Secular Storytelling

Why writers should move beyond The Hero’s Journey

Storytelling is a wonderful platform to share a message. Instead of making an argument through writing an essay, a story can place the reader in a scenario where they can empathize with characters and become emotionally involved in the message the author wants to convey. Entertainment is at its best when the story has meaning, but ever since Joseph Campbell and George Lucas hooked up to cross-promote each other’s work—Campbell using the popularity of Star Wars to boost his mono-myth theory of mythology and Lucas using the Hero’s Journey to lend a sense of intellectual credibility to his popcorn space adventure flicks—Hollywood has been obsessed with churning out cookie-cutter Campbellian scripts that follow the Hero’s Journey formula. The formula does more than just stifle creativity, it contains a framework which will nearly always produce the same message, one based in pre-Enlightenment thinking that hero’s are born not made, humans require rule from divinity, and problems can only be resolved through spiritual metamorphosis. I say it’s time to let go of this Eurocentric, often misogynistic writing formula and mystical view of the world and begin celebrating the humanist ideals from the age of reason through the art of storytelling.

Let’s compare the mono-myth poster child, Star Wars, with the ode to secular humanism that is Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. It should be said that I’m a big fan of both these series. But when Lucas and Campbell told us to take the Star Wars Saga seriously, as a means of finding deep truth, that’s when I become critical of the story. Star Wars is a great space adventure and highly entertaining, but when it comes to being a model for journeying through life, it’s a giant step back into the dark ages.

When you take a close look at the meaning behind the world of Star Wars, you quickly notice it is one rule by theocracy. Whether it’s the ‘dark side’ of the Sith or the ‘light side’ of the Jedi, those who rule do so by divine right. Luke Skywalker is our hero because it’s his birthright; he was born into the royal bloodline of the Knighthood. You can’t simply work hard to become a Jedi, you need to be born one. The purpose of the common man, like Han Solo, is to serve and protect those of royal blood, like Luke and Leia. Luke is our savior not because he practiced hard to become good with a targeting computer, but because he has privileged access to divine powers. This is all good fun when used simply as escapism, but as David Brin points out in “Star Wars despots vs. Star Trek populists” the message behind Star Wars is one of anti-democratic, elitist ideals.

Star Trek is great escapism too, but if you wish to draw greater meaning from it you’ll find a forward-facing philosophy based in secular humanism where all humans are created equal and their greatness is based on their own merits, free from dogma and the supernatural. James T. Kirk wasn’t given command of the Enterprise through birthright; he earned the title of Captain through his own talent and hard work. The Federation set out on its mission of exploration not by sending lone knights out into the galaxy, but by organizing into cooperative crews who rely on one another to succeed. Roddenberry’s vision for humanity was a future centered on democracy and rationality. This message is far more useful to modern life than the backward-looking theocracy of that galaxy far far away.

In addition to Star Wars, another saga often identified as an example of “modern myth” is J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But, again, the messages found in this tale are anything but helpful in creating a free, modern society. Instead of Jedi, the humans of Middle Earth are ruled by kings, and those kings are subject to the watchful eyes of wizards and immortals. The Ringwraths are the worst examples of how humans should behave; they desire the power of the ring, a man-made object which bestows power to mortal man. How dare they seek the knowledge to become equals with their divine rulers? I reference David Brin again as he points out in his article, “J.R.R. Tolkien – Enemy of Progress”, how the trilogy romanticizes monarchy and privileged knowledge:

“…pain and damnation await any mortal whose ambition aims too high. Don’t try putting on the trappings or emblems or powers that rightfully belong to your betters. Above all, don’t try to decipher and redistribute mysteries.”

There is, however, a more recent “modern-myth” fantasy saga which does indeed promote post-Enlightenment ways. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series uses modern day witches and wizards to go against the idea that a special class of elites is entitled to rule based on bloodlines. The protagonists fight for the idea that both non-magical humans (muggles), witches and wizards born in non-magical families (muggle-borns), and those who grew up completely in the magical world (pure-bloods) are all equal, against the antagonists who believing the pure-bloods deserve to rule over what they consider to be lower class people. There is an emphasis throughout the books that it takes more than supernatural ability to succeed, as is demonstrated in the first book when Hermione and Harry need to pass the sixth barrier to the Philosopher’s Stone. The barrier tests their ability to reason and not their ability to use magic, “’Brilliant,’ said Hermione. ‘This isn’t magic – it’s logic – a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.’” This is far from the romanticizing of classism and divine power contained in the mythic journeys of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

