(This is going to get a little weird)

Had George Lucas followed through with his initial script and storyline for the Star Wars trilogy, it is unlikely that they would be among the most famous films in existence. I will not regale you with the laundry list of flaws inherent in his original story, but they were numerous and would have produced a forgettable piece of C-minus science fiction. Lucas owes his fame, fortune, and success to the fact that, at some point between the first draft and the day filming began, he discovered Joseph Campbell.**

Campbell, of course, is famous for having introduced to a wide audience the concept of a "Monomyth" (The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949), a theory that culture-defining myths and stories that originated independently (although that claim is contentious) in different societies are remarkably similar. In other words, there are not stories originating from different cultures, there are different cultures telling interpretations of the same story. While Campbell can hardly claim that he invented this idea, he did successfully apply it to a broad range of classical mythology. In the introduction to his seminal work, Campbell describes the tale as:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

That tremendous oversimplification describes a tale we have heard many times, a tale that Lucas chose to tell almost verbatim in Star Wars. Humble birth. Mystical calling. Refusal of said calling followed by selfless acceptance. A quest defined. Trials endured and temptations resisted. Evil vanquished. The Hero enters a second, higher plane of existence and refuses return. The Hero bestows the benefits of knowledge and experience from The Journey on his fellow men. Death is followed by resurrection and/or eternal life on a higher plane.

Sound familiar? It should. It's The Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. The New Testament. The life of the Buddha. The Matrix. The Lion King. Led Zeppelin's concept album phase. The stories of Moses, Osiris, Mohammed, or Abraham. Homer's Odyssey. Ender's Game. Harry Potter. Anything by James Joyce. We could list examples for days. Campbell would argue that these works of literature and film are almost universally loved because they tell a tale with which we innately and subconsciously identify.

So, you say, great. Who cares. Well, the power of this narrative is not lost on political campaigns. If you think I am about to make a leap too far, consider the official biography videos (10 minutes each) produced by the McCain and Obama campaigns. Obviously they have to steer clear of the spiritual/supernatural dimensions of the Monomyth, but the effort to structure the candidates' biographies around the classic story are unmistakable. They rose from humble beginnings and received a call to service – to be exceptional – at a young age. They faced great challenges, sought the guidance of their wisened elders (not to mention God), and returned from the top of the mountain to bestow what they've learned on their fellow man. They are reluctant leaders, not power-hungry tyrants. Whatever temptations have crossed their paths were resisted.

The Hero/Savior also exists as a Jungian archetype, proving that Mr. Campbell was not the first person to grasp the universality of the imagery. Obama's campaign has been masterful at evoking the desired psychological responses from voters, projecting the calm and poise of natural leader. McCain, on the other hand, has been less successful at selling the Hero archetype. Instead*** he has been cast as the Wise Old Man, an archetype which garners respect but fails to excite. Biden was chosen to deflate McCain's claim to experience and wisdom. Jung or Campbell, in fact, would point out that the Hero-Wise Old Man combination of Obama-Biden (or Skywalker-ObiWan, Neo-Morpheus, Frodo-Gandalf, Daniel San/Mr. Myagi) speaks directly to our innate desires. Unfortunately for McCain, I'm not sure that the Wise Old Man/Village Idiot combo does so as successfully.****

Nothing in politics is left to chance. Whether or not they have read Joseph Campbell, both campaigns are depicting their man as the star of the Monomyth. And while the Bush-Cheney campaign probably didn't know who Carl Jung is, they absolutely nailed the Hero/Wise Old Man dynamic that people find so innately appealing. It would be too controversial to say that this explanation is a complete one for 2008 or any other election, but I strongly believe that what we usually call "character" or "charisma" – the non-issue-related portion of a candidate's appeal – is in reality a predictable set of responses to archetypes ingrained in the human psyche, hiding in the background and guiding our emotional responses.

**Lucas became such a fan that Campbell's famous Power of Myth miniseries with Bill Moyers was actually filmed at Skywalker Ranch.

***I've lost you at this point, haven't I? Unfortunately for you, I could talk about Jungian imagery and mass responses to political cues and phenomena all day. It's my birthday, so I'm going to talk about it all damn day if I want to.

****Kidding aside, Palin is intended to appeal to the classic Jungian 'MILF' archetype. OK, no, seriously, all kidding aside, Palin is supposed to fill an Everyman (common sense aplenty, dontchaknow!) or Rebel/Rugged Individualist archetype.

