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The Heroine with a Thousand Faces

In one of the classes I took as sophomore in college, the assigned reading material included The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. It was March, 1976 when the class turned its focus to that particular work. Note the date. Star Wars came out fourteen months later. Naturally George Lucas was often asked during interviews what creative works had influenced him. High on the list was The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I have to wonder if I would have appreciated Campbell’s landmark endeavor as fully if I had come to it as part of keeping up with what “everyone was talking about.” There was some satisfaction in having become acquainted with the book while it was still a treat to be discovered.

As it was, it hit me at just the right time, in a context that promoted reflection, analysis, and intellectual camaraderie. The book spoke to me. It was revelatory. I immediately saw that a lot of the sort of fiction I’d been favoring over the previous decade fit the archetype he was elucidating. I had by then been writing for half a decade and it was equally obvious that much of what I was (attempting to) write likewise fit into those parameters.

Except not quite.

A part and parcel of Campbell’s construct — let’s call it The Hero’s Journey — is that it’s something men do. While he doesn’t go so far as to say women can’t do it, that may well be because it didn’t occur to him that the question even needed to be asked. From his perspective, it was a given that it was a male phenomenon.

To put it in a nutshell, the premise is this: A youth sets out from his context (in the book, this is called the “ordinary world”) into unfamiliar territory. He is confronted by various trials along the way, and suffers a number of defeats. He is given the help of a mentor (or a number of mentors) and allies may become involved, but at its heart, the process is all about the young man himself. He is the individual who manifests the ability, the strategy, the willpower, to eventually achieve a victory. At various points in the tale, destiny is referenced. Of course he wins in the end. He is always supposed to win, or that is to say, no enemy can defeat him as long as he manages to overcome his own doubt in himself.

And then, with victory a part of his résumé and bards singing about his deeds, he returns to his original context and serves as a leader and as an inspiration for the next generation of heroes.

I had a problem with the archetype as Campbell described it. Yes, it had meaning and relevance. Yes, the myth had been expressed in many cultures through recorded history, including some of the greatest works of early literature. Yes, Campbell was insightful and deserves pats on the back.

The problem? I didn’t want to write to formula. What Campbell spoke of struck me as just that, a formula.

Part of it was the male aspect. Even in my early twenties — though it is much more true of my late sixties — I sensed the flaw of telling a tale entirely from the perspective of the favored champion. The role of the youth who sets out from his ordinary content may at times be portrayed by a commoner lad from a small village, but he is nevertheless buoyed by a certain amount of privilege. If he makes progress toward his goal, that is seen as legitimate. He is given credit for it. To use a saying I had never heard uttered back in 1976, he gets to “own it.”

Put a female into the signature role, and the substitution doesn’t quite work. If the writer is being realistic, at the very least things get complicated. She may be just as capable as a male counterpart, but her accomplishments may not be acknowledged the same way.

And right there we have the beginning of what I wanted to explore as an author, which is not the classic formula, but the variations.

Inevitably I found myself, story by story and chapter by chapter, exploring the alternatives. The most obvious of course was to proceed with having a female in the hero role, and explore the extra challenges she faced, but even that wasn’t enough for me. Plus, in some respects I felt that sort of story should for the most part be left to the wave of up-and-coming female fantasy writers with whom I broke into the publishing industry. I wanted to cover the ground broadly, and see just how much I could mess with Campbell’s tidiness while still retaining enough of the essence he had identified, and in so doing retain the power of the archetype.

One of the key parts of “messing with” the model was to concoct a scenario I sometimes call The Heroine’s Journey.

In Campbell’s version, the youth sets out from his context, gains insight and strength and the allegiance of a set of allies, and then comes back to contribute to his original setting and its denizens.

In The Heroine’s Journey, a young woman stays put. She remains in her context. Her means of success is not to overpower enemies and be raised to a pedestal of renown. She operates in a different mode. She persuades. She forms bonds with those around her. Her power, when it manifests, is not dominance, but the shaping of the context itself. Those around may not even realize all that she’s done. She may not get credit for it, and doesn’t need to. What matters to her is that things get better — and they will, as long as she succeeds in overcoming her self-doubts, much in the way the greatest enemy the hero faces in his own story is an equivalent sort of doubt.

Two journeys. Multiple modes. And by the way, just as it is valid to substitute a female into the heart of The Hero’s Journey, it’s fair to place a male in The Heroine’s Journey. I enjoy the mixing and matching. It would be awful to have to keep telling a story the same way every time, with characters that add up to little beyond a gaggle of the usual suspects. I’d rather have fun.

The “heroine” photograph at the top is copyrighted by Buyanskyy Dmytro. Used by agreement via Depositphotos. Further use requires the permission of the rights holder.




5 thoughts on “The Heroine with a Thousand Faces”

  1. Interesting. Lois McMaster Bujold came up with a different version of the heroine’s journey, based on the fact that in most traditional cultures women are exogamous (they leave home when they marry). Her version of the heroine’s journey had the heroine going forth, like the hero, but never coming back. Instead the heroine builds a place for herself with her new family/culture/whatever.

    Being LMB, she didn’t stick to writing by formula either, but I think Cordelia’s Honor and Barrayar would form a ‘classic’ heroine’s journey by her definition

  2. Hmmm. As I see it, the “coming back home” part is an essential component. I am one of those people who doesn’t see the end of the journey in The Lord of the Rings as the moment when the One Ring gets tossed into the volcano. The end of the journey is the Scouring of the Shire.

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