Stories have power. Whether in the form of a novel, short story, film, TV series–or even a video game–a good story story has the ability to transport us from our everyday reality to whole other worlds. By engaging our mind, imagination and senses, stories can bring us excitement and wonder, making us laugh and cry, feel, dream, love, hope and think. They have the power to encourage, motivate, educate and heal–and they can help us better understand and relate to others and this world we’re all a part of.
I’ve always been aware of the power of storytelling. I knew that I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I could often be a bit of a precocious and unsociable kid. While everyone else was out playing I would be sitting in my room, paper and pen in my hand, creating new worlds and characters and setting them off on all kinds of epic adventures. I actually came up with the idea for my first novel when I was still in primary school! I was a born storyteller. I always knew that I had stories inside of me; stories that I wanted to be able to tell and share with the world.
As I grew up and started learning the craft of writing, I was determined to find of exactly why stories matter to us. Why do human beings have this innate compulsion to tell stories and why do we love hearing, reading and watching them?
An aspect of human nature
What I came to realise was that storytelling plays a vital role in human culture, and it always has. You might even say it’s part of our very nature. According to cognitive scientist Roger Schank:
“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”
So storytelling is basically hard-wired into us. It’s one way in which we understand and process reality.
Stories aren’t merely for the purpose of entertainment. They actually have the power to change the world and change us. The art of storytelling has been a key part of human culture as far back as we know. As Ursula Le Guin says:
“The story is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
Ancient cave paintings are believed to be the earliest records of mythology. They were essentially narratives created by early man in an attempt to understand and explain the nature of life, the world, animals, nature and the mystery of existence.
Language is a relatively recent development in human evolution, so the earliest stories weren’t spoken or told in words, but most likely enacted and danced. In fact a number of cultures still do this such as Native Americans and other indigenous tribes. The cave paintings weren’t just created for the sake of it or to make the caves look decorative, but were believed to have been records, reminders and prompts to keep the tribe’s stories and myths alive.
Myth and mythology is the world’s oldest form of storytelling. Today the word ‘myth’ has come to mean something that’s false or untrue; a fabrication or lie. But the word stems from the Greek word ‘mythos’ which means story or tale. Myth is a story or set of stories holding significant symbolic meaning for a particular culture. As language developed, myths were generally delivered by word of mouth through speech, conversation or song. It’s only comparatively recently, in the past few centuries that they came to be recorded in the written word.
The purpose of myth is to help us make sense of the universe and our place in it. These myths might be based on factual accounts of events, discoveries and realisations, but were more often deeply metaphorical and filled with symbolic meaning. In other words, myths aren’t literal accounts of truth, but are stories with lots of hidden meaning. To understand them, you have to look beneath the surface and peel away the layers of meaning.
The ancient myths often featured various gods and goddesses, demigods, supernatural heroes and ordinary humans, as in the ancient Greek myths. The Greek and Roman myths in particular had an enormous effect in shaping their respective cultures. The exploits of the gods and their adventures were almost akin to a modern day soap opera. The people were enthralled and spellbound, and the myths themselves served a number of important societal functions.
I first learned of these functions when I came across the work of Joseph Campbell, an American scholar and world-renowned expert in comparative mythology. As a young man, Campbell was fascinated by the legends of the Native Americans, which began a lifelong fascination and passion for mythology. His most famous work, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, which I came across when I was about 21, was a book I found fascinating on multiple levels. It not only changed the way I looked at writing and storytelling, but it changed the way I looked at life.
The Four Functions of Myth
Campbell outlined four primary functions of myth. Bearing in mind that myth is the origin of storytelling as we know it today, this has relevance and can even be applied to some extent to literature, art and media in our culture too.
The first function, which Campbell also believed was one of the most important, was what he termed the metaphysical. This refers to the ability of mythology to awaken a sense of awe and wonder about the very nature of existence.
This is something that we’ve lost in our culture. Young children naturally possess this innate sense of awe, but as we grow up we generally lose it. We get bogged down in the physical, our everyday mundane existence, taking everything for granted–least of all the fact we’re alive, that we exist!…which is a miracle in itself.
