Tag Archives: Joseph Campbell

The Visionary Fiction Revolution – And How Words Can Change the World

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Art by Mar-ka on Deviantart

This article was originally written for The Visionary Fiction Alliance and posted on their website in two parts. It’s one of the most important and, for me, most cathartic pieces I’ve ever written. It helped clarify why I’ve always wanted to write, why I’m passionate about the power of storytelling, and why I will probably still be churning out words when I’m 90! I hope you find it interesting!


It’s estimated that nearly 130 million books have been published in modern history. 28 million books are currently in print in English alone. When contemplating writing a book, I can’t help but reflect on these staggering statistics, as indeed I think all authors should. Does the world really need another book to add to those 130 million others? In what way is writing a book going to benefit the world and enhance the lives of its readers? Is there a reason for telling a new story – a need, and a purpose for doing so? If not, then why invest the substantial time and effort in writing a book? If it’s just to make money, then there are certainly easier and less labor intensive ways of doing so – particularly with the market as saturated as it is, with more books published than any time in history and an apparently downward trend in readership.

A changing landscape

shutterstock_112499642smThe publishing industry is in the threshold of a transformation comparable to the advent of the Gutenberg print press over 500 years ago. The way we read is changing substantially, and the way writers release work is also changing. The advent of digital publishing has resulted in an explosion in the number of books being published. I’ve heard it said that we are experiencing an overproduction of books. The scarcer a commodity the more valuable it is, and indeed vice versa. There are more books to choose from than ever before, and to compete in this wild new literary world, authors and publishers must keep prices rock bottom and increase their output to compensate.

Our 21st century civilization is guilty of the crime of excess, if nothing else. In the current information age, we have more information than we’ll ever know what to do with, all readily available via magical little devices we keep in our pockets. Whether this unprecedented access to information has made the human race any wiser is a matter for debate. As far back as 1984, John Naisbitt famously remarked that our culture is “drowning in information, but starving for knowledge”. This clearly extends to the literary world. We’re drowning in a sea of readily available books; ours to download at the press of a button. Upwards of 4,000 books are being published a day. But of these 4,000 books, how many are adding something new, something necessary to the world?

Have writers lost their way?

The issue of social entropy is something I find interesting and a little disturbing. It’s a basic law of physics that any system will, over time, veer from a state of simplicity and order to ever greater diversification, complexity, chaos and eventual degradation.

I believe the writing world is, like many other things in society, experiencing a degree of entropy. There’s greater diversification than ever before and an immense volume of literature being pumped out. Anyone can be a writer now. You could theoretically write a book this morning and have it ready to download on Amazon by suppertime. Heck, if you’re lucky it might even sell! Some of the bestsellers of the past few years haven’t even been particularly accomplished in a literary sense. This ‘democratization’ of publishing is in many ways a good thing but it does have many implications. Although anyone can now be a writer, perhaps only a few of those writers are likely to spend the time learning, developing and honing the skills and craft of storytelling.

I believe it is essential for a writer to have a clear understanding of the basic function and purpose of storytelling. We need to understand why human beings have a compulsion to tell stories, and how these stories have the power to shape our culture, society and our views, beliefs and our very experience of reality.

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When writers lose touch with the purpose of storytelling, stories lose their power. They become merely a form of superficial entertainment; distraction and escapism, bereft of meaning and depth. Oh, we keep telling stories, but without an understanding of whywe’re telling the story and what it’s actually about, the stories become mechanical and lackluster, often relying on gimmicks, clever marketing and shock factor to grab our attention. Otherwise it’s a case of, as Dexter Palmer wrote in his novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion: “Stories? We have no time for them; no patience.”

If the storytellers have forgotten why they even tell stories, beyond the obvious material gain and the desire to be creative, why should the readers and audience care?

The ancient power of storytelling

The greatest writers do not write to entertain the world. They write to change the world. And the very best of them actually do.

Truly classic stories have a timeless power to them — which is why they can endure for hundreds, even thousands, of years. They are not just a succession of meaningless events interwoven to distract, entertain and amuse, no matter how cleverly written. They have a meaning to them; a purpose, a message to impart and questions to explore.

Modern society provides us with every luxury conceivable, but it comes at a price. We are all cogs in the capitalist-consumer machine, and for all the latest smartphones and smart watches and smart TVs we have to distract us, on some level we are crying out for something more: greater wisdom, greater meaning to our lives, and some kind of inner nourishment to counter the relentless stress and struggle of modern life. What we yearn for is to be free — and, at heart, all the greatest stories are about freedom of the human mind, heart and soul.

