Lessons from Joseph Campbell: a Hero’s Call to Adventure

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Stories are complex, they have many elements that combine to make a great tale. There are so many possible elements to a story that it nearly rivals the periodic table. Instead of boron and iron, though, this table of elements contains things like Supernatural Aid and the Temptress, and we have Joseph Campbell to thank for that.

He brought to light the term “Monomyth”, a word he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In essence, it is a claim that all stories share a same structure, and that many stories are simply a retelling or remolding of a myth told many, many years ago. That idea is the basis of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

But let’s look at the first element of any great story, the part I think is most important of all; the hero’s call to adventure.

When looking at any story, we must always have a hero or heroine. Someone has to be doing something, and that something has to be interesting enough to keep the reader reading. Who’s going to read a book about a regular person shopping at the grocery store? No one.

Now, let’s say its a story about someone shopping at the grocery store and they need to get a dozen eggs, but someone else has stolen the eggs from their cart? There’s no more eggs left, so the shopper has to get the carton of eggs back somehow. Now we have a story, because we have a plot–not a real page turner, though.

But every plot must begin with the call to adventure–something has to occur, something that drives a normal man or woman to do something that is great. It’s the reason we read, to find stories that thrill us and challenge our own perceptions of right and wrong. Just eggs, though?

What if those eggs were necessary to make a birthday cake and the shopper didn’t have enough time to make it to another store? All they can do is get the carton back from the “Raider of the Last Eggs”. Still not a great story idea, but at least the title is interesting.

Above is a picture of Perseus, holding the head of Medusa the Gorgon triumphantly before him as Pegasus does a jig off on the side. The jig isn’t important, I just thought that it should be pointed out. What is important is the “why” of it all? Why did Perseus travel all the way to that cave to kill Medusa?

I guarantee that he didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I’m going to kill Medusa today.” He pretty much did so on a dare from Polydectes, a guy that wanted to get with Perseus’ mom, Danae. Like all guys with a hot mom, Perseus didn’t want this other guy coming into the picture, Polydectes was a dishonorable guy–besides, Perseus’ dad was Zeus, for Zeus’ sake, and no one messes with Zeus’ ladies.

So of course Polydectes wanted to shame the young man, hopefully getting rid of the boy that was nothing but a roadblock to Danae. So he held a banquet and asked that all the guests bring a horse as a gift for Hippodamia, another woman–the story is pretty juicy. There’s poor, little Perseus with no horse to give, and asks Polydectes to name the gift. Name anything and Perseus will bring it, no questions asked.

“Then bring me the head of Medusa,” the jerk says, all nonchalantly … like, no biggie. What ever happened to bringing a bottle of wine to a party?

So there’s his call to adventure. Like anybody put on the spot, he had the choice to say no, but he didn’t. And that’s what makes him a hero in this story. I, on the other hand, would have made up some excuse about having to do laundry, or that my magic, flying sandals were in the shop for repair, or something, anything to get out of doing that.

But that’s why we don’t read stories about me … that’s why there aren’t stories about most of us. I’m not saying that everyone’s as scared as myself of flying off haphazardly, head on into the fray, it’s just that most of us don’t receive the call to adventure to begin with. If you did, how would you answer?

 

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