Thursday 18 March 2010


In a recent blog entry, Andrew Hickey tears into ‘comparative mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, for the negative and homogenising effect he’s had on genre fiction.

”If there is one person who I wish had never been born, it’s Joseph Campbell...
The concept of ‘the Hero’s Journey’ has done more to ruin fiction and popular culture than any other concept I can think of. What annoys me is that something that was intended as a *description* is instead increasingly being taken as a *prescription*.”

In short, Campbell to Andrew is the man who said the hero can have a thousand faces, but only one sodding story! This low level of esteem is commonly held in our circles. Andrew Rilstone, for example, has written of “the increasingly cancerous influence of Joesph Campbell”.

I would readily agree that there are many points where Campbell’s work can be criticised. But is it really him to blame every time you see a crap film? Hasn’t he just become a handy target, whereas really we know better?

In fact it’s in the gap between Andrew’s two comments above that I want to insert my two-penneth.

How did we get into this situation? Campbell is now inextricably caught up in the popular mind with Star Wars. It probably was George Lucas’ namedropping of his Hero With a Thousand Faces  that propelled him into the popular consciousness. Without this connection would they have made a popular TV series about him, The Power of Myth (even filmed on Lucas’ ranch) or brought out the accompanying (and refreshingly slim-line) book?

Yet Hero itself had actually been published back in ’48 and all his major works completed at least decade before Star Wars was released. Moreover, Campbell had been writing studies on myths and legends for those interested in history, culture or psychology. There’s no suggestion anywhere that any of it was intended as a practical guide for contemporary writers. When Lucas finally caught up with him and showed him the Star Wars films, he confessed to ignorance of them – for he rarely visited the cinema and didn’t own a TV.

But the real villain of the piece isn’t even Lucas - it’s Disney Exec Christopher Volger who wrote the 1992 ‘guide’ The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures For Writers, a book so appallingly autistic that burning would be too good for it.

Volger reduced Hero to the clod-hopping, meritocratic, evening-classes-for-all notion that it wasn’t even a guide but a manual. You just have to enroll in the course, read the set book with due diligence, follow the requisite sixteen steps and – hey presto! – your writing is mythic. That’s what it says on this here certificate, don’t it?

Volger made Campbell into cans, something saleable and consumable. It’s the difference between shamanic flight and a package holiday. It reminds me of the William Burroughs story Ah Pook Is Here about the wicked American capitalist who reads myths, but as if he were reading Moby Dick to know about whaling and having to skip all the bits about the white whale. If you wanted to make the mistake the other way up, you could read a recipe book then complain it was hard to relate to the characters. There’s no point wishing Christian Volger was never born because he already has been. But maybe there’s some way to fix the problem retrospectively...

For all their wooliness and New Age tendencies, the insight contained in Campbell’s works is that stories take on their own power. Any writer will tell you there’s some point where the story seems to surge ahead of him and write itself while he struggles to catch up. (Of course the operative word there is ‘”seems”. Stories are sentient life forms only in the worst of New Age mumbo jumbo.)

The point is that writing is a way of unlocking something, of accessing parts of your brain you didn’t know you had. The Surrealists fixated on automatic writing as a method of unleashing the subconscious. But in a sense all writing – at least all good writing – becomes automatic writing. As is said on>the Joseph Campbell Foundation website:

“All myths are the creative products of the human psyche, artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal needs.”

Of course the gormless literalists don’t even have the courage of their own convictions. They insist endlessly ‘all stories are one’. So if that’s the case, why do they even need this stupid manual in the first place? It’s like saying all roads lead to Rome, so I’d better bring a map. If they really believed what they say, wouldn’t anything they wrote take on that form, manual or not? Shouldn’t they even try to break from the mould, secure in the knowledge their story would reshape itself back into the one ideal form? Of course they would never do anything so edgy, so close to surrendering control! This is an essential part of colonising Campbell, that you can leave enough of a veneer to make your money-making seem somehow ‘spiritual.’

To re-iterate my main theme, the workaday hack writers don’t get it. So what else is new? You don’t judge a book by its slowest reader. The stupidest, klunkiest interpretation of something may well be the easiest one to get. It doesn’t mean it’s the only one. There’s a simpler reason for all the bad scripts out there. There’s bad writers.

PostScript: For those who haven’t yet had enough of this sort of thing, I posted some comments on Andrew’s blog about the relationship of Campbell to Structuralism. Given this description, I am not expecting an unseemly rush...


  1. Gavin,

    Thanks for a fascinating piece - I was just wondering, as I read it, whether Michael Moorcock would be worth a mention somewhere. His multiverse/Eternal Champion stuff was my first introduction to Campbell-style thinking as a teenager in the pre-Star Wars days. It seemed brand-new to me then, and strangely persuasive.

    Best wishes from another Brighton resident...