The conditions necessary for Earth to sustain life are innumerable and exact. The planet has to be just the right distance from the sun. It needs to spin precisely the right way and have the right amount of gravity, oxygen and various other elements in perfect combination before it can support life. The fact that we exist at all is beyond amazing, yet we totally take it for granted.
This Einstein quote sums up this function of myth perfectly–and it’s a great quote to live by:
“There are two ways to live your life: You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
And one of the most important functions of myth–and all the great stories–is to get us to remember how incredible, wondrous and precious life is.
The second function is cosmological. Cosmology is the study of the Universe and its components, how it was formed and evolved. Cosmology was born of questions such as “what’s going on around me” and “how does the universe work?”
For millennia mankind used myth (specifically creation myths) as a means of explaining and understanding the physical world and universe. These myths were created to help early man make sense of nature, weather, the passing of the seasons and the cycle of birth and death.
For example, to explain the functioning of nature and the elements, cultures often assigned different gods or deities that controlled for the rain, sun, fire and water. Nature itself was personified, usually as woman–indeed, there are countless variations of the Mother Earth, Gaia, or Earth Goddess archetype across many different cultures.
As a sociological device, myth and storytelling have the ability to validate and support the existing social order and promote social norms, customs and beliefs. Shared stories can create a social bond between people, enabling them to share the same beliefs, outlook and understanding of life, which brought about a sense of social cohesion and community. In ancient times, mythology was part of the glue that held tribes and societies together.
The pedagogical aspect refers to mythology’s ability to guide the individual through the different stages of life–from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to maturity, maturity to old age and from old age to death.
As we go through life we encounter many psychological, emotional and even physical challenges. Mythology provided guidance and signposts, often reflected in rites of passage and initiations. People weren’t left to struggle through these life changes on their own. They were given clear guidance through ceremony, ritual and myth and they knew clearly what was expected of them. Ancient India for example divided life into four stages: the student stage, the householder stage, the elder adviser stage and the renunciate stage where the individual leaves behind all worldly ties to seek final enlightenment.
Without this kind of guidance, confusion and psychological suffering usually result, as this is widespread in today’s world. We grow up in an unsettled, constantly shifting world, pretty confused and unclear about what’s expected of us and how we’re supposed to ‘make it’ in the world. In many ways we’ve got more choice than ever before, but this can actually make things harder and more overwhelming than if we have clearcut guidelines about what we’re ‘meant’ to do in life. Myth gave guidance, encouragement and motivation and a sense that we weren’t alone in life; that we weren’t on this journey without a map and compass.
Campbell described myth as being an outplaying of the various parts of ourselves that are in conflict with each other: our desires, hopes, fears and ambitions; the conflict between what we want in life and what we can get; between who we are and who we want to be. The mythological battles between heroes and demons–all the sacrifice and bravery, love and cruelty, victories and defeats–are metaphors for the conflicts of the human psyche. Myths originated from realisations of some kind that were then expressed in symbolic form to guide us. Many of them deal with the maturation of the individual, growing from dependency to adulthood, maturity and old age; and they explored how we relate to other people, society, our culture and the world at large.
The form of the myths change with the passing of time. To remain relevant to the culture they’re part of, they must evolve, adapt and transform as the world continually changes. If they don’t, they become obsolete. They lose their meaning and become dumb, irrelevant stories that confuse and mislead.
Joseph Campbell was astounded to discover extraordinary similarities between the great myths from vastly different cultures across the millennia. In fact there was a distinct and definite pattern that most of these myths seemed to follow.
He found that all stories, regardless of the time, place and culture in which they came from, tend to share a common structure. They are essentially the same story being told in an infinite variety of ways. Campbell had evidently cracked a secret code, the pattern behind all the greatest stories ever told. The whole human race, he believed, could be seen to be reciting a single story…a story with immense psychological, sociological and spiritual importance. Myth, he said, was the song of the universe, being sung by a thousand different peoples and cultures.
The way in which this story is delivered can be infinitely varied, but it has the same basic structure. Furthermore, when stripped down, it is always a story about universal human themes and questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Is this all there is to life?
