All Stories Are the Same

This article was written by John Yorke and published in the Atlantic, January 2016. 

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From Avatar to The Wizard of Oz, Aristotle to Shakespeare, there’s one clear form that dramatic storytelling has followed since its inception.

 

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

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Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth. But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all of them.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and 11th centuries.

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And it’s more familiar than that: It’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob—all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House, or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho, and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture—in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community—stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown …

It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down. And if you transplant it from fantasy into something a little more earthbound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone, and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the characters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, and Thelma & Louise.

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So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf, Alien, and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories—but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic “quest” stories like Apocalypse Now or Finding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even “Brave New World” stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness, and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: The characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But these tenets don’t just appear in films, novels, or indeed TV series like Homeland or The Killing. A 9-year-old child of my friend decided he wanted to tell a story. He didn’t consult anyone about it, he just wrote it down:

A family are looking forward to going on holiday. Mom has to sacrifice the holiday in order to pay the rent. Kids find map buried in garden to treasure hidden in the woods, and decide to go after it. They get in loads of trouble and are chased before they finally find it and go on even better holiday.

Why would a child unconsciously echo a story form that harks back centuries? Why, when writing so spontaneously, would he display knowledge of story structure that echoes so clearly generations of tales that have gone before? Why do we all continue to draw our stories from the very same well? It could be because each successive generation copies from the last, thus allowing a series of conventions to become established. But while that may help explain the ubiquity of the pattern, its sturdy resistance to iconoclasm and the freshness and joy with which it continues to reinvent itself suggest something else is going on.

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Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be—though we must be careful—a universal archetype.

Most writing on art is by people who are not artists: thus all the misconceptions.

—Eugène Delacroix

The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one. From the Prague School and the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century, via Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, many have set themselves the task of trying to understand how stories work. In my own field it’s a veritable industry—there are hundreds of books about screenwriting (though almost nothing sensible about television). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away:

1. Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?

2. None of them asks “Why?”

Some of these tomes contain invaluable information; more than a few have worthwhile insights; all of them are keen to tell us how and with great fervor insist that “there must be an inciting incident on page 12,” but none of them explains why this should be. Which, when you think about it, is crazy: If you can’t answer “why,” the “how” is an edifice built on sand. And then, once you attempt to answer it yourself, you start to realize that much of the theory—incisive though some of it is—doesn’t quite add up. Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not: They’re constructs. Unless we can find a coherent reason why these shapes exist, then there’s little reason to take these people seriously. They’re snake-oil salesmen, peddling their wares on the frontier.

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I’ve been telling stories for almost all my adult life, and I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working on some of the most popular shows on British television. I’ve created storylines that have reached over 20 million viewers and I’ve been intimately involved with programs that helped redefine the dramatic landscape. I’ve worked, almost uniquely in the industry, on both art-house and populist mainstream programs, loved both equally, and the more I’ve told stories, the more I’ve realized that the underlying pattern of these plots—the ways in which an audience demands certain things—has an extraordinary uniformity.
Eight years ago I started to read everything on storytelling. More importantly I started to interrogate all the writers I’d worked with about how they write. Some embraced the conventions of three-act structure, some refuted it—and some refuted it while not realizing they used it anyway. A few writers swore by four acts, some by five; others claimed that there were no such things as acts at all. Some had conscientiously learned from screenwriting manuals while others decried structural theory as the devil’s spawn. But there was one unifying factor in every good script I read, whether authored by brand new talent or multiple award-winners, and that was that they all shared the same underlying structural traits.
In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.

By asking two simple questions—what were these traits; and why did they recur—I unlocked a cupboard crammed full of history. I soon discovered that the three-act paradigm was not an invention of the modern age but an articulation of something much more primal; that modern act structure was a reaction to dwindling audience attention spans and the invention of the curtain.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the history of five-act drama took me back to the Romans, via the 19-century French dramatist Eugène Scribe and the German novelist Gustav Freytag to Molière, Shakespeare, and Jonson. I began to understand that, if there really was an archetype, it had to apply not just to screenwriting, but to all narrative structures. One either tells all stories according to a pattern or none at all. If storytelling does have a universal shape, this has to be self-evident.

