The monomyth (also known as The Hero's Journey) is a theory developed by Joseph Campbell, chiefly in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The monomyth–the basic structure of a hero's path–is used in several fictional works, including countless movies and books. It is the typical tried-and-proven plotline, and its variations include the tales of Jesus, Buddha, Shrek, Frodo and Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter, of course, can also be included in that category.
The monomyth is always a rich and potentially interesting pattern to follow, and not only in adventure stories.
The hero's birth
This section does not concern the monomyth as systematized by Campbell, but it is nevertheless relevant to the study of the hero's life.
The hero's birth is the joining of two worlds: good and evil (e.g. Luke Skywalker), mortal and divine (e.g. Romulus and Remus). His parents are often opposites who went though journeys of their own (e.g. Dash and Violet Incredible) to get to the point of marriage (usually a forbidden union, e.g. Hercules).
The hero is an element of novelty. A representative of the old order usually resists his birth and attempts to have him killed somehow (e.g. Pharaoh tried to have Moses drowned; Perdita was abandoned at birth). Regardless of the child's heritage, he is usually raised in an environment where he has been deprived of an important element of life, be it riches (e.g. Paris), family love (e.g. Harry Potter) or human weaknesses in general (e.g. Buddha).
The birth or conception of the hero tends to involve supernatural occurrences of some kind (e.g. Jesus), which act as signs that the child is special and has a mission to undertake. His coming is often prophesied (e.g. Krishna).
Campbell created the monomyth theory after many years' study of mythology. Each step of the hero's journey can have different interpretations, of course, and the lack of one or more of the described events is common. Much of this theory fits nicely with C. G. Jung's views on the hero archetype.
Many scholars have criticized Campbell's theory because he based it primarily on European mythologies. Several of the later adaptations that follow his model can be arguably seen as a reinterpretation of Jesus Christ's journey–but that, too, fits a bigger pattern, as do the stories of many other religious figures.
This article does not follow Campbell's division in all its minor minutiae; some stages have been merged, and are explained in an extremely concise way.
The process of leaving the hero's initial world is complicated, and usually involves a great deal of inner struggle.
The Call to Adventure
The hero's journey begins in the ordinary world (e.g. Alice). The world tends to be accepted by most people, often including the hero himself (e.g. Frodo Baggins). Something, however, pushes him to action: the appearance of a mysterious being (e.g. the ship in Finding Nemo), either good (e.g. Ford Prefect) or bad (e.g. Jafar in Aladdin), who lures him into an unknown and unfamiliar universe. The hero tends to refuse the uncomfortable prospect of leaving at first, but is eventually forced to do so (e.g. Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta).
It is also possible for the hero to leave voluntarily on a quest of his own (e.g. The Little Mermaid), but the onset of this decision is usually triggered by a scary or dark event, such as a dream (e.g. Boromir).
Sometimes, the hero's world is chaotic to begin with, and he has a strong perception of all that is wrong with it (e.g. The Matrix). The inversion of roles that is often present in this scenario–for instance, a bad mother (or stepmother) instead of a loving one (e.g. Snow White)–is one of the factors that influences the hero to embark on his quest voluntarily.
To enter the unknown world, the hero must face the threshold guardian, who may be a mentor figure (e.g. Toulouse Lautrec) or a dark threat he has to defeat (e.g. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs). In the latter case, some form of supernatural aid often comes to the hero before he confronts the guardian (e.g. Excalibur).
The threshold divides the ordinary world and the mysterious new reality in which the hero will have to live now (e.g. the wardrobe that leads to Narnia). He faces several dangers, and is usually presented with magical tools to help him do so.
The hero's adventure may include several repetitions of the following pattern:
The Belly of the Whale
This stage, named in reference to the popular story of the prophet Jonah and the whale, is the dark place in which the most important part of the journey takes place. It is a small death, either symbolic or literal: a chaotic, primitive and scary scene in which the hero faces a big mystery (e.g. Superman and Kryptonite in Superman Returns).
The hero sometimes has to face a specific and predefined series of trials or tasks to prove his or her valor (e.g. Batman in Batman Begins).
