The Power of Myth: The Hero’s Adventure

I constantly find myself revisiting this episode in the Power of Myth series. It’s one of the best interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, probably because it plays into Campbell’s expertise much better than the other ones. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so many times, it just seems this way because it is so familiar to me. So a bunch of us gather in the living room to view and discuss this chapter of PoM. This is essentially part 2 of the Mythopoetic Workshop from last month. The points in italics are from the show.

The hero evolves as the culture evolves. I think this is a forgotten point. Heroes of today are not the same as heroes of 100, 1000, 10000 years ago. Our needs are different. Notice that even the most successful hero remakes (ex: Marvel Heroes, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Star Wars, etc.) update the stories for the current era, and less successful hero remakes (ex: Troy), don’t. This is one of the points I find myself making over and over again these days: Cultural context is important. If you understand the culture, you can understand the heroes. For example, heroes today fight against something that is a little more difficult to identify. This is a result of a culture that is constantly battling against an ideology. We don’t have a clear-cut example of who our enemy is, who or what we should project our collective shadow on to, what actually constitutes as “evil.” Oh sure, we try to give a face to this “evil,” but then we make so many exceptions to the rule, that it is near impossible to keep up with who this silent enemy is. “Terrorism” has no single face behind it. “Recession” neither. The end result is name calling and backstabbing, meanwhile Hollywood and the literary world churns out some potent heroes who are constantly fighting this unknown shadow. It’s no accident that Sauron has no body, that Vader has no human face, or that Voldemort has no body (and the one he does wind up having is a magical homunculus body, not a real one).

Outer space as a whole new realm for the imagination to open into. I agree with this. The birth of true science fiction coincides with the modern era. However, along with the birth of true science fiction comes the idea of the fairy-myth. I don’t recall if I’ve written about this on the blog yet, but this is a term I coined when I was writing my MA thesis to describe stories that are mythic in magnitude, but content-wise more resemble the literary fairy tale, borrowing from Tolkien’s definition of a fairy-story. If outer space is the void, just waiting for our projections, then the fairy land is the realm of the inner imagination. Both story modes work in conjunction to address the complex nature of the modern Western inner life. One mode appeals to some more than the other, and within each mode is a ton of material. Speaking of this complexity, it’s also interesting to note that many of the more potent modern myths come in multiple volumes.

The world is a wasteland and the only way to bring life into it is to bring life into yourself. I agree with this, but only to an extent. While I do think that there is some truth to this – happy people are less likely to want to blow up other people – I do think there that there does need to be some extraverted work with the collective. When a bunch of people get together, no matter how centered they are, the possibility exists that they will fall into group think, for good or for bad. Working in a group of people takes effort, and this effort is just as important as the individual effort. Now, the part about the world being a wasteland. Campbell points out that humans have become the voice of the earth. This gives us the added responsibility of tending to her needs. See the point about the planet below.

You can tell what informs a society by the tallest building in a town. This is one of my favorite points in the entire hour. In a medieval town, the cathedral is, by law, the tallest structure in the entire town. In an Enlightenment town, it’s the political building (capitol, city hall, etc.). Though in some Enlightenment towns, the tallest structure is the bell tower from the university. In the modern world, it’s the skyscrapers, filled with offices and dwellings. So as a civilization we’ve gone from being informed by the church, to politics/reason, to corporations, to the individual at his/her computer. With each progressive era, those buildings get taller and taller, as though to negate any questions of their authority. Indeed, in Austin, Texas, where I spend a lot of my time, this can be seen in the downtown: The oldest building was at first the state capitol building (Austin is a post-Enlightenment city). Then the next tallest is the UT bell tower, which is often lit up to let the city know whether or not the Longhorns won a game. This was later trumped by the Frost Bank building. But now the tallest building is a high-rise loft building. From politics, to education (football?), to corporate finance, to individuals at their computers.

You can’t predict what a myth is going to be. True. Case in point: no one actually expected Star Wars or Harry Potter to be as successful as they are, but the reason for their success is that they gripped a whole bunch of people in the mythic moment. They speak to that unconscious level that myths speak to. The flip side to this point is that you can’t predict what a myth is going to be by recycling the same old formula. I think this is part of why Marvel heroes, Michael Bay movies, and sequels aren’t more successful. A good myth should speak to the psyche in a fresh way, giving new face to the old archetypes (if not creating new archetypes altogether, but this is a point that some in the Jungosphere might argue).

The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be the planet and everybody on it. —“Until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”  This one single statement is usually taken to mean “let’s be green!” What I think Campbell is trying to push at is recognizing the global nature of the world we are currently living in, and working together collectively to transcend national boundaries and concentrate on humanity as a whole organism, rather than on our own cultural egos. Nations are arbitrary, and he highlights this point by looking at a picture of earth taken from the moon (I think). From space, there are no national boundaries. Physically and psychologically, we are essentially the same. The new mythology should bring us together. And I suspect that somewhere someone recognizes this, and finds their shadow triggered by it, which is why the liberal arts and humanities are currently suffering from budget cuts. These subjects emphasize our similarities rather than differences.


4 thoughts on “The Power of Myth: The Hero’s Adventure

  1. Great recap, I enjoyed your comments. In fact, it makes me want to watch it again with your blog at hand! I’ve only ever watched The Power of Myth by myself – would love to watch as a group and have some lively discussion after!

    1. Thank you for your support, Marina! I appreciate all of the comments, though I’m sad some of them got lost in the website kerfuffle. Do you have a local Joseph Campbell Foundation RoundTable that meets up near you? That’s one good way to secure an interested group!

      1. We don’t – but I’m considering trying to start one. 🙂 Our community might be too small, but I’m hoping to find a few people in neighbouring areas who might be willing to meet occasionally for things like this. Fingers crossed!

      2. I started one here that I just recently had to let go. It is easy to do, but it takes a lot of heart. I found it common that I’d put hours into planning … only to have no one show up. But when people did show up, it was very rewarding. No community is too small for some good mythologizing. 🙂

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