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When it comes to structure, how much do writers actually need to know? Here’s Guillermo Del Toro on film theory:

You have to liberate people from [it], not give them a corset in which they have to fit their story, their life, their emotions, the way they feel about the world. Our curse is that the film industry is 80 percent run by the half-informed. You have people who have read Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, and now they’re talking to you about the hero’s journey, and you want to fucking cut off their dick and stuff it in their mouth.

Del Toro echoes the thoughts of many writers and filmmakers; there’s an ingrained belief for many that the study of structure is, implicitly, a betrayal of their genius; it’s where mediocrities seek a substitute muse. Such study can only end in one way. David Hare puts it well:

The audience is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and personal journeys—from the moment that they start cranking. It’s angry and insulted by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, courtesy of Joseph Campbell. All great work is now outside genre.

Charlie Kaufman, who has done more than most in Hollywood to push the boundaries of form, goes further:

There’s this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on, this three-act thing. It doesn’t really interest me. I actually think I’m probably more interested in structure than most people who write screenplays, because I think about it.

But they protest too much. Hare’s study of addiction My Zinc Bed and Kaufman’s screenplay for Being John Malkovich are perfect examples of classic story form. However much they hate it (and their anger I think betrays them), they can’t help but follow a blueprint they profess to detest. Why?

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All stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.Is this therefore the magic key to storytelling? Such hubris requires caution—the compulsion to order, to explain, to catalogue, is also the tendency of the train-spotter. In denying the rich variety and extraordinary multi-faceted nature of narrative, one risks becoming no better than Casaubon, the desiccated husk from Middlemarch, who turned his back on life while seeking to explain it. It’s all too tempting to reduce wonder to a scientific formula and unweave the rainbow.

But there are rules.

As the creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, puts it:

The real rules are the rules of drama, the rules that Aristotle talks about. The fake TV rules are the rules that dumb TV execs will tell you; ‘You can’t do this, you’ve got to do—you need three of these and five of those.’ Those things are silly.

Sorkin expresses what all great artists know—that they need to have an understanding of craft. Every form of artistic composition, like any language, has a grammar, and that grammar, that structure, is not just a construct—it’s the most beautiful and intricate expression of the workings of the human mind.

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Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not.

It’s important to assert that writers don’t need to understand structure. Many of the best have an uncanny ability to access story shape unconsciously, for it lies as much within their minds as it does in a 9-year-old’s.

There’s no doubt that for many those rules help. Friedrich Engels put it pithily:

Freedom is the recognition of necessity.

A piano played without knowledge of time and key soon becomes wearisome to listen to; following the conventions of form didn’t inhibit Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich. Even if you’re going to break rules (and why shouldn’t you?) you have to have a solid grounding in them first. The modernist pioneers—Abstract Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Futurists—all were masters of figurative painting before they shattered the form. They had to know their restrictions before they could transcend them.

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As the art critic Robert Hughes observed:

With scarcely an exception, every significant artist of the last hundred years, from Seurat to Matisse, from Picasso to Mondrian, from Beckmann to de Kooning, was drilled (or drilled himself ) in “academic” drawing—the long tussle with the unforgiving and the real motif which, in the end, proved to be the only basis on which the real formal achievements of modernism could be raised. Only in that way was the right radical distortion within a continuous tradition earned, and its results raised above the level of improvisory play … The philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees.

Cinema and television contain much great work that isn’t structurally orthodox (particularly in Europe), but even then its roots still lie firmly in, and are a reaction to, a universal archetype. As Hughes says, they are a conscious distortion of a continuing tradition. The masters did not abandon the basic tenets of composition; they merely subsumed them into art no longer bound by verisimilitude. All great artists—in music, drama, literature, in art itself—have an understanding of the rules whether that knowledge is conscious or not. “You need the eye, the hand, and the heart,” proclaims the ancient Chinese proverb. “Two won’t do.”

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Storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all—almost—as breathing. From the mythical campfire tale to its explosion in the post-television age, it dominates our lives. It behooves us then to try and understand it. Delacroix countered the fear of knowledge succinctly:

First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.

In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.


This article has been adapted from John Yorke’s book, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.

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The Force Awakens

In 1977, Star Wars – A New Hopelaunched a whole generation on a journey with a farm boy from a desert planet, to the discovery  of a mysterious destiny and a mysterious power, to meet a whole litany of curious friends and foes and to reveal a unique courage and mission to save the galaxy. 

