The Unfortunate Necessity of Joseph Campbell in Fantasy and Science Fiction

I know I said I was going to write something on language and fantasy this time, but I had an epiphany on the way to work and thought I’d share it with you.

A lot gets made of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in narrative theory. The three-act Hero’s Journey framework of normality, transition/journey and return gets related to everything, from film, books, and religion to life in general. This is done so much that some doubt that the framework is too general to have any real validity. But it seems to be ubiquitous in most alternative-world genres, and part of me thinks that this is possibly necessary.

English: This image outlines the basic path of...

The possibly-not-circular circle of Campbell’s hero’s journey

This is to do with the nature of fantasy and science fiction as genres; they inherently deal with things unfamiliar to the reader, and so they need information on the world they are being presented with, and the outsider’s perspective on offer from the Hero’s Journey framework, going from the familiar to the unfamiliar mirrors that of the reader/viewer, and aids setting exposition, particularly if the helper/mentor elements are present. If this isn’t done, then the work runs the risk of not being understood by the reader.

Note that this doesn’t require the whole of Campbell’s journey; only the properly-staged travel to the unknown is needed. The return, and even the Abyss itself, is not required, as the knowledge of the setting has already been imparted. There is no need for the hero to return back to normality, although this is often the case (Narnia and Lord of the Rings being good examples of this).

There are, unfortunately, few ways of getting around this. A lot of them depend on the media of the journey. As Team NChick point out about Men in Black, a good chunk of the film’s beginning is irrelevant to character development, and done purely for the appreciation of the audience. While the film does follow Campbell’s framework in other ways, it wasn’t particularly necessary from the point of exposition. The Elder Scrolls impart a lot of information about their settings through the books that players can read during play.

But a book doesn’t have the luxury of that sort of thing; scenes can’t be quite so casual as a film without making the reader bored, and while reading a book within a book may have some ironic appeal, it isn’t likely to be something that wins over many readers. So the alternative with books and series like A Song of Ice and Fire and Wheel of Time is to interweave narratives to make the pattern less obvious. These series don’t follow the hero’s journey precisely, although comparisons can be made. The characters may go through individual journeys, but the plot itself is not one unified Hero’s Journey.

Darth Vader (Prowse) makes his first entrance ...

This guy is no hero… why did he need a journey?

There’s also the descent of established characters, which isn’t the same Journey template. While Luke Skywalker’s Star Wars is one of the best examples of the Hero’s Journey applied to film, the story of Darth Vader is one of a fall from a position of power to redemption. When his story was outlined in the more recent trilogy as one of development comparable to the Hero’s Journey, it lessened it in the eyes of much of the public and critics. Using the fall-from-grace as a framework is a decent way of explaining the created world; the current situation needs to be depicted, with all its intricacies that cause the characters’ fall.

With all these options, there is little need for the whole Journey to be completed, which is what makes it so depressing when it’s used. It’s clear that there are alternatives, and one possible advantage of the well-worn tropes of fantasy is that there doesn’t need to be lots of exposition; if elves are a certain way, they don’t need to be explained in great detail, and so the introduction to the unknown realm doesn’t need to be done in the same way.

This would open up many different types of story to fantasy and science-fiction, and so opportunities to explore new themes and narrative structures without it. I look forward to a time when alternative-world authors can ply their trade without clinging desperately to Campbell.

Does this make sense? Do you disagree? Have anything at all to add? I’d love to hear anything you have to say in the comments below.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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