This story helps us explain the universe and our place in it, dealing with themes of identity, meaning and purpose. As science is discovering, humans aren’t wired to understand logic directly. Instead, logic is best grasped through the use of narrative and metaphor–and this is why stories can be so powerful.
As this universal story evolves through time, it takes different forms depending on the context of a particular culture. The story is told in an infinite variety of ways, but the fundamental elements remain strikingly familiar. Campbell called it the monomyth…or the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey
The hero’s journey is basically the journey of every human being as they go through life. It’s relevant to all of us, because we’re each the hero of our own particular story. The hero’s journey is a guide to life; a map to help us along the challenging road we all have to take through life.
The hero’s journey has a distinct structure. If you analyse great myths, epics, novels and even many films and television dramas, you can often see how they fit into the pattern basic of the hero’s journey, even if the elements are significantly rearranged or modified.
The basic structure is that the hero must undertake a journey, leaving their comfortable everyday surroundings and venturing into a new, challenging, unfamiliar world. They face all kinds of challenges and then return enriched by the experience, learning or bringing something of value to aid the world.
There’s always an emotional component to the journey. In any satisfying story, it’s necessary that the hero grows and changes in some way; that they go from one state of being to the next–from incompleteness to wholeness, from lack to gain, weakness to strength, ignorance to wisdom. It’s the emotional journey of the hero that captivates the reader and keeps them hooked and engaged.
Campbell outlined the Hero’s journey as having 17 distinct stages, but others have streamlined the model. The one I’m sharing was adapted by Christopher Vogler and is a bit simpler, using less archaic language.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the hero’s journey.
1. The Ordinary World
The hero starts off in their ordinary, everyday world. It’s a world that might be considered humdrum, or uneventful. Often there’s a sense of restlessness or incompleteness experienced by the hero. Everything’s ticking along nicely, but the hero somehow doesn’t quite fit in. On some level they know that they’re destined for something different.
2. The Call to Adventure
The story begins with a call to adventure. Something happens that initiates the story. The hero is called away from their ordinary existence into the unknown. A problem or challenge of some kind befalls the hero.
3. Refusal of the Call
Many times the hero hesitates. They’re reluctant to leave their home, their friends and their familiar, safe world. The unknown is terrifying–especially when the stakes have been revealed. Often it’s a life and death quest they’ve been called to embark upon.
4. Meeting the Mentor
By now many stories have introduced what Campbell called the ‘supernatural aid’ which simply means a guide or mentor; someone who imparts information or guides the hero in some way, setting them in the right direction. The mentor might be a wise old man or woman; a veteran of some kind; a wizard, a teacher, a hermit or wanderer. The mentor helps prepare the hero for the journey into the unknown.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
The hero has committed to the journey and is ready to step into what Campbell called ‘the belly of the whale’: the special world! This is the moment the story really takes off. The hero sets off on their quest.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
Campbell called this the road of trials. The hero begins to learn the rules of the new world through much conflict and challenge. There’s usually a series of events and conflicts in which the hero begins to learn how to navigate the special world. Along the way they meet new people, good and bad, and make new allies and new enemies.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The hero has been tested repeatedly. He or she has learned a lot about this new world and made allies and adversaries. Now they near the inmost cave, a dangerous place, sometimes a dark place underground, perhaps the lair of his or her greatest enemy, where the object of the quest may be hidden. The hero often has to overcome significant danger and barriers that prevent them entering the inmost cave.
8. The Ordeal
This is the hero’s darkest moment so far. They must face their toughest challenge where, for a time at least, all seems lost. In the myths this was a moment of death and rebirth. The hero dies a symbolic death and is reborn as something greater–with greater courage, greater power, or greater wisdom and understanding. It’s a brink of death moment; a moment in which everything really looks like it’s going to fall apart.
9. The Reward
Once the supreme ordeal is overcome the hero emerges stronger for it. They’ve come into their own power and are ready to seize their destiny. They take possession of the treasure (whether literal or figurative; the treasure, the ‘object’ they’ve been seeking, could be many things: a magical sword, a healing elixir, the object of their romantic affections, or perhaps knowledge or wisdom of some kind).