After this stage is completed, it is common for the male hero to meet an important female figure (e.g. Fiona in Shrek). Jungians say this is when he begins to reconcile his anima, the female part of his soul, in order to become stronger and more complete. This woman is often a test as well, attempting to drive him away from the quest (e.g. Circe).
The hero can also meet with a father-like figure–usually when he has not confronted a similar one in order to take the Call–and overcome or reconcile with him (e.g. Oedipus). This, too, is related to the completion of the hero's character; he must become a figure of authority himself.
When the hero achieves completeness and balances the world's and his own inner forces, his success benefits both himself and others around him (e.g. X2).
If the reward is an object of magical properties, or if the hero's quest entails the destruction of a certain place, it is common for him to flee, often using outworldly or fantastic means. He may be rescued by a more powerful, benevolent force.
It is time for the hero to return to the ordinary world, which is sometimes altered by his actions. When the fantastic reality in which he has been is entirely separate from the ordinary world, however, this process often offers its own troubles.
If the hero is happy and satisfied, he may not wish to return to his previous existence. In that form, he or she is probably viewed as unimportant or insignificant. He eventually realizes the need for him to return, but his presence in the other world for longer than necessary can cause him trouble.
There can also be a return threshold, with yet another guardian figure, but this one symbolizes a new birth. The hero emerges from this final trial even more powerful than before, often able to influence both worlds. A frequent representation of this is the hero's marriage: he has achieved the integration of two realities, two parts of a whole, the two aspects of his own soul. The constitution of a family is a clear sign of completeness.
Examples of the Monomyth
Most adventures adhere to the basic form of the monomyth. The summaries below emphasize the most relevant phases in each story.
Warning: There are spoilers below for the movies and books mentioned, in case you haven't watched them.
The Lion King
In the beginning of The Lion King', Simba is in an ordinary, perfect world. He lives happily with his parents, and his father, Mufasa, is king of their pride. His first confrontation with darkness is at the elephants' cemetery, where he meets three malicious hyenas who attack him and his friend Nala; Mufasa rescues the pair.
When Mufasa is killed, Simba talks with his evil uncle Scar (guardian of the threshold), who convinces him to flee the kingdom. The lion cub then has to cross a desert.
Simba is rescued from certain death by Timon and Pumba, two odd characters who teach him a different way to face life. "Hakuna matata," they say: one should not worry about the past. Simba grows, slowly learning to deal with his father's death; when two old friends–Nala and Rafiki–ask him to return to the pride, he has a vision of his father, and realizes that he has inherited Mufasa's authority and character.
Simba then returns to the kingdom, defeats his uncle Scar and establishes himself as king of the pride. He marries Nala, and they have a child of their own.
Neo is a hacker who has problems fitting into his daytime identity as a programmer for a major software company. He realizes that something is wrong with the world, and actively seeks a terrorist known as "Morpheus", who claims to have some answers.
One day, he receives a mobile phone at work via FedEx, and it rings: on the other line is Morpheus, who asks the hacker to climb to the building's terrace using a scaffold so they can meet. Neo refuses, claiming that it would be too dangerous; he is then arrested by system Agents and interrogated. Later on, when Morpheus calls him again, Neo decides to follow his instructions. The "terrorist" briefly explains the dangerous journey ahead of Neo, and offers him the choice to take the blue pill–return to his previous life, and forget all that had transpired between the two–or the red pill, which would introduce him to a whole new and scary world.
Neo chooses the red pill, and literally leaves the reality in which he has lived his entire life: that world was in fact the Matrix, a computer-generated dream world built in order to keep humans' minds busy while machines fed on their energy. Neo has some difficulty adapting to his newfound knowledge, but he progressively learns his strengths and powers.
Morpheus leads Neo back to the Matrix. After meeting the ambiguous figure of the Oracle, Neo is killed by an Agent. With the help of Trinity, a woman in Morpheus' crew, he somehow realizes that what was killed was simply a part of his conscience, and he manages to be reborn. He's then conscious of the influence he can have on the Matrix: he's able to build or change it at will.