Lucas was a self-confessed Joseph Campbell fan and his use of the Hero Journey to frame the Skywalker journey is marked. As such, it resonated with epics and classic tales told for generations.

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The next episode, The Empire Strikes Back took the same cast of characters into a deeper journey of love, loyalty and self discovery. Continuing with the Skywalker journey, the film dove into one of the most timeless horror motifs of fairy tale and myth – that of the murderous parent.

Grimm’s Tales abound with step-parents who would murder their child, lock them in towers, poison them or abandon them to witches and wolves. The most primal love story of parent-child is turned on its head as child struggles to find not only life but the meaning of love.

Return of the Jedi simply closed the chapter with Skywalker as he emerged from a crysalis of youth into maturity of a Jedi, facing not only his foes but his most dread fear. He overcame hate with compassion, dissolved darkness with light and again restored peace to the galaxy. It’s another Hero Journey extraordinaire.

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The most recent iteration, Episode VII, The Force Awakens, [2015], was a much feted reboot of the originals by wunderkind J.J. Abrams. The film, starring many of the original cast members, was however, a rather disappointingly repetitious revisit of the same mythical narrative tropes.

Nothing truly took the story forward.

It feels as if we are reliving “A New Hope“. We are introduced all over again to a disenfranchised orphan [this time a girl], and we follow her journey as she discovers a mysterious destiny and a mysterious power, encounters a whole litany of curious friends and foes and and discovers a unique courage and opportunity to face and thwart evil.

Not only did it repeat many elements of Episode IV, but the characters are only briefly developed and even the protagonist Rey is one-dimensionally perfect. She can fight, she can fly, she can wield the force without training, she is beautiful and good. One feels we are truly in a Disney movie with a modern day princess as our heroine. There is no petulant selfishness of Luke Skywalker nor his journey of growth.

Rey has no journey – she’s already amazing.

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The most interesting character is the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo – now the prince of the First Order. Professing allegiance to his grandfather, Darth Vader, Ben Solo seeks to grow his power and suppress his confused feelings of love or compassion. The ultimate test for this young Jedi is to sacrifice what is most dear to him, to prove power and vengeance are most justified.

This point of tension, reverses the narrative motif of The Empire Strikes Back. No longer murderous parent – we see the inverse – murderous son.

His journey is an ultimately human one, feeling betrayal he seeks to free himself to greatness by removing the father who disappointed him. The nuance of the Dark side of the force here is sharpened.

No longer do we see the dark side to be pure hate, fear, vengeance or lust for power, as established by the Anakin / Darth Vader story. No,  now it portrayed as a necessary and justified path to self fulfilment. 

Very Nietzschean.

Interestingly the German philosopher Frierich Neitzsche’s ‘will to power’ was the bedrock and foundation of much of Hitler’s Nazi philosophy.

It will be interesting to see where the Ben Solo journey takes us in coming instalments and how the epic and mythic narrative types are deepened and extended.

 

 

 

 

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough [1890-1915] is an anthology of comparative mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

The book is in fact 12 volumes which analyse the narratives and rituals of the ancient world. Its central thesis is that originally, religions were fertility cults concerned with cyclical seasons. These cults revolved around concerns of life and death and almost universally featured the worship of and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was most often the incarnation of a dying god, who perished at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

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Frazer proposed that mankind has progressed from magic through religious belief to scientific thought, however this legend remained pervasive into the 20th century, Frazer’s own era. He cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and drew parallels to Jesus Christ.

The book scandalized the British public when first published, as it equated the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection with the pagan religions. Nevertheless, it soon became a staple of anthropology and comparative religious curricula.

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The book’s title  The Golden Bough, refers to  the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, [Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI] who leaving Troy after its destruction travels to Italy and founds what will become Rome. He is aided by the 700 year old sibyl of Cumae, who agrees to escort him into the underworld to find his father. To achieve this, Aeneas must pluck a branch of the Golden Bough, a sacred tree that only the gods can access. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite assists him to pluck a branch of the tree and with it and with the help of the sibyl, he descends to Hades unscathed. There he greets the ‘shade’ of his father who shows him the river Lethe, or forgetfulness and beyond it where all the spirits of the unborn await. There are Aeneas descendants, among them great men such as Romulus and the Caesars who would one day rule Rome. Aeneas’ father also points him to the Gates of Sleep through which he can return to the living.