In ancient traditions, the tribe’s shaman didn’t get his supernatural powers until he’s experienced a death or sorts; a terrible illness, accident or hardship that almost kills him. His life is set in flames and only then, as he rises from the ashes, does he acquire the powers and wisdom of the shaman. Rebirth can only come from death.
The worst has now passed, the quest may have succeeded, but usually it’s not over yet…
10. The Road Back
The hero now has to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces during the ordeal. There’s usually a retaliation of some kind; they may have gotten away with the reward, but the villain isn’t going to give up so easily. There’s often an element of chase as the hero, having achieved his or her goal, attempts to return to the ordinary world. This is a turning point. It may involve a change in the aim of the story; a story about achieving some goal might become a story of escape, or a focus on physical danger might shift to emotional risks. It’s another moment of crisis that launches the hero on a new road of trials.
This stage is a second ordeal, almost a replay of the life and death struggle of the ordeal. It’s one last, final test for the hero in which they must face their greatest challenge and face a symbolic death and rebirth. Everything is on the line and the hero must use all they have learned during their journey.
In ancient times, hunters and warriors often had to be symbolically purified before returning to the tribe because they had blood on their hands. The hero therefore must undergo a transformation–a final life and death struggle–in which they emerge reborn prior to returning to the Ordinary World. The hero has been transformed in some way; they have grown, changed and learned. There has to be some element of change or growth in the hero to make an emotionally satisfying story.
12. Return with the elixir
The hero now returns to the ordinary world. They’ve come full circle and are back where they started, but they bring with them some kind of elixir, which may be a treasure, a gift, a piece of needed information or wisdom; or something that will solve whatever crisis had originally initiated their departure from the ordinary world. The journey is complete and the hero has come full circle, but is changed and can never be the same again.
A key theme of the ancient myths was the hero departing, going through literal or figurative hell, and then returning with new powers, new wisdom and new understanding.
This basic hero’s journey structure can be found in many of the greatest myths, fairytales, legends and in more contemporary stories–in literature, films and sometimes television. These are our modern day equivalents of mythology. But the hero’s journey isn’t just something that’s just applicable to stories. Recall that myth is a reflection of life; a symbolic means of navigating our way through life and understanding the nature of ourselves, others and the world around us. We’re each the hero of our own story. Our daily life is our hero’s journey and we go through those 12 stages all the time.
So the hero’s journey is a great tool not just for writing and analysing stories but also as a guide and compass for managing daily life. Whatever situation we’re in and whatever stage we’re currently at, we can know that it is all part of an ongoing process; a journey toward wholeness, healing and redemption–and that every stage is a step closer to our ultimate goal.
Hollywood takes notice
Joseph Campbell’s work became more and more influential through his lifetime. By 70s and 80s his work came to the attention of certain Hollywood screenwriters and producers, including George Lucas who created Star Wars. Lucas openly acknowledged that Star Wars was greatly inspired by Campbell’s monomyth and this can be seen quite clearly. Like the greatest myths, it follows the structure of the hero’s journey perfectly.
A Hollywood screenwriter and producer named Christopher Vogler wrote a 7 page memo that outlined the practical applications of the Hero’s Journey and this inspired a whole generation of screenwriters.
The influence of the Hero’s Journey can be seen in a great many films, including The Lion King, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Avatar, Back to the Future, ET, Pirates of Caribbean, the Batman series and numerous animated films such as Finding Nemo, Shrek, Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda.
Films like those, which are popular entertainment for a modern audience, have a structure that echoes that of ancient myth, something that’s hardwired into us and which perhaps explains some of their enduring popularity.
There were criticisms at one time about writers using the hero’s journey too indiscriminately, adopting it as a kind of lazy formula without fully engaging their creativity. Upon its release, George Lucas’s fantasy film Willow was cited as one such example. There’s always a danger of stories becoming rigidly formulaic when they are built according to a set blueprint. So the hero’s journey is best applied not as a rigid framework, but a diagnostic tool for ensuring that all essential bases are covered to provide a satisfyingly coherent and structured story; a story that captures the transcendent power of the greatest of myths and stories.
