January 15, 2007

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

This is a book written by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949. In this, he postulates that all archetypal-hero mythology, independently evolved in various parts of the world, share a common structure which he calls the monomyth. He explains this as an unconscious force of the mind; the human mind looks up to the same kind of person as a hero.

This is a book written by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949. In this, he postulates that all archetypal-hero mythology, independently evolved in various parts of the world, share a common structure which he calls the monomyth. He explains this as an unconscious force of the mind; the human mind looks up to the same kind of person as a hero.

His theory states that the monomyth comprises 5 basic parts:

  1. The Hero, a common man, is called to Adventure in a supernatural world, which he accepts reluctantly.
  2. He has to face a series of trials and tribulations
  3. He achieves victory in his goal, and receives as reward a great power
  4. He returns to the ordinary world.
  5. He uses his great power for the benefit of his fellow men.

There are a few more aspects of the description of the hero. He has a very close human friend, who remains by his side through all his trials. He has a faithful pet animal who is completely devoted to him. He has some trouble with his father-figure... the nature of this trouble varies, but he always reconciles with the father-figure towards the end. And of course, there is the love interest.

This concept has been re-used in the modern day myths, in our movies, in our books. As an illustration, I shall compare four seminal hero-myths, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Matrix. While the first three are all almost fully compliant with the monomyth, Matrix omits certain aspects.

  1. Hero has trouble with father figure
    1. Rama is exiled by his father, at a step-mother's behest.
    2. Luke Skywalker's "Dark Father" is the most evil man in the galaxy, and is hidden from him in Tatooine
    3. Harry Potter's father is killed by the most evil wizard.
    4. Not applicable, Neo's parents don't feature.
  2. Hero has very close human friend
    1. Lakshmana
    2. Han Solo
    3. Ron Weasley
    4. Morpheus
  3. Hero has a faithful, supernatural pet animal
    1. Hanuman
    2. Chewbacca... well this is a bit confusing. Who's the hero here, Han or Luke ?
    3. Hedwig
    4. Not applicable in Matrix
  4. Hero has a Love Interest
    1. Sita
    2. Leia ... again, who's the hero ? Han or Luke ?
    3. Hermione ? Bit confusing again.
    4. Trinity
  5. Hero is called to great adventure
    1. Rama's 12 years of exile in the forest
    2. Luke and Han called to join the rebellion
    3. Potter's Entry to the world of magic
    4. Neo takes the red pill.
  6. When the hero starts out, an elderly figure helps him and provides him with tools/weapons
    1. The sage Vishwamithra gives Rama a whole bunch of celestial weapons.
    2. Obi-Wan Ben Kenobi gives him the light sabre and his first lessons as a Jedi
    3. Hagrid gives Potter a whole bunch of stuff including, of course, his wand.
    4. Morpheus' frees the mind of Neo, and the Oracle tells Neo his fate
  7. Series of trials and tribulations culminating in a final battle with his nemesis.
    1. Rama defeats a dozen or more asuras, culminating with the final battle against Ravana.
    2. Luke and Han are involved in a series of skirmishes with Imperial forces, culminating with the final battle against the emperor himself.
    3. Potter has a series of fights against Voldemort culminating with the final fight against the Evil Wizard himself (yeah, I know, the book hasn't come out yet).
    4. Neo has multiple skirmishes with the agents, culminating in the final battle against the Agent Smith.
  8. He achieves his goal, and receives a great reward. This is a little tough enumerate in all the myths. Yes, all of them defeat their respective nemeses, but the boon in all cases is faith in their own capabilities.
  9. Return to the ordinary world and initial reluctance to do so.
    1. Rama returns to Ayodhya and resumes his place on the throne. He is reluctant to do so initially, because he wants Bharata to continue being king.
    2. The story ends before the return... so I dunno.
    3. Story yet to evolve. But I can hazard a guess here... maybe Potter will have return to the world of muggles and live the life of an ordinary human being.
    4. Matrix is an exception, because Neo dies in the battle against Smith.
  10. Reconciliation with the father-figure
    1. Dasaratha is dead before Rama returns, and this sadly doesn't happen. But actually, his reconciliation is with Keikeyi, which does happen pretty early on.
    2. Darth Vader becomes good again, he becomes Anakin Skywalker again.
    3. Again, James Potter is already dead, I am not sure what the reconciliation would be. (maybe with his uncle and aunt ?). Will have to wait for the book to come out.
    4. Not applicable

The following also fall into the monomyth structure, but I am not well-versed enough in any of them to do a comparative analysis.

  1. JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
  2. Homer's Illiad & Odyssey
  3. Heracles (Hercules) in Greek mythology
  4. Rustam in Persian Mythology
  5. Cuchulainn in Irish Druid Mythology