Virgil’s narrative highlights a few interesting things about the motif of the dying king, or the hero who descends into Hades and returns.  First, it is a classic hero journey, as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]. The hero journey, also called the monomyth, is a narrative pattern favoured by storytellers, film-makers and script writers the world over. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Second, Virgil connects the hero journey to the World Tree, The Golden Bough or the divine Tree of Life. This common motif of ancient narratives connects the realm of the divine, the gods and their garden of Eden or paradise, to Earth. The branch or fruit of of the tree of life bestows immortality and so is restricted from mortal access. Access to life and thus to this tree becomes of obsessive interest to ancient heroes.

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What does all this mean and what importance does this narrative resonance have at a time such as Easter?

Many point out that Easter coincides with the pagan festival of the first full moon of Spring. Thus, the celebration of the death of a supposed god-king,  who later was resurrected to restore life to earth and to humanity is easily explained away as simple anthropological pattern that people of  a more scientific age should be well beyond.

But this is where things begin to go a bit strange.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish full moon celebration of the passover, a feast which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Far from celebrating the sacrificial death of a god-king, the Passover celebrates the merciful sparing of the people of Israel from a plague of death in Egypt by the sacrifice of a simple lamb.

Within the ancient near eastern context, rich with narratives of dying and rising god-kings, Zoroastrians and Jewish narratives resonated with a typological hero, a servant king, who would bring peace and end the cosmic cycle of death and mend the polarities of light and dark. This king, the anointed mashiach or messiah, would not only restore life, but end all wars, suffering, illness, death and sorrow. While it was acknowledged that this king was a servant and would suffer, this king would also be politically significant and liberate the Jewish people from their bondages.

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When devout Jews of the first century AD declared the Jesus of Nazareth was this promised anointed one, the uproar and dissent caused within the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean caused even the Imperial Rulers to complain and seek to suppress it [Divus Claudius,  25].

Most significantly what this shows is that the Jewish people were the least likely people of the ancient world to equate a man to God, or to conflate pagan mythology of a dying and rising god with the advent of their mashiach.

Historians have posited that claims of Christ’s divinity or evidence of the resurrection were laid-over first century accounts of Jesus of Nazareth to satisfy mythical types. However, this too has been shown to be quite unsupportable. The earliest texts which report eye witness claims of Christ’s death date from the first century and the debates and unrest caused by the earliest followers of Christ are supported by secular historians such as Claudius [above] and Tacitus [Annals XV.44], Suetonius [Nero 16] and Pliny [Epistulae X.96].

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The fact that hundreds of so called eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ were persecuted and willingly died to maintain this claim, caused unrest across the whole Mediterranean region and resultant persecution by the authorities.

So what can we make of these seeming contradictions? The Christ narrative seems to comply with mythical archetypes which resonate throughout world literature and point to cosmic reconciliation of death and rebirth. However, within the Jewish context, the claim that Christ fulfilled messianic hopes of ending the struggle between dark and light, restoring peace, ceasing the cycle of death and bringing peace – was vehemently opposed by large portions of the Jewish community and yet defended to the death by others.

It is perhaps what CS Lewis refers to when he states:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens —at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  ~ C.S.Lewis [1970] God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Rather than simply assuming, Christianity, like any mythical belief, has roots in pre-scientific questions of death and rebirth, winter and spring, Lewis shows how in fact, the poetic resonance of myths and legends of all eras and cultures, created a prophetic typology, pointing forward to a solution to a cosmic and unsolvable problem.

mashiach

That solution came at Passover about 30AD, when a man died a criminals death. His blood not only averted the Plague of Death on humanity, but also initiated the release of humanity from slavery into glorious freedom.

His resurrection caused a radical revolution in the lives of his 500 odd followers and eye witnesses, who radicalised by the realisation of the fulfilment of all messianic hopes turned the world upside down in a quest to share the news, not only with the Jews, but with the whole world.

Because it has been the whole world who has been dreaming of this miraculous solution since the beginning of time.

 

 

The Cave you Fear to Enter

The cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.  – Joseph Campbell

With this one line, Joseph Cambell captures the power and significance of narrative to our lives. Campbell identified the archetype of  The Hero Journey and its presence in myths and legends of every culture.

