This post is a modified version of a presentation I gave at the AAWP conference in South Australia at the end of November. I got a lot of positive feedback, which is very exciting since it was my first time being part of an event like that! Mostly, I’m just delighted they let me talk about cartoons. But hey, if you can wrap it in a scholarly framework, you can talk about whatever you please. It’s really rather wonderful. So without further ado…
I’ve talked a lot about The Hero’s Journey on this slice of the internet—one of the first posts I made applying my studies to pop culture was looking at Moana as a Hero figure, and one of the most recent was looking at Revolutionary Girl Utena. For some beautiful symmetry, I’ve brought the two together, to examine how they both work as critiques of Joseph Campbell’s model in their own ways, laying a challenge to the static image of The Hero and the gendered implications of Campbell’s text. One is a metatextual challenge, telling the story of a girl who just happens to be a Hero and silently asking the audience (and the pre-conceived assumptions they’re bringing into the cinema) “why not?”, and one is a much more direct in-text challenge that ends up tearing the whole business apart. Both are valid and both are effective, and both tell, in my opinion, really fun and interesting stories along the way.
But first, let’s look at The Hero’s Journey, and why it’s important that these contemporary stories are playing with this familiar model and critiquing it. Continue reading
Look… your teen years are confusing as hell. In many cases I think dousing coming of age stories in magic and metaphor actually helps us comprehend them, which is perhaps why we as storytellers love structures like The Hero’s Journey so much, and also perhaps why Revolutionary Girl Utena so loves dealing in the abstract. The show’s first arc gives us the story not just of our hero Utena’s first steps into the strange dreamlike world of the duelling society, but her first clumsy steps into the world of young adulthood: the First Threshold she has to cross and the necessary first defeat that she has to go through on her personal Hero’s Journey. Just as ol’ Joe Campbell says heroes and mythic figures have to die to be reborn, so does childhood have to “die” to let said heroes grow towards maturity. For our hero Utena this first death/rebirth takes place at the climax of the Student Council Arc, and includes facing all the terrors of sexual maturity, self-identification, and the sad truth that comforting as they are, fairy tale tropes cannot always be applied to real life, and sometimes the “handsome prince” is a manipulative sack of dicks that you need to challenge to a swordfight. Continue reading
Let me tell you some spicy goss I’ve dug up in my research.
If you’ve been with this blog for a while, you might remember my abridged guide to The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s mythological theory of the Universal Narrative that is repeated as a pattern throughout the literature and folklore of the ancient world and deeply informs our current pop culture. You may also remember me tilting my head a little and pondering here and there that hey, this book kind of works on the assumption that the titular Hero is a dude most of the time. I am, it turns out, not the only reader who picked up on this. In 1981, scholar and therapist Maureen Murdock asked Campbell if there was a feminine equivalent to the decidedly masculine-tinted Hero’s Journey, and Campbell replied that…
“Women don’t need to make the Journey. In the whole of mythological tradition woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
Murdock, I can only imagine, kind of went:
…and in 1990 published her own book called The Heroine’s Journey. Continue reading
Moana was several different brands of delightful, but one aspect that captured my heart is that it draws its inspiration from mythology rather than from fairy tales—something Disney hasn’t really done since Hercules, and something that gives its heroine a very interesting dynamic. The movie features the trickster god Maui as one of its main characters and incorporates other elements of Polynesian folklore, but I was especially interested—and pleasantly surprised—to see that Moana herself has quite a traditional mythical hero’s character arc.
She is a leader, chosen by nature and destiny, who sets out on a quest surrounding an important magical object, where she ventures through the realm of the supernatural and tangles with gods. When it’s over, the balance of nature is restored and she returns to her people as a wiser and more capable ruler. It’s a quintessential hero-king quest narrative, which, incidentally, is also a quintessentially male narrative. But without so much as a shrug, Moana gives this archetype to its female heroine and sends her on her journey.
Remember how I said I could write a whole post gushing about Moana? I did, and you can read the full thing over at Lady Geek Girl!
I realise that last time I totally forgot about the Atonement with the Father chapter, for which I apologise. But, well, the title is fairly self-explanatory—there’s a father figure, there’s some conflict, be it low-key emotional like him not supporting your dream to be an inventor, or something more epic like getting mad about that time you drove his sun god chariot and set everything on fire. You resolve it somehow. Freud is probably there.
Now, your archetypal Hero has left home, been through a hell of a time, and now it’s time to return, completing the cycle, and filling in the last leg of their adventure…
The Magic Flight
So you have The Ultimate Boon, and it’s time to come home. If Your Hero was destined for greatness and their quest was supported by, say, the gods, their journey home to renew and help the ordinary world will be smooth and wonderful. A neat example of this is Disney’s Moana—once Moana has restored the heart of Te Fiti and thus restored balance and life to the sea, Te Fiti rewards her by magic-ing her a new boat and sending her on her way. (As well as drawing heavily from mythology, Moana is very cool in that she has quite a traditional heroic arc, in that she is a warrior king who crosses into the world of the supernatural, has all sorts of adventures with monsters and trickster gods, then returns to her people wiser and stronger to govern them—which is also a traditionally male heroic arc, but I’m already writing a whole post gushing about how nifty it is that that’s been gender-flipped, so for now I digress). Continue reading
Last time we examined the first act of the story where Your Hero leaves the proverbial nest, steps into the realm of adventure, and gets their ass symbolically and/or literally handed to them. Now it’s time for the second part of the archetypal epic tale as Campbell outlines it, starting with…
The Road of Trials
This is the fun bit, because it’s the bit where The Hero has to do a bunch of cool stuff in their realm of supernatural adventure. It’s where your epic quests and grand deeds usually go, and before you get to the quests that mark the (often tragic) end of the story, you can just set Your Hero on some zany hijinks that prove their worth as A Hero and are generally entertaining. A common motif is doing impossible tasks—that aren’t impossible because your hero is The Hero—to fight for their love. Often this is your classic Boy Does a Thing and Wins the Princess tale, but Campbell brings up the gender-swapped example of Psyche and Cupid. Psyche wants to date Cupid, you see, but Cupid’s mother Venus (or Aphrodite, mother of Eros, in their Greek versions), is having none of this, and says “Sure, you can take my son to the ancient Roman equivalent of the drive-in movies, just do these totally achievable little tasks for me first.” Continue reading
A while back, a dude named Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces where he presented the idea that most myths, legends, folk tales and stories are all inherently dealing with the same themes and telling the same tale. He drew this up in a map of The Hero’s Journey, which has been adopted as a nigh-essential tool for story mapping and writing ever since, and details the archetypes that run through a lot of powerful stories from all around the world. It ties nicely into the screenwriting Three Act Structure, which is also a really useful tool for writing stories and character arcs effectively, so they’re both worth studying if you’re interested in knowing what, by tried and true practice going back many thousands of years, seems to make a good story. This archetypal map is the foundation for my thesis, so this post is mostly me trying to get my head around my research, but this stuff is fascinating and a really useful writing tool, so I’m sticking it here for anyone who needs a quick-and-dirty guide.
Campbell divides The Hero’s Journey into three parts: separation, where “the hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder”, initiation, where “fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won”, and return, where “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” It’s all strongly tied into rites of passage, coming of age narratives, and a whole lot of Freudian stuff, because this was written in 1949 when people at large still thought Freud was a good idea. I think Campbell has an Oedipus Complex Complex because he brings it up so damned often.
In any case, here are the (first few) elements of the Hero’s Journey as Campbell outlines them, which are easy to recognise in both modern and ancient media: Continue reading