12 thoughts on “THE HERO'S TALE”

  • Mike Hoffeditz says:

    I do not appreciate your dismissal of Joseph Campbell as a Johnny-come-lately of "inventing [the] idea [of the monomyth]." Where was it expounded upon before? The recognition of the story that is all stories is, granted, easily dismissed. It is the same as the bullet-pointy dillio (forgive me for not knowing the name of the sports show that spawned a million sidebars) that is now a feature of most every show that countenances a grouping of events, only in reverse. That is to say, Campbell's insight into the fundamental archetype or frame of reference for any story, real or imagined, is dismissed here in a way that flat bothers me.
    Don't get me wrong. I read your blog as regularly as any. This despite the fact that, having met you, you are a complete asshole (the fact that we share that attribute notwithstanding).
    Barring any indication whatsoever that you have any sort of overarching ethos or paradigm or whathaveyou to which you ascribe your existence, to so blithely shit on a fundamental part of my own bugs me. Full disclosure-wise, having not had the wherewithal to pursue my own PhD as you have in order to illustrate my own [fundamentally utilizing Campbell's work], I have as many legs to stand on as Max Cleland.
    In the end, I suppose what I'm getting at is, you are cheaply trading on Campbell's name and work to illustrate a point without fully grasping the fact that the events most current are well-illustrated within the context of Campbell's work. McCain is an incomplete hodgepodge of the hero, whereas Obama is still on his journey. It is the very incompleteness of that journey, and is encouragement for others to join him, that is so appealing to those not deadened to the possibility that the world is not in a sense ending with each following moment of despair, defeat, and slippage.
    All the same, having quite the Obama campaign after he failed utterly to stand up for the cause of accountability re: the FISA bill, I was still stirred by the end of his infomercial this evening. If nothing else, it will be refreshing for an individual with the wherewithal to understand the full array of policy issues and problems currently facing the US to have the power to put in place others with the expertise and desire to work toward solutions to the myriad problems we face.

  • I don't believe I understand your criticism. It appears to have been written in response to a post mocking and disregarding Joseph Campbell, which is not exactly what I wrote.

    Campbell's theories are heavily rooted, of his own admission, in the ideas of Jung. Most of his implied understanding of psychological responses to the Monomyth are transplanted in full from Jungian theory. This is OK. This is what people do when they write about their own ideas.

    That Campbell did not devise his most well-known theory off of a blank slate is both a fact and hardly an insult. As I said, he applied concepts from other fields to the study of mythology in a way that was new and insightful. I consider the subsequent 60 years of work in the study of folklore/mythology, much of it devoted to trashing Campbell in favor of "particularism", to be utter shit.

    In short, I really like Joseph Campbell. I'm not sure what gave you the opposite impression.

  • First: happy birthday! I am exercising the female prerogative of prioritizing the personal, and will spend ten minutes in feminist time-out later in the day. My gift to you.

    Second: have you seen "The Man From Hope"? Another great modern retelling, although he was not a reluctant leader.

    Third: isn't there a segment of the pop who prefers elder statesmen to heroes? More Merlin than Arthur, wielding the power granted by age, experience, and a background of wealth, privilege, and superior education?

    Fourth: more Jungian analysis of Palin, please! I've heard her compared to Lilith, by her fans and her foes. Is she a misunderstood feminist, resented for her lustiness and for usurping male power? Or is she a spoiler, intent on destruction and the downfall of the party? (Only her hairdresser knows for sure.)

    Last: excellent post. Much of politics in the democratic world is marketing, which can't be done well without awareness of symbols, types, and myths. I've only been thinking about this with regard to the anti-Obama spam I receive at work all day, in which he is dressed-up a terrorist, an imam, a witch-doctor, etc. Oooh, I saw Obama in a turban! He must be evil! But this imagery is working on someone….

  • I nominate ladiesbane for Comment of the Week, and second her request for more Jungian analysis of Palin.

    I'm very much intrigued by the idea of campaigns positioning their candidates as avatars of the Jung/Campbell archetypal hero, although I'm now having visions of a Cheney-Obama "Luke, I am your father" moment. (…yeah, that's probably in bad taste.)

  • Ed, would you add The Godfather to the list of stories drawing on the Monomyth? Or is a retelling of the traditional fairytale (where the king has three sons and the youngest succeeds on the quest/completes the impossible task and inherits the kingdom) not quite the same thing? Is there a special subcategory for the Hero becoming or replacing the authority figure he has fought for (or against), or is it implicit in the original myth? (Hello, Taran Wanderer!)

  • Palin has been the subject of a lot of archetyping. To a lot of far-right voters, she's been positioned as the Mother, the principled and fecund example of virtuous womanhood (she has tard! and four normals!). We voters are supposed to go to her to be nurtured and comforted in these troubled times.

    Now that the campaign is going to shit, the McCain/Romney people are painting her as the Siren or Temptress – she lured us in with her beauty and charm, then destroyed us in service of her own motives and masters.

    It's unfortunate for the GOP that these matters are not *entirely* psychological. Half of it is personality-driven and half of it is about competence. I think they could have successfully sold her personality if she showed even an iota of competence.

  • I second ladiesbane's felicitations, Hequit's nomination of ladiesbane's comment for "Comment of the Week," and Ed's assertion that Palin is monstrously incompetent.


  • 1. Happy Happy Birthday Ed!
    2. I pathetically third the praise for ladiesbane this week.
    3. "Palin is intended to appeal to the classic Jungian ‘MILF’ archetype"….excellent.

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