In terms of my own writing, I never consciously set out to use the hero’s journey as a template. But when analysing my novels Eladria and The Key of Alanar , I discovered that they matched the pattern of the hero’s journey quite extraordinarily. Any times I have struggled, I found it helpful to read up on Campbell’s work and explore some of the ancient myths. This gave me an understanding of how stories work. The best stories have a clear beginning, middle and end, and a basic pattern and structure they follow, even if that structure has endless variations. One of the most important things I ever learned about writing is that there’s not just an art to it–there’s a science too. Taking some time to study not only how stories work, but why stories work, is an essential part of learning the craft.
The true power of storytelling
The greatest stories, from ancient times right up to today, aren’t just a means of entertainment and passing the time. They’re a means of understanding life, exploring ideas and learning — learning about ourselves, the world and our place in it. When a writer or storyteller of any kind begins a story, they’re asking for an investment of your time; they want to take you someplace, and it helps if there’s a payoff to that; a reason for telling the story.
Like many things in our culture, most books, films and television are simply churned out to make money, to fill a demand, and there’s perhaps not much depth to them or thought goes into them. Stories like that don’t last. Myths, legends and fairytales have endured for centuries and millennia because they touch upon some core human themes–they speak to us about life, albeit in the language of metaphor.
Some people believe that the ancient stories don’t have much relevance in our postmodern age, but I’d disagree. We’re not ostensibly any different to the way we were thousands of years ago. Our culture has changed a lot, but human beings are the same . We go through the same stages of life, we all want to be happy, to find love and meaning, fulfilment and joy. We still ask the same questions about life, about why we’re here and what it’s all about.
As Campbell says, all mythic narratives–and all the truly great stories–are variations of a single great story: a story about transcending our limits, overcoming adversity and becoming all that we’re capable of being. These stories give us hope and guide us.
A culture without mythology is doomed
We explored the functions of mythology and why it has importance to society, acting as a kind of glue that binds us together as well as providing guidance for our journey through life. But what happens when a society loses its mythology?
Campbell believed that without a functioning mythology to make sense of ourselves and reality, society degenerates and breaks down. We’re arguably seeing this throughout the world today. Campbell warned that:
“When a civilisation loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.”
The mythology we tend to hold as a culture is a materialistic one that puts consumerism above all else. We’re trained to think that the purpose of our lives is to make as much money as we can so we can buy as much stuff as possible. We’re taught to believe that we have to buy our way to happiness. We’re not even people anymore, we’re just consumers. This mythology is causing widespread suffering and destruction of the planet, because it is an unsustainable way of living.
So we desperately need new, healthier mythologies to give us a greater vision of who we are and what life is about. What we’re really looking for is deeper meaning and a more vibrant and vital experience of being alive.
They had that in ancient and premodern cultures. In order to move forward we sometimes have to look back–and if we’ve strayed off the tracks, retrace our steps a bit until we find ourselves back on the path.
Campbell said that the goal of life is to make our heartbeat match the beat of the universe. We save the world, he claimed, not by trying to rearrange the world, but by saving ourselves–by coming fully alive and “following our bliss” (a famous quote attributable to Campbell, summing up his philosophy of life). He said that the influence of a vital person has a vitalising effect on others and the world.
He warned us not to just become consumed by the system, but to follow our own way, to be a maverick and to align our personal nature with the essential nature of life and to be in harmony with that.
“But if a person has had the sense of the Call — the feeling that there’s an adventure for him — and if he doesn’t follow that, but remains in the system because it’s safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it’s against the wrong wall.If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one’s bliss — the thing that really gets you deep in your gut and that you feel is your life — doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of.”
Living in this way changes our mythology! And the modern myth-makers, the writers, storytellers, artists, musicians, songwriters and all kinds of creative people have an important role in society and one that might even save our culture, by providing us with new, healthier mythologies by which we can understand and make sense of life.
Campbell said that “if you want to change the world you have to change the metaphor”. This is what takes us from a place of lack, loss, suffering and confusion to a place of wholeness, aliveness and redemption. That is the true power of storytelling.
(This article is based upon a talk I gave to some high school classes a couple of years ago. An accompanying Prezi presentation is available to view online here.)