Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, is outlined in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Drawn from his studies of comparative mythology and Jungian psychology, the Hero’s Journey has become a foundation myth of modern culture. The hero, generally young and vigorous, sets off into the unknown to battle antagonistic forces and returns transformed, a hero and guide to his people.
As Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
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.
The Hero’s Journey has served as the go-to template for Hollywood screenwriters and bestselling novelists. We see this mythic pattern of the conquering male hero played over and over again in popular culture. Think Luke Skywalker in the original 1977 Star Wars—or any protagonist in a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg movie. Creative writing teachers encourage their students to pattern their story arcs on the Hero’s Journey to give a sense of archetypal depth and resonance. But this technique has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché. A deeply sexist cliché.
Campbell drew his monomyth primarily from classical Greek mythology, which evolved in one of the most misogynist eras of history. Women appear as either the disempowered chattels of men (mothers, daughters, wives, damsels in distress) or—if they have any power or agency—as the evil temptress/witch/monster that the hero must defeat. These Greek myths evolved in a time when being a hero meant taking up arms, subjugating other peoples, and burning your enemy’s city to the ground.
Campbell, who was born in 1904 and died in 1987, was not only patriarchal in his outlook but apparently willfully ignorant of the fact that women might want to set off on their own journeys and be the protagonist, not the helpmeet. When his student, Maureen Murdock, questioned him about where women fit into his monomyth, he replied, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
In response to this, Maureen Murdock wrote her watershed book The Heroine’s Journey: Women’s Quest for Wholeness, first published in 1990.
In the Heroine’s Journey, Murdock explores the cyclical nature of female experience. As screenwriter Jill Soloway observes, “If the Hero’s Journey was an arc, it increasingly became apparent to me that the Heroine’s Journey was a circle.”
Murdock also describes that the Heroine’s Journey, in patriarchal culture, is much more complicated than the Hero’s Journey, as she must battle the sexism of the dominant culture, as well as her internal assumptions of what women can or should do.
Murdock, a Jungian analyst, envisioned her Heroine’s Journey as a quest that culminates in the heroine healing the wounded masculine and reconciling the masculine and feminine within her own psyche. “The final stage of The Heroine’s Journey is the Sacred Marriage of the Masculine and Feminine, the hieros gamos,” Murdock writes.
This is a concept that some feminists and non-Jungians may find as dated and unhelpful as Campbell’s original male-centric monomyth. Why is it women’s work to heal the wounded masculine and why is this inner reconciliation symbolized as a hetero marriage? Is this relevant imagery for our 21st century world?
Recent cinematic adaptations of the Heroine’s Journey take it in another direction entirely. In popular films such as Wonder Woman, Brave, Hunger Games, etc., women and girls at last have agency and drive the action. But there are clichés here, too. These heroines are inevitably young and beautiful, physically healthy and victorious. They wield weapons and brute force as skillfully as their male peers. Think of She-Achilles in a sexy corset battling zombie armies.
What would the Heroine’s Journey look like if it truly reflected our authentic, lived experience as women and girls today? And if it was conceived wholly from a female reference point and not derivative of the work of men like Campbell or Jung?
In her book Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun observes how both biographers and autobiographers have suppressed the truth about lived female experience to force it to conform to society’s script of how a woman’s life should be. Heilbrun even mentions Margery Kempe, the first person to write an autobiography in English and also the heroine of my new novel, Revelations.
Margery’s Heroine’s Journey started not when she was in the bloom of youth but amid the disillusionment of midlife. She was forty, a desperate housewife, a failed business woman, a mother of fourteen, and trapped in an abusive marriage. Marital rape was her lived reality and a fifteenth child might have killed her. She seized back control by setting off on the perilous pilgrim’s path to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. In era when women were subject to forced marriage and forced childbirth, she literally walked away from it all. She could have chosen the safer option by fleeing her husband in order to enter the cloistered life as a vowess, but instead she chose the open road with all its adventures and perils, thus forging her own way, a Via Feminina.
It’s soul-destroying for a woman to force herself to conform to someone else’s script or template. Every heroine embarks on her own unique quest and enters terra incognita. She has no choice but to draw her own map and blaze her own trail. Later, when she returns, she can share her authentic story as a guide for other women.
On May 13, I’ll be teaming up with Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts to offer a mini-retreat centered on the Via Feminina as mirrored in the lives of the mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. You can learn more here.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.