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The Hero’s Journey in Contemporary Literature/Fantasy

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    While the Heros Journey is seen to be very prevelant in myths, I see the same themes come up in the fiction I read now. From The Hobbit, to American Gods, to Emma. What are your favorite examples of the Hero’s Journey in popular literature?


    To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. The Hero’s Journey seems a pattern inherent in Story; myths were simply the first stories to be told, or, at least, to be recorded.

    I was excited the first time I cam across supplemental material from a textbook publisher for a seventh grade novel that included a lesson on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey – not for a work on myth or fairy tale, but Jack London’s The Call of the Wild!

    That was around 1999, I believe. Once Campbell was embraced by the textbook companies, seemed a solid sign his ideas had gone mainstream.


      I think one of the absolute best stories to exemplify the Hero’s Journey is The Wizard of Oz. I watched it just the other day and was once more taken how the different elements are quite in your face. Of course it’s all the more special because the hero is female, demonstrating that this archetypal adventure is gender neutral.


      One of my biggest problems with the monomyth as Campbell presented it is the gender roles assigned. I enjoy stories with Heros both male and female, and I like the temptress (or temptation) they experience to be more metaphorical then physical. A Temptress that is just a physical experience is much less interesting to me then a metaphorical temptress like the obsession with the Mirror or Erised that we see in the first Harry Potter.

      I’m curious if there are myths that break from the stereotypical gender roles or if we only find that in more modern works


      The two earliest recorded myths we know of, from the same period in ancient Mesopotamia, are the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Descent of Inanna. Joseph Campbell definitely references the latter, in which the Goddess Inanna undergoes the original heroic birth-and-death experience, in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

      But Campbell also mentions somewhere that when he was looking for examples of the female hero for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he turned to fairy tales. One huge reason for that is that myths, even those of Goddess-oriented cultures, were recorded by male priests and scribes, filtered through the masculine mindset. Fairy tales, by contrast – which are often the lingering traces of past mythologies no longer active – are part of an oral tradition handed down in the nursery by grandmothers, nannies, aunts, and moms, so the female perspective isn’t edited out.

      Ah – I found the reference I was looking for – this is from a Q & A session with Joe during a monthlong workshop:

      When I was writing The Hero With a Thousand Faces and wanted to bring in female heroes, I had to go to the fairy tales. These are told by women to children, you know, and you get a sense of the woman’s journey.

      There is a feminine counterpart to the trials and the difficulties, but it certainly is in a different mode. I don’t know the counterpart—the real counterpart, not the woman pretending to be male, but the normal feminine archetypology of this experience. I wouldn’t know what that would be.


      Women will have to tell us the way a woman experiences the journey, if it is the same journey.

      Fairy tales are a good place to look for that – but today, there are so many wonderful examples in literature. Women’s voices are finally being heard; seems they are telling us how they experience the journey.


      Myths that “show’ us the suffering-that invite us into the suffering have profound affects in my life experience. We suffer -we heal-we share-we reinvent ourselves as a result of suffering. As a story the Passion of Christ rings real, intense, important in showing us how to meet suffering. There are not too many people-and I mean this absent of membership in any religion , cannot be open to the suffering  Christ. What he left us as the boon for that suffering is the wisdom that all of the divine [if we wish to express it in those terms] lies inside us-we are the benefactors of that suffering in knowing that it elevates our potential to all be as the gods. This story also left at least at first,  the western world with incredible inspiration to make music, to paint, to build. What went terribly wrong was that it became “fact” and not myth and hence as Nietzsche said , “God is dead”-here is the risk of concretizing  the myth as Campbell told us. We have sucked the vitality out of one of the greatest myths.

      How to recapture the vitality from the myths is what I am interested in pursuing at this point in my life. What is greater than ourselves is the story itself-I am responding to Stephen’s query about what I posted earlier. It seems to me we are in great need of myths at this very moment because simply understanding what we are given by [knowledgeable] scientists is simply not enough, especially when we face the vast universe as but a dram of sand in the great expanse of being. This cannot be all there is. So, I am revisiting the myths that Campbell has shared and re-considering what they can offer at this moment in time. In finding some of this , I sense we can face the hero’s journey [and all its dangers and challenges]  once more.  By-the-way, this also means the heroic journeys of many women-Hildegard von Bingen being one of them. her story is one of great heroism.



      I appreciate Johanna’s perspective on suffering and the Passion of Christ (the biblical tale of Job, also, depicts unjustified suffering – which indeed seems the lot of all humans).

      Campbell describes Christ on the Cross as a bodhisattva figure (describing what he terms the bodhisattva formula as “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”)

      “All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, and so it is. It wouldn’t be life if there weren’t temporality involved, which is sorrow – loss, loss, loss. You’ve got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way; for this is surely the way God intended it …

      It is joyful just as it is. I don’t believe there was anybody who intended it, but this is the way it is. James Joyce has a memorable line: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And the way to wake from it is not to be afraid, and to recognize that all of this, as it is, is a manifestation of the horrendous power that is of all creation. The ends of things are always painful. But pain is part of there being a world at all …

      “I will participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera – except that it hurts.”

      (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1988 Doubleday edition, pp. 80-81)

      Myth certainly points in this direction – but also literature. I’m all for reviving the vitality of myth; in our secular age, however, a case can be made that it’s literature that speaks to the human condition and serves (along with certain films) as the medium for myth today.


