Every now and then, like maybe when the summer movie blockbuster season is over, and before the holiday movies begin in earnest, we stop to see what these movies say about…us. Before we move on to Les Miserables, The Hobbit, or The Silver Linings Playbook (brush up on the book here), we ask: what are all these stories telling us we are like—or life is like?
For an answer, let’s turn to Joseph Campbell. Or, maybe you haven’t heard of Joseph Campbell, but you’ve heard of one of his adherents: George Lucas. Lucas explored Campbell’s hypothesis of the hero’s journey. The basic idea is that, across various cultures, a monomyth develops: one where the hero leaves—or, more accurately, is forced out—of the common world, faces a supreme ordeal in another “world,” and then returns home, reaping rewards for himself (or herself) and his (or her) compatriots.
Lucas cashed in—quite literally—on Campbell’s thinking. Yet, while the hero’s journey is obvious in Star Wars, it spreads far afield. Braveheart. The Wizard of Oz. Lord of the Rings (and, upcoming, The Hobbit). Other motifs of the journey emerge; most of these narratives have a mentor figure. Obi Wan (and then Yoda) guides Luke; Gandalf will soon guide Bilbo Baggins across the screen, and the Good Witch guides Dorothy. And they all return home, having changed the world—and themselves.
The hero’s journey idea is all around us—even present in modern marketing techniques. Kids today might first see it in a movie like Shrek or The Lion King, and then recognize it as adults looking at figures as disparate as Moses or Jean Valjean.
The question for us, of course, is whether this monomyth represents something static about the world, something about the way we’re wired as people. Do people, for some unknown reason, understand their lives as part of a story—and more specifically, as main players on a journey? Does the profligate nature of life force us to see our lives as stories, where we need help, where we face ordeals, and where we want to, eventually, make it back home?
This is what books and movies are telling us—and stories have told us for centuries. Now, in the 21st century, we can only ask: Is it still true? And, if so, what does it mean for today?