Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist who devoted his life to studying comparative religions and mythology from around the world, appropriated the term Monomyth to describe a theory that all myths follow a similar narrative. He observed that all myths regardless of their time of creation or geographical origin follow a common pattern at the core. He called this The Hero’s Journey. This pattern can be identified in the most ancient mythologies right up through to contemporary stories such as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (where George Lucas consciously applied the theory with the help of Joseph Campbell himself). Curiously, the narratives where this metaphoric formula is strong tend to endure, as they resonate with humanity in some deeply subconscious way. Why does it have such a profound effect on us? Fundamentally it is the story of the evolution of the soul (or the psychological growth of the human spirit) and this story transcends culture and time. The stages of the journey as outlined by Campbell are as follows….
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. Crossing the First Threshold
5. Belly of the Whale
6. The Road of Trials
7. Meeting with the Goddess
9. Atonement with the Hero’s Father
11. The Ultimate Boon
12. Refusal of the Return
13. Magic Flight
14. Rescue from Without
16. Master of Two Worlds
17. Freedom to Live
So why am I telling you all this? Because I believe this theory can also be applied to the journey of the artist and the evolution of their art. I sure as hell feel as if I’m Frodo lugging the ring up Mt Doom at the moment! I’m going to experiment and see if I can fit these stages into the journey of the artist. Here goes…
Call to adventure – the desire to paint, draw, hang leaves from the ceiling
Refusal of the Call – society says “get a haircut and a real job”. Hero says “I’d love to paint but I also like to eat”.
Supernatural Aid – Gandalf or Dumbledore appears in the form of an art mentor and gives the artist a push in the right direction.
Crossing the First Threshold – artist quits their grey office job/beer-slinging job to take art more seriously, i.e.: leaving the Shire.
Belly of the Whale – the artist is plunged into the dark murky depth of real danger where he is stripped of his familiar, safe identity and thrown up on some unknown shore utterly vulnerable and experiences real fear for the first time. He’s not a bus driver, lawyer, accountant anymore – he’s chosen to do what people perceive as a retirement hobby and is unceremoniously lumped in with grannies who make toilet roll doylies and crocheted booties.
The Road of Trials – a very VERY long road for the artist, full of impending financial doom, questing for the holy grail of an as-yet-unclaimed unique style, niche and brand, going into battle with fine art competitions presided over by an aristocracy of art critics, handling a LOT of rejection, warring with your artistic truth and the desperate need for an income on a daily basis, offering up your soul at the Gallery altar, handling more rejection, working for free and accepting humiliating deals, hand-making badges and bookmarks till 3am and still trying to stay competitive with the Reject Shop, questioning your inner resolve while struggling to maintain the Herculean effort of chipping away at the monumental, never-ending task of perfecting the skills of your craft.
Meeting with the Goddess – this represents the fostering of a partnership with the divine feminine aspect, Galadriel or Princess Leia symbolizes this in contemporary literature. For the artist, perhaps it is a connection to a higher order, channelling the feminine aspects of inspiration, intuition, sensitivity and creativity into the art process. Yes, getting in touch with your feminine side!
Temptation – for an artist who is developing a style and unique subject matter, the constant pressure to compromise in some way is a daily battle. Lack of income can lead to commercial decisions taking precedence over the inherent virtue of the work and you end up painting things that are as exciting to you as washing dishes. The temptation of a proper pay check can literally drive you mad!
Atonement with the Hero’s Father – the father figure represents the prevailing power structure whose approval you need to gain or overthrow in order to succeed. In the artist’s case Darth Vader may well be the Almighty Gallery, or it could be an inner authority that has ultimate power over you and your work.
Apotheosis – after defeating the Balrog, the artist transcends to a higher state of being with a profound new wisdom and perspective and is transformed into Gandalf the White! Gandalf and Obi-Wan’s old selves have died and been reborn into a pure state ready for the ultimate self-sacrifice and the final showdown. The artist’s old persona, has finally carked it and he is now initiated into the Art Brotherhood. Incidentally the Art Brotherhood tend to dress in black not white and wear eye makeup and piercings and say “you know” and “like”, “sense of place” and “juxtaposition” a lot.
The Ultimate Boon – victory is gained in the form of the artist’s rise to success or incredible magnum opus. The Death Star has been destroyed and the artist and art are one and have become an invincible warrior.
Refusal of the Return – in this heightened state of bliss when we have reached enlightenment, it is very difficult to consider going back to the humdrum. An artist may have had their Ted Talk moment of fame, or their 100,000th like on Instagram or reached the exhilarating heights of finishing a series of works that have achieved an ultimate goal and now they have to go back to the beginning.
Magic Flight – Frodo and Sam fly back home on a giant eagle. The artist perhaps gets the free ride from the Ted Talk promotion or an Oprah appearance, or simply the acknowledgement that at last they have moved on from crocheted booties.
Rescue from Without – just as Darth Vader had to leap in and help Luke Skywalker defeat the Emperor, the artist cannot finalise this journey without help, often from an entity which initially rejected them.
Return – there is hesitation at the threshold as the hero considers the reintegration back into the ‘real’ world. The artist has evolved since the beginning of the journey. Now they return as a master.
Master of Two Worlds – The fully qualified Jedi artist has now conquered their own fear and overcome every hurdle and can exist in both the external and the internal world at peace. The world is rainbows, puppy dogs and sunshine.
Freedom to Live – Aragorn is crowned the rightful king which signifies the end of the struggle. The master artist will impart wisdom to others and generally lead a fulfilled life never again having to make bookmarks till 3am.
Perhaps a little sketchy in some areas, but this sums up the outline of the Hero’s Journey. In the next few posts I will write about my own personal experience with some of these stages (obviously not all the stages as I am a long way from becoming a Jedi master). It should prove to be an entertaining read. My journey to Mt Doom as an artist has been an eventful tale full of many ambushes from Orcs and for some reason, which I’m pretty miffed about, neither Gandalf nor Obi Wan ever showed up.