Joseph Campbell: Separating the Artist From the Art

It’s no secret that I employ the Hero Arc in most of my theatrical analysis.  I personally believe it is a very effective breakdown of the emotional journey a protagonist often undertakes.  That being said, I do understand that the author and the breakdown themselves each have their flaws.  In order to continue to use this literary device, these discrepancies must be acknowledged and reconciled.

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythologist, writer, and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience. Campbell’s magnum opus is his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. 

First off, the Arc fits better along with Protagonist than Hero because the idea of Hero has either changed drastically or we simply don’t need the Heroes of old that we used to.  Heroes we see shining today are no longer children of Gods being chosen from the crowd to slay dragons, we see the ‘common’ person fighting their way through the ranks for a better life.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero Arc, along with most of his other writings, is also inherently sexist, assuming the Hero is a cisgendered, heterosexual man.  He uses he/him pronouns when referring to the Hero, even when speaking in the abstract.  Campbell doesn’t bother analyzing the stories that highlight women because, to him, women are meant to be the final reward.  There are several steps in which women are also meant to serve as distractions for the Hero, meant to lure him away from fulfilling his destiny.  This follows a very common literary theme of unflattering and damning depictions of women or simply having them as accessories to someone else’s character development.  He assumes that all ‘primary cultures’ shared the same Western divided gender roles that were common during his childhood.

This brings up another problem that Campbell’s teachings can perpetuate: cultural hegemony.  A single myth occurring cross-culturally encourages policing of what constitutes a culture.  If a people do not have a very widely found Flood myth, does that mean their culture is not real or valid?

No.  Of course it doesn’t.

I use the Hero Arc to find recognizable moments across a majority of audiences in scripts I am reading.  I believe his Hero Arc itemizes a protagonist’s journey in a very efficient way and it can serve as a great tool to begin with.  Campbell’s word and Arc are most certainly not law and a script that does not align with the Arc is not lacking in any way shape or form.  It helps me find language to talk to playwrights and other designers with that can be easily shown and explained.  Instead of using Campbell’s Arc as an absolute, I feel it’s best used as a jumping off point.

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