      Hi Alexander,

      Here are a few of the gender role-breaking films that come to mind, and this could go on naming many more modern/contemporary books/films:

      –Disney’s Mulan

      Mary Poppins 

      –Maria in The Sound of Music 

      –Maya Angelou’s speaker’s-voice in the poem Still I Rise

      Romeo and Juliette

      –In many versions of Cinderella, Cinderella is not passive; although she does enlist supernatural helpers and is thus somewhat “magical” herself, she uses her hero’s plan by sneaking out to the prince’s ball, disguising her true identity from her step-mother and step-sisters, the prince, and all in the kingdom. And so Cinderella is not exactly all so completely “innocent” or naive.

      –Gretel in Hansel and Gretel. She joins proactively with Hansel to secure her and her brother’s rescue.

      From Out of Africa 

      Alice in Wonderland

      –Clara in The Nutcracker Suite‘s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (I wrote and published a paper on this–it is one of my favorites.)

      Sheherazade in Tales from 1001 Nights

      With Mythic Bliss!

      Mary Ann




      Hi Joanna,

      I really enjoy this post. What really speaks to me is when you say, ” We have sucked the vitality out of one of the greatest myths.” Motifs in Christianity are motifs many myths and other religions share. Jesus on the cross can be likened to Odin hanging on the tree. I look forward to hearing/reading more from you about the suffering/passion of Christ.


      Mary Ann




      Thanks, Mary, for emphasizing Johanna’s point about the suffering of Christ.

      All too often those of us drawn to myth tend to overlook or ignore the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythological nexus that informs modern society. Could be we are just drawn to what is sparkly and exotic, whereas the myths of the culture we grew up seems just the same-old same-old to many of us.

      That’s a fruitful area for research for mythologists (maybe those from a culture outside the western nexus could better explore this, unencumbered by our baggage). Campbell does touch on this in Occidental Mythology (the third of four volumes in The Masks of God tetralogy), and Thou Art That. And then David Miller, professor emeritus of comparative religion and friend and colleague of Joe’s who served on JCF’s Board of Directors, goes there in his Christs: Meditations on Archetypal Images in Christian Theology, and Hells and Holy Ghosts: A Theopoetics of Christian Belief . . . and, of course, Carl Jung really dives deep throughout his Collected Works.


      M, this is a brilliant example. Departure, trials, return. With magical helpers. And the component of dream. As J.C. so aptly suggested, dream, waking or otherwise, is the origin of myth. Hence the unsettling, otherwise shadowy aspect of Dorothy’s fraught, yet life-affirming endeavor. Nothing within her experience and for that matter within the film itself is quite right, is it? It’s quite a trippy movie. Our dreams being sometimes, when they are perhaps “big” dreams as Jung described them, so WYRD, if you know what I mean in the Germanic sense? And Dorothy’s “real” life exists within black & white and her dream-myth world in color. Otherwise, it’s too bad these days that the so-called woke and otherwise tediously hyper-gender-aware don’t realize myth has expressed four genders from perhaps its inception. And J.C. knew this. And addressed it. You know, for example, within Kudler’s great editing masterwork, Pathways to Bliss where Joe addresses the consternated female questioner feeling robbed, for whatever reason, of the hero experience. Mostly by way of the ceaseless misreading of the term “hero.” As if the term’s only definition is that of being “valiant.” No. Hero could just as easily, within J.C.’s work, refer to whomever is called. Anyway, well said, here’s to the WOO…!


        Favourites are Artemis’ encounter with Actaion (instead of the tale told the other way around) where the goddess punishes his lustfull gazing with transformation and a cruel death by his beloved dogs and admired friends, and Diana’s King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis) who, in serving the goddess, has to kill her priest to become the next priest, killed by his murderer who will succeed him. Mythical dancing.


        Keith – thanks for highlighting the dream component of the Wizard of Oz, which is so much more than “it was all just a dream so never mind” (as when a popular television series kills off a major character, then ratings drop and they need to bring the character back a year later –e.g. Dallas in the 1980s). Even though Dorothy’s experience in Oz was a dream, I’ve never picked up that the adventure wasn’t “true” (though the adults on the farm humored her when she woke, there was a sense that they just couldn’t see with the eyes of child what was so).

        No doubt that’s because the dream is in color, with waking life in black-and-white (you hit the nail on the head with that observation, which had not occurred to me before).

        I also appreciate your reference to Wyrd (which JC suggests is derived from an amalgamation of the Old High German wirtel – “spindle” – and werden – “to become, to grow”). Reading that a few decades back in Creative Mythology altered my experience of MacBeth and deepened my sense of the Three Weird Sisters beyond caricature to an embodiment of ancient wisdom in the sense of the Norns or the Three Fates.


        Mars – though Frazer gets short shrift from academics these days for his sloppy scholarship and intuitive leaps (as does Robert Graves), he still speaks to me. I suspect Campbell’s love of The Golden Bough (which he sometimes referred to as his “bible”), along with his affection for Oswald Spengler and Leo Frobenius, might have something to do with the academy’s tendency to hold JC’s work at arm’s length.

        The myth of Actaeon and Artemis is also one of my favorites, primarily because it is so simple and straightforward a story, and yet so powerful. It was one of the tales I loved telling my students in the years I taught Literature at the junior high level because of their response: never a question of anyone not “getting it.”


        I think one of the absolute best stories to exemplify the Hero’s Journey is The Wizard of Oz.

        Have you ever seen the movie, “Zardoz” (a compounding of “The Wizard of Oz”)? It’s the Hero’s Journey plus all the Hindu/Zen/Eastern/New-Age astral stuff, plus Nietzsche (main character kills his own God)… It’s even got Sean Connery wearing a red leather jock-strap and thigh-high boots. It’s insane.

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