The Monomyth, as a literary term, is a theory developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Basically, he realized that all these stories from different mythologies around the world (The Odyssey, The Kojiki, The Poetic Edda, Arthurian Legends, among others) are all grounded in the same plot structure. This plot structure is called The Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth.
We’ve seen this structure time and time again, but not just in classic literature. It’s the same structure as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or, since it’s on everyone’s minds right now, Star Wars.
Star Wars is the perfect example of the Monomyth, because it is the narrative structure George Lucas actually used when writing the originals. Not only that, but Joseph Campbell and George Lucas were actually friends in the 80’s.
There are seventeen stages to the Monomyth, but just to point out the most interesting stages to us, here are some examples from The Force Awakens:
- Resisting the call to adventure: We see Rey resist the call to adventure initially when she tells BB8 she can’t help, that she has an obligation to wait for whomever is returning to her in Jakku.
- Road of trials: This is where the bulk of the action takes place. All of the challenges, failures, and new challenges that occur throughout the story are the road of trials. Star Wars has always been good at this, because one success or failure leads, within seconds, to a new problem. For example, Rey and Fin escape Jakku with BB8, but then they’re abducted by a larger ship! But wait, it’s okay, it’s Han Solo’s ship! We love Han Solo! But really, it’s not okay, because there are bad gangster guys and scary tentacle monsters that are likely to eat them all. And that keeps going on a very continual cycle of action, consequence, action, consequence.
- Crossing the return threshold: At this point, the hero has learned lots of cool new stuff and has a new perspective on the world. However, despite how awesome all that adventuring was, all heroes must return home at some point. Star Wars is interesting to look at in regards to this because, it being an episodic story, we have a mini-Monomyth within a much larger Monomyth. The plot has to wrap up at the end of the episode, but still leave the greater story open for the next part of the series. So, for Episode VII, we don’t actually see Rey return to Jakku as the home she knew it, though we expect she will in later episodes, as we are still eager to find out who she was waiting for. She returns to the Resistance headquarters to celebrate her victory with a new found wisdom and some sweet new Jedi skills, but she is whisked away at the end, in traditional Star Wars fashion, onto her next adventure.
Maria Popova in an article on Brain Pickings quotes a significant section of Joseph Campbell’s book:
“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.
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.”
The Monomyth is such a successful structure because these are not just stories about heroes and dragons and mountains and gods and monsters, they are stories about people overcoming trials. These stories are symbols for overcoming the problems of our ordinary lives—we see ourselves in them.
Continually, the Monomyth is always being adapted to respond to the trials and obstacles common in each culture and era it is being written in. Which brings us back to Star Wars: the (possibly) most well known hero story of our generation, and specifically Episode VII, the highest (domestic) grossing film of all time. Not to say that our generation’s problems consist of learning to be a Jedi and protecting an adorable little robot, but that Star Wars to us might be a more relatable story than The Illiad.
This is what is significant to us, that these are stories about people, symbols for the challenges we face and overcome in our ordinary lives. Hero stories inspire us to trudge forward, to continue on against all odds.