Human beings are born storytellers. The story was invented long before the wheel and we’ve been sharing them since possibly before the advent of linguistic communication. Cave paintings are believed to be the earliest records of storytelling, in which the history, myths and narratives of ancient tribes were set, literally, in stone. As I explored in my article The Power of Storytelling and Mythology’ storytelling is hardwired into the human brain, as one of the ways that we interpret and make sense of reality. Mythology, one of the world’s oldest forms of storytelling, was a way of understanding the universe and mankind’s place in it. Whether as creation myths or tales of heroes battling gods and demons, mythological stories were deeply symbolic and metaphorical, holding significant meaning for particular tribes and cultures.

It’s often said that there are no new stories, only the constant recycling of various plot elements in different combinations. Indeed, Christopher Booker wrote a book in which he claimed that there are only seven basic plots, which can be reconstituted and adapted in various ways. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that all stories and myths at their basis were in essence variations of a single story, which he called the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, “the song of the universe” being sung in different ways by various cultures and people throughout history. Is it possible that all stories can be boiled down to one essential story?

Art by Josephine Wall
Art by Josephine Wall

We tell stories for a reason

Mythology, which is storytelling at its most essential level, was not purposeless. It played an important role in shaping and sustaining society and, according to Campbell, had four primary functions. The first was to open the eyes of the individual and awaken a sense of awe, humility and wonder about the very nature of existence; to become aware of an interplay of tangible physical and elusive metaphysical realms.

The second function was cosmological; using stories and metaphor to help people understand the universe around them, making sense of time, space and biology. On a sociological level, mythology was also used as a means of forming and maintaining social connections. Having a shared narrative enabled tribes to stick together, supporting the social order and maintaining customs, beliefs and social norms.

On a more personal level, the tribe’s stories provided signposts for navigating life, sometimes reflected in ritual and rites of passage. The individual was not left to muddle through life without guidance. The epic tales of mythology were used as metaphors for dealing with the challenges and conflicts we face along life’s journey. These stories, properly understood, contained great wisdom and guidance.

Mythological tales were reflections of the human psyche and the conflicts and desires that drive it. The catastrophic battles between heroes and demons, the sacrifices, betrayals, jealously and love were reflections of the forces powering the human mind and heart. Furthermore, as stated before, Campbell believed that they could all be reduced to the same basic pattern, the same essential story: a story of trial, transcendence, rebirth and redemption. It was always a story of overcoming great adversity and conflict and finding that most cherished of all things, the true goal behind all human endeavor — freedom, whether a literal freedom or freedom of mind, heart and soul. Adversity and emancipation were therefore the themes of this ancient monomyth.

The basic motif of the mythological hero’s journey is repeated endlessly throughout time and across widely different cultures. It still has relevance to us today, for it is a universal story that transcends any particular cultural context. It is the story of the human condition and our striving to overcome conflict and adversity (both inner and outer); to know ourselves, to find our place in life and to be all that we are and are capable of being. It is a tale of redemption and the quest for power through transcendence and self-knowledge.

This message is needed as much today as it ever was — perhaps even more so. We live in precarious times. Economic and social structures are eroding, political and religious conflicts are rife, and through exploitation and greed we are in danger of irreparably damaging the environment that sustains us. We are essentially destroying ourselves–a long, slow suicide caused by human insanity on a wide scale. If we as a species are to survive and thrive, we clearly must change our trajectory.

Campbell was adamant that we need mythology: for “when a civilization loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.” Without a functioning mythology to make sense of reality, to provide meaning, self-knowledge, inspiration and social cohesion, society begins to break down. Mythology must continually adapt itself to stay relevant to the ever-changing society, or else it becomes not only obsolete and irrelevant but maybe even dangerous — as might be seen with some religions. When our stories no longer serve us, we must invent new stories that utilize the same monomyth framework but which work for the age, culture and context in which we live — reinvigorating the ancient wisdom for a modern age, sharing the same essential tale of redemption and emancipation in new and accessible ways.

Words and ideas can change the world

Writers have a responsibility. As Robin Williams’ character in the film Dead Poets Society said: “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” While it’s perfectly permissible for writers to write and sell trashy fiction (and there is a sizable market for it), writers have a higher calling.

Words can set people free. The greatest novels have always been about the emancipation of the human spirit. That is why books such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are still celebrated and immortalized centuries later. By exploring the nature of human suffering, writers can offer solutions, answers and new paradigms of thought. Like the shamans of ancient times, writers have the potential to be healers in some way, offering a way out of pain and suffering by presenting new ideas, new interpretations and new ways of understanding and relating to life.

