’s Journey through cinematic examples. In 1997, Roger McKee referred to him in Story. Snyder’s 2005, Save the Cat, relied heavily on the Hero’s Journey. And the same can be said of Dan Harmon’s circle theory. By now, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one the first books recommended by Ed Catmull, President of Disney-Pixar; and there’s hardly a studio, film school, franchise or writers’ room that doesn’t use, teach or even reference his work. It’s become part of our cultural fabric—literally. There are Campbell quotes are on Superman’s chest and Wonder Woman’s sword.
This is why Studio School is so honored to have opened the Joseph Campbell Writers’ Room with the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s blessing. We offer Joseph Campbell scholarships for young filmmakers, teach courses on mythic storytelling, run certificate programs, deliver camps, host events, consult with storytellers and write.
The four lenses we use to introduce mythic storytelling are based more on where storytellers are going than where mythologists are coming from. In coverage and treatments, the four most common elements are concept, character, theme and narrative summary. This is why we teach through the lenses of the conceptual world, archetypal character, symbolic imagery, and mythic narrative.
Method of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth:
Before we put mythic storytelling through the prism of world, character, image and narrative, it’s important to recognize that in all cases, pattern is the anchor. First and foremost, we look for patterns that repeat. We find these patterns by looking at thousands of stories—individually and as a field. Recognizing patterns is one of our species’ greatest skills. If we look at enough stories, we’ll quickly see patterns they share, and if the use of these patterns gets stale or feels uninspired, we sense cliché. This is why it’s so important for storytellers to expand their range. We are what we eat!
Mythologists look for patterns that expand beyond Hollywood, beyond cinema, beyond the Western cannon entirely, beyond recorded history, and into the heavens, mind and body. The reason we read Campbell is because he’s one of the best pattern recognizers our species has ever known, and because he applied this skill to a range of myths that’s been rarely paralleled.
So what patterns did he find?
Conceptual Worlds of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth
Campbell found that most heroes start in a sheltered state. The sheltered state is both secure and repressed: Adam & Eve in Eden, Siddhartha in his palace, Perceval and Bobby Buchet with their mothers, Luke on the farm, Harry under the stairs. In the worldly security of a character, we see their sense of inner security; and in their sheltered world, we see their sheltered minds.
As Campbell points out, a god outgrown becomes a suffocating demon. The walls of Eden, like the picket fence, go from keeping things out, to keeping things in. The child transitions from running to his mother’s legs to leaping over her fence. Psychologically, this is an expansion of the mind beyond a sheltered and limited reality. This is the desire to explore the unknown—which is driven by the need for inner expansion.
Known is in contrast with the other world, in which we encounter other cultures, other creatures, other forces, and ultimately, other parts of ourselves. This is where we find skills we didn’t know we had through challenges we could have never imagined.
But where is Oz? Where is Wonderland?
Dorothy hanged her head and Alice fell asleep—we’re in their minds. Everything in Oz is an expression of Dorothy—the settings, characters, tokens and changes. One of the secrets to mythic storytelling is to see the journey through different parts of the world as a journey through different parts of the self.
Even if your character isn’t in their own dream—like Alice or Dorothy—try writing as though they are. This results in a tightness between the inner arc of a protagonist and the plot into which it projects. From a depth psychological approach to mythology, the outer experience of a character should be seen as a projection of their inner experience—in a dream, in a myth, in a film. For a filmmaker, this is one of the secret keys to visual storytelling.
In the next post, we’ll look at Archetypal Character, Symbolic Imagery and mythic narrative.
The Joseph Campbell Writers’ Room (JCWR) is a center for mythology and storytelling on the campus of Studio School in LA Center Studios. The name has been licensed and blessed by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. For more than an introduction, we offer coursework, camps and events for students and professionals.