In the first chapter of his work “The Hero with 1000 Faces,” he writes:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.

He continues:

The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called “the archetypal images.”

Thanks again the marvellous Brain Pickings and TED-Ed this video tells of Joseph Campell’s ‘mono-myth’ or hero journey and timeless significnace to our lives.

Enjoy!

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The Hero Journey

This blog often rests on questions of the power of story and how story is architected. A few posts have dwelt on the role of the protagonist as avatar of our dreams and the power of stories to assist in deep self undersanding. Stories have a way of walking us through crisis to catharsis in a way that is restorative to our soul.

A narrative pattern that underpins many great stories has been identified by anthropologist and literary historians as The Hero’s Journey. Articulated best the American scholar Joseph Campbell in his work, Hero with 1000 Faces, the Hero Journey can be identified within most great drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development.

It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. By following The Hero, the avatar, the individual lives, dies and is redeemed to the tribe, a new person.

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Its stages are:

  • THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

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  • THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

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  • REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

refusal of the call

  • MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

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  • CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

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  • TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

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  • APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.

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  • THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

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  • THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

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  • THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

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  • THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

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  • RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

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 So when questioned why you enjoy story so much or whether reading is wasting your time, simply reply that you are working on your emotional, psychological, spiritual, social and even physical health.

More stories please !

Got a Redemption Narrative?

This article by Drake Baer was published in Business Insider this week. It’s too good not to share.

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Psychologists say that happy, socially engaged people share a remarkably similar life story

Psychology research verifies that the stories we tell ourselves matter.

A new study from Northwestern University shows that folks who fit the classic mould of “good people” — those who care about others while also having high well-being and mental health — have life stories that share remarkably similar narrative arcs.

In two to three hour interviews, researchers Dan McAdams and Jen Guo asked 157 people between the ages of 55 and 57 to describe their lives as if they were novels, complete with main characters, recurring themes, and turning points.

According to McAdams and Guo, the people who cared the most for future generations all told their life stories as “redemption narratives.

From the study’s abstract:

The story’s protagonist

(a) enjoys an early advantage in life,

(b) exhibits sensitivity to the suffering of other people,

(c) develops a clear moral framework,

(d) repeatedly transforms negative scenes into positive outcomes, and

(e) pursues prosocial goals for the future.

In McAdams and Guo’s study, the adults who were the most generative — or socially engaged — acted out a similar story of redemption in their everyday lives.

redemption narrative

In “The Art and Science of Personality Development,” McAdams argues that there’s a link between the suffering felt early in life and the redemption that follows:

Failure may ultimately result in victory, deprivation may give way to abundance. Importantly, the narrator describes an explicit causal link between the prior negative event and the resultant enhancement…

For example, a woman is devastated by a romantic breakup, but then finds the partner of her dreams. A student flunks out of college, then finds a great job. A boy endures extreme poverty as a child, but when he grows up, he comes to believe that early suffering made him a better person.

McAdams notes that while not everybody identifies with every turn of the redemption narrative, adults who are more generative conform to the narrative arc than those who are less so.

If the story of redemption sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a narrative arc that you can spot again and again in our mythological and literary traditions.

Siddhartha

One of the most notable accounts is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. The traditional account is that he was born into a sheltered royal life, but when he witnessed the way people were getting old, sick, and dying outside of the palace, he resolved to figure out how to deal with the problem of suffering. This motivated him to study the mechanics of the mind in meditation, yielding the foundational insights of what we today call Buddhism, a system of understanding that’s helped people for generations.

joan of arc

The Jungian psychologist and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that historical, mythological, and literary narratives show up in our everyday lives. We find ourselves called to go on quests like Joan of Arc did when she united France; are filled with righteous anger like when Jesus threw the merchants out of the temple; or get caught up in star-crossed love affairs like Romeo and Juliet.

Jesus Christ

What’s fascinating about McAdams and Guo’s study is that it evidences how the narrative arcs that we know so well from our various cultural traditions animate our lives.

It seems that the most pro-social people — the Nelson Mandelas and Aung San Suu Kyis of the world — embody these redemption narratives.

The good news is if you’re not happy with your life story, the research shows that you can edit it, too.