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Visionary Fiction

Amid the increasing diversification of the literary world, a number of writers are pioneering a new genre called Visionary Fiction. Really this isn’t a new genre at all, for writers have been producing visionary works for thousands of years, from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Coelho’s The Alchemist. There is now a growing recognition that words have the power to heal, to inspire and to change our experience of reality from a mindset of lack, loss and disconnection, to one of wholeness, connection and power.

Visionary Fiction echoes the best of ancient myth, utilizing the functions of mythology as elucidated by Joseph Campbell, by reinventing the great monomyth for a modern age. If we’re essentially telling the same great story, the story of human adversity, struggle and transcendence, then it has to continually be told in fresh, engaging and relatable ways.

Many books can have a visionary element. Such stories draw attention to the power and potential of the human mind and spirit; our inherent struggle for identity, wholeness and freedom from limitation. The story is driven as much by the internal journey of the characters as by external events, exploring the expansion of mind and consciousness. Following the timeless pattern of the hero’s journey, the characters face adversity, challenges and a symbolic (or perhaps even literal) death and rebirth. These stories may question the nature of reality and consciousness, opening the reader to new ways of looking at life. Some of the most famous authors whose work includes a visionary element include Richard Bach, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield.

Visionary Fiction is not about getting the reader to share the author’s same beliefs and ideas, but an invitation for the reader to explore for themselves, to question, think, dream and push the boundaries of what they previously thought possible. An entire life can change in an instant with a simple change of perspective. As Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” The best stories enable us to see with new eyes; taking the reader out of our ordinary, mundane existence, and presenting new ways of understanding and relating to life.

That is the gift of a great story. That is why storytelling is still immensely relevant to our lives and why, if they choose to accept the challenge, writers have a whole lot more to offer their readers than simple escapism. They can offer people the tools they need for dealing with life’s inevitable pain and suffering. Joseph Campbell stated, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” Changing the stories we tell changes the way we see life, which in turn changes life.

There tends to be a great focus on darkness and human dysfunction in modern literature, film and television; a fascination and almost glorification of the very worst distortions of human nature. Many excellent writers are adept at exploring the darker side of the human psyche and its reflection in our culture, but visionary writers take us beyond the darkness into the light at the end of the tunnel, revealing that which is highest and best in us, and highlighting our endless capacity to grow, reinvent ourselves, and rewrite our own faltering narrative. Literature needs this. The world needs it.

Writers are not just here to entertain the world. Writers have the potential to change the world, and they should be content with no less than that. More and more people are waking up to the reality of 21st century life — that we have to change the way we are living in order to survive and create a sustainable future for our children. As this continues, I suspect that Visionary Fiction will come to the fore as a means of awakening our collective imagination and our capacity to live, dream, love, and change our cultural paradigm for the better. A good story can change lives. A great story can change the world.

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Archetypes in Fiction and the Hero’s Journey

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My last post, ‘The Power of Storytelling and Mythology’, explored the work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell identified a distinct and cohesive pattern running through countless myths, legends and stories throughout time. He called this the hero’s journey–the “song of the universe” being sung by a thousand different peoples and cultures.

In addition to exploring the different stages of the hero’s journey, which is a metaphor for the human journey through life, Campbell, who was heavily influenced by the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, also identified several character archetypes that feature in these myths and stories.

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Archetypes are recurring human patterns or personality types that reside in what Jung called the collective unconscious. As universally occurring character traits, there are certain archetypes found in myth and all kinds of stories throughout time. Archetypes should be seen as flexible character functions rather than rigid character types. Characters might actually switch between archetypes as the story progresses.

Here are some of the main archetypes prevalent in storytelling throughout the ages.

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The hero

The hero is usually the central figure in stories. This archetype represents the human search for identity and wholeness. The hero is the audience’s window into the story; the person the reader or viewer wants to identify with, to share their adventure and experience their highs and lows. The hero typically starts off in a state of lack and incompleteness and as the story unfolds, ends up in a state of wholeness and completeness. All good stories are essentially about a journey of transformation.

The role of the hero can vary wildly. They can be almost anyone from any walk of life. They might be a willing or an unwilling hero, they might be a group-oriented hero or more of a loner. Sometimes the protagonist is a tragic hero or an anti-hero–perhaps an outlaw or villain of some kind, but with whom the audience develops sympathy.

