I think one of the reasons the hero’s journey is so popular in our culture, and arguably in most cultures, is that we inherently recognize that in our lives, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Once the hero reaches his destination, the story ends.
When I was in my English Education program at UGA, one of my classmates introduced me to Joseph Campbell. I can’t remember the particulars anymore, only that Greg mentioned Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers, which became The Power of Myth.
Greg was one of most well-read people I’d met up until that point, and I respected his intellect. Out of curiosity, I purchased a copy of The Power of Myth. As a fan of Star Wars and Tolkien, I was drawn to Campbell’s ideas.
Many years later, my department chair asked us to dream up possible English electives, and my first idea was to create a course based on the monomyth and the work of Joseph Campbell. My department chair and principal approved the course based on the description I wrote. I titled the course “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” after Campbell’s seminal work.
Regular readers of this blog know that backward design informs my teaching and planning. Therefore, I created essential questions not just for each text, but also for the course:
- How is the pattern of the monomyth demonstrated by various cultures around the world in various time periods?
- How do archetypes inform our understanding of literature and the world?
- How are the Hero, his/her quest, and his/her ideals still valid and useful in today’s world?
- How has the monomyth been influential in shaping subsequent literature and film?
I begin the course with a WebQuest to help acquaint students with Campbell and his work. Next, I divide students into three groups, and each group reads a section of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Because I don’t have the option of assigning summer reading, and we need to hit the ground running so we can study several texts over the course of a semester, I have found that simply dividing the section of that book that discusses the hero’s journey into thirds—the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return—the work of learning about the hero’s journey can be accomplished more quickly. Each group reads the section of Campbell’s book dealing with their assignment and teaches the information to the class. Last semester’s Return group made great use of video to teach their section.
After students understand the basics, we move on to the texts. Campbell’s two books The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth serve as foundation texts. We also study the original Star Wars trilogy. No other modern work, with the exception of Harry Potter or possibly The Matrix, is mentioned so often in conjunction with Campbell’s work. George Lucas has said that he wanted to create a monomyth after reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the idea seems to have caught fire in Hollywood since then. Campbell’s famous interview with Bill Moyers took place on Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. Another work I felt important to include is The Hobbit. I felt that The Lord of the Rings in either book or movie form would be a bit too long for a one semester course, but obviously that work is a great choice. The Hobbit contains the hero’s journey in a more abbreviated form. Aside from these works, I have also taught The Iliad. In future iterations of the course, we will instead read shorter Greek/Roman/Norse/Celtic myths that conform more closely to the hero’s journey. Achilles, after all, spends most of The Iliad stuck in the “Refusal of the Call” phase of the journey. One could argue Hector is much more heroic, and certainly medieval scholars must have agreed—he was chosen as one of the Nine Worthies, whereas Achilles was not. I have purchased a set of The Ramayana, but never managed to get to it. It is a one semester class, and the Jewish holidays often hit us pretty hard in September/October. I have to seriously curtail reading homework during that time period, which makes it hard to get through texts (also an excellent time for film study of Star Wars).
The course has proven fairly popular. The first year, eight brave students signed up. A few of them really enjoyed the course. One of them recently visited me to tell me he had been accepted to college (he took a year off after graduation), and to tell me he was watching Star Wars with his brother the other day, and kept talking about what part of the hero’s journey Luke was currently experiencing as they watched. As he said, “Oh, now they’re in the Belly of the Whale.” I am delighted that he will not be able to watch a movie again without seeing this additional layer of meaning. Before he left, he thanked me “for a great class.”
This year, the class was full, and I understand quite a few interested students were turned away, as the class was capped at 15 students. A student in my class last semester drew a Venn diagram to help his fellow students understand the prominence of the Hero’s Journey. The diagram has only one circle instead of two. The diagram is titled “Stories that follow the Hero’s Journey.” Inside the circle are the words “All Stories Ever.” I really like the idea that as a result of taking this course, students see this common story in a new light.
My friend Greg, the one who introduced me to Joseph Campbell, was killed in action in Iraq in April 2004 when his truck convoy was ambushed outside Abu Ghraib. Greg was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal for his bravery—he saved the lives of ten other soldiers before being killed. I know Greg had a deep understanding, perhaps better than most, of the sacrifices a hero must sometimes make for his people. He would have been pleased, had he lived, to learn about this course. He told me once he thought every English teacher should teach Campbell. I teach Campbell because I think his work is important and helps students put so much of their culture into perspective, but it’s a fitting tribute to Greg’s memory, too.
Here you can find a list of links I use in teaching this course or that I just find helpful and have shared with students (or just use for myself):
- Joseph Campbell Scavenger Hunt
- A very cool poster of the Hero’s Journey
- “How Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, and Harry Potter Are Actually the Same Movie “
- A Brief Study of the Hero Quest in Modern Stores (YouTube video)
- The Matrix—Joseph Campbell Monomyth
“For we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us.”—Joseph Campbell
*For more discussion of this essay, see this previous post.
Update: This post used to contain documents I use with the course. I will post the documents again on a future post. A plugin I used to use made them unavailable to users.