  2. A good point Gav. I suspect that the problem might be in part due to modern commercial practice. Business management theory has invaded every aspect of... er... business. Now it seems that the need for a reliable “product” is causing novels and movies to come under increasingly tight control. Artists are regarded as loose cannons. The accountants who seem to run things nowadays need writers who can follow rules. Every other department in an organisation has laid-down procedures to follow so why not the creatives. The Capmbellites can provide a rigid formula for adventure stories that reduces financial risk. It’s been like that in high-volume cheap romance publishing for as long as anyone can remember...

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Actually I never really read Moorcock, even though his name was fairly high on The Big List of Everything You Must Read While You Were Fourteen. I’ve only read the comics adaptations. Perhaps I just subconsciously reasoned it worked better as a comic.

    I can see where PeterJ is coming from with the Eternal Champion stuff, but the multiverse? Is it because reality is presented like endless variations on a theme?

    Absolutely agree with what Martin says. It’s surely no co-incidence Vogler was a studio exec not a writer. There’s anecdotes that, during his chiefdom at Marvel, Jim Shooter used to insist that Little Miss Muffitt had the perfect story structure and demanded his writers provide scripts which conformed to it’s form. It’s classic Fordist production, and absolutely unsurprising.

    But that’s only the half of it. The whole advantage of co-opting Campbell is that you can fire off these memos about how scripts must from now on be written, but all within this veneer of some ill-defined kind of spiritualism. Hacks are supposedly transformed into “the dreamers of dreams”, just by following the very memos that actually turn you into a production line worker.

    PS I realise now I accidentally mistyped Vogler as ‘Volger’ throughout, but I’m not sure I can face changing it after all the grief Blogger gave me posting it the first time! (Including forcing me to manually whiten the text, even though when it’s in the preview pane it’s on a white background so you can’t bloody see it!)

  4. Gavin,

    The multiverse stuff in Moorcock is really just an excuse to put the Eternal Champion into different eras and milieus - Hawkmoon, Elric, Corum, and Jerry Cornelius, for example, as aspects of the same hero. When I came across Campbell later, it seemed clear where Moorcock's ideas were coming from.

  5. Mr Shooter definitely quoted the "Little Miss Muffet" thing in one of his "Stan's Soapbox" type columns. But I think what he said was something like "War and Peace is an example of a story; so is Little Miss Muffet" -- i.e it doesn't matter how long or how short your story is, the basic rules still apply. (Establish the status quo; introduce something which disrupts the status quo; show the consequence which produces a new status quo.) Saying that funny book writers ought to write clear, linear narratives is quite a long way from say that The Passion of the Christ and Four Weddings and a Funeral both equally and to the same extent have stages called The Road of Trials and The Meeting With the Goddess.

  6. Wouldn’t that make for Peace, War And A Slightly Different Kind of Peace?

    A more serious response...

    I do vaguely remember that being in a Shooter’s Soapbox now you come to mention it. I am far too lazy to look this up, and I doubt I’d even have the original any more anyway, but I’m fairly sure it was Frank Miller who was gretching about Shooter’s obsession over scaring underage girls. The way he told the story, he became one of Shooter’s golden boys, so got that particular pep talk more than most. “Keep at it like you are, and before you know it you’ll have grasped the mystery of Little Miss Muffett.”

    At best, Shooter is describing the three act structure in a way a novice artist would be told that a head is an oval and a body a cylinder. This is pretty good initial advice, but we’re really talking the stabilisers-on-your-bike stage. If an artist doesn’t ever get beyond seeing the human figure like that, you were wasting your time giving them advice in the first place. I’m betting you could find plenty of times Kirby violates the supposedly sacrosanct rules of Little Miss Muffett, just as much as Reed Richards violated the rules of human anatomy.

    And if Miller’s version of the story is at all correct, Shooter was really saying “widgets are always seven millimetres across, so don’t let me catch you trying to get away with anything different, because Carl Jung would be on my side and telling you about the archetypal widget if he were here.”

    But the real focus of my ire was Christopher Vogler, to the degree that I’m not even sorry for repeatedly spelling his name wrong. Vogler really is saying that Passion of the Christ is the same story as Four Weddings and a Funeral, and for that matter The Muppet Christmas Carol and Andrei Rublev too. As the inimitable Mark E Smith used to sing, “sparks off, repeal gun laws in my brain...”

  7. "Any writer will tell you there’s some point where the story seems to surge ahead of him and write itself while he struggles to catch up. (Of course the operative word there is ‘”seems”. Stories are sentient life forms only in the worst of New Age mumbo jumbo.)"

    And in the Discworld novels, of course -- where the sentientness of stories (in that universe) becomes itself part of the story. See especially Witches Abroad, if you like that kind of thing.

  8. Before Terry Pratchett, apparently Robert Sheckley wrote a fantasy novel where a serving maid keeps behaving mysteriously because she's trying to become a subplot...

  9. Seven and a half years later and for long-winded reasons I find myself re-reading these comments. And what should be playing on my computer as I read? Mark E Smith singing "sparks off, repeal gun laws in my brain"!!!