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The shadow

The shadow is represented by the villains and antagonists, or perhaps an internal enemy such as the hero’s inner demons–the darker aspects of their psyche–qualities they’ve perhaps tried to repress or renounce, but which still lurk within; such as anger, hatred or violence. The function of the shadow in drama is to challenge, threaten and oppose the hero; to create conflict and force the hero to find and bring out the best in him or herself and to become all they are capable of being.

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Mentor

The archetype of the mentor is found in many myths and stories. The mentor is usually a guide to the hero; someone who aids or even trains the hero. The mentor is related to the image of a parent. Often heroes seek out a mentor because their own parents are inadequate role models.

The mentor helps train the hero for the adventure/ordeal ahead of them. They might provide the voice of the hero’s conscience, offer motivation or share important information. The mentor might be a ghostly figure, or may be someone with a dark secret or nefarious past–a fallen mentor, someone who’s been broken in some way but who still has wisdom they can impart to the hero.

The Herald

The herald is the character or event that initiates the call to adventure. They issue a challenge or announce the coming of significant change. The herald is usually the element that gets the story rolling. It might be a new character, a change of circumstances, or a piece of crucial information that changes the hero’s life, forcing them to embrace the adventure that lies before them. Any character can adopt the herald archetype at any time. The herald might be a positive, negative or neutral character. It might simply be someone with vital news or information, or someone who challenges the hero in some way, forcing them to get involved in a situation.

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Threshold Guardian

Threshold guardians are the forces that stand in the way at important turning points, opposing the hero and trying to prevent him or her from moving forward. They’re usually not the main villain but might be the villain’s henchmen, guards, gatekeepers or mercenaries. They might even be creatures of some kind–wild animals, monsters or even a force of nature that has to be overcome. They might even take the form of the hero’s internal demons: their fears, doubts, emotional scars or self-limiting beliefs. Any time the hero encounters a threshold guardian, they face a puzzle, test or obstacle that must be overcome in order to move forward. Their function is to temporarily block the hero’s way and force them to test their powers.

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Trickster

The trickster is a clown and mischief-maker…perhaps a comic relief sidekick. They inject an element of unpredictability into the story, cutting egos down to size, and bringing the hero and audiences back down to earth. The trickster might be a loveable rogue, or someone whose motives and allegiances are unclear. The trickster might be allies of the hero, or perhaps servants of the villain. As with the other archetypes, any character can embody the role of trickster–including the hero and villain. “Spreading strife is my greatest joy” said one trickster god in an old Nigerian story.

There are many more archetypes that can be found in stories and myths. Understanding the use and application of archetypes in storytelling can be very helpful. Archetypes reflect core human personality types and social roles and can help us understand how character dynamics drive the plot forward.

They are not rigid and set in stone, for at any point in the story a character might embody the archetype of trickster, herald or threshold guardian, or perhaps even mentor or shadow.  In my new novel, The Key of Alanar, my protagonist, David, actually moves between hero and shadow archetype! It can be fun to push the boundaries of storytelling and mix things up. If nothing else it keeps life interesting.

For more information on archetypes and storytelling, I highly recommend investigating the work of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and Carl Jung.

The Power of Storytelling and Mythology

Art by Josephine Wall

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 stories

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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.

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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.

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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.

1. Metaphysical

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.

2. Cosmological

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.

3. Sociological

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.

4. Pedagogical

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.

krishna-playing-fluteThe song of the universe

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.

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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.

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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.

11. Resurrection

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.

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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.

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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.)

Myth, Storytelling & the Journey of a Writer

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The blog tour continues, and it’s been great fun. Today I’m sharing a guest blog I wrote for my publisher, Cosmic Egg Books, which is a brand new imprint of John Hunt publishing. I put quite a bit of thought into this one, relating my creative process and the power and importance of mythology and its relationship to storytelling and why, as a culture we desperately need stories with depth and substance. Hope you find it insightful.

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This Week Our Guest Blog is from Rory B Mackay, Author of Eladria, First Of an Epic Fantasy Series

I always knew I wanted to be a writer or storyteller of some kind. I can remember sitting in my room when I was only about six or seven and, with a pad of paper and felt tip pens in hand, I let my imagination soar freely as I conjured whole new worlds, with all kinds of characters and fantastical adventures. I had a rich and colourful inner world (the ‘real world’ simply paled in comparison!) and I knew I somehow wanted to be able to share it with others.  I started off with a story called “The Lost World”, although my dad informed me that there was already a book by that title. I’d been beaten to it — by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less! But that was only a minor setback for this young writer…

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Writing, Drawing & Making Music! An Interview With Rory Mackay!

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Really loved doing this interview with Rohan from the awesome Rohan7Things blog! One of my favourites. Hope you enjoy reading it too 🙂