The Harry Potter series is often analyzed as another example of the Hero’s Journey in action. However, I find that the series exposes the major weaknesses in the Hero’s Journey theory of storytelling. It reveals the model for what it is—-a series of generalizations so vague that it can be made to fit nearly any adventure story. The seven book series, with a combined 4000+ pages, has enough content that one could find almost any desired pattern in its over 900 000 words. You can find multiple examples in it from the list of Hero’s Journey ingredients, but so many as to become meaningless as a useful formula. Harry Potter contains trials, supernatural aid, many magical mentors, and many thresholds to be crossed because that’s what an adventure story is. The one element that the Hero’s Journey contains which makes it anything more than just a list of common adventure story traits is also the one element the Harry Potter series lacks; a spiritual metamorphosis. Harry doesn’t undergo any spiritual transcendence during his seven year journey through Hogwarts.

Harry’s core traits remain the same from beginning to end. He doesn’t transform himself or his beliefs in order to resolve the conflict of the series. From the very beginning and throughout all seven books, he is willing to sacrifice his life to protect those he loves. He never has to come to this through revelation. What prepares him for this purpose isn’t faith, in fact, he is inspired to set out to do what he was always willing to do—-give up his life—-not by taking a leap of faith but by learning the missing pieces of information in a puzzle and receiving evidence (Snape’s memories) that what he’s planning to do really is the right solution. In his world, with magical laws of physics, the removal of the piece of Voldemort’s soul from his own is no more a spiritual transformation than would be the surgical removal of unwanted growth. It doesn’t change him, it’s simply another physical task that needs to take place—-all the Horcruxes need to be destroyed, and Harry just happens to be one of several. When this is done, Harry’s spirit isn’t changed; he’s still the brave, self-sacrificing Gryffindor from the first book. The only changes are ‘physical’ traits (in the magical sense)…he’s no longer a Horcrux, he’s no longer a Parselmouth, and he no longer has a psychic connection with Voldermort. He never feared death and he never becomes master of two worlds. To apply the Hero’s Journey to Harry is to miss the real message of the series: how to deal with death.

Harry Potter is not a tale of a mystic warrior seeking union with the divine. It’s a story that makes an argument about the role of death in our lives and does so by illustrating the differences between the Potter family and the Riddle family. Harry and his parents are willing to accept death because they value life. Harry’s mother sacrifices her life out of love for her son so he can live. Voldermort, aka Tom Riddle, is left orphaned by his mother because she lets herself die over the grief that his father left them. This illustrates the important difference between Harry’s mother, willing to die for her son, and Tom’s mother, not willing to live for her son. The picture Rowling portrays through the story is that the good characters will risk death to protect the lives of others, while the evil ones risk the lives of others to protect themselves. It is Voldemort, not Harry, who seeks spiritual transcendence beyond the mortal world (by, you knowgoing on a murderous rampage to split his soul into seven pieces). As writer Jim Hull points out in “Not Everything Is A Hero’s Journey”,

“There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis. Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don’t.”

Harry doesn’t have to transform his worldview in order to complete his story.

Although Star Trek is one of the best examples of storytelling promoting secular humanist ideals—-ways of thinking which are critical to human flourishing—-you don’t have to confine yourself to science-fiction, as I believe Harry Potter demonstrates. Fantasy adventures, even if they have supernatural elements, can convey messages about humanism and critical thinking if the deeper meaning of the story isn’t preoccupied with mysticism. We hang onto to stories about heroes born ‘the chosen one’ and immortals with divine power because we yearn to feel special and to have the comfort of higher powers watching over us. It’s fine to have these tales to innocently escape to, but if we’re going use stories to help us create a map for living we need to grow up and look to forms of storytelling which teach us the values of reason, humanism, and secular thinking.

8 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention There Are Four Lights » Blog Archive » Secular Storytelling -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Youngblood and Daniel Loxton, Sara E. Mayhew. Sara E. Mayhew said: Secular Storytelling – Why writers should move beyond The Hero’s Journey […]

  2. badengineer Says:

    Well reasoned post, and I agree with most of it. But while LOTR does have a lot of that divine right, I think it stands out for two reasons: 1) the hero is not of noble birth and is not transformed into nobility or a divinity. His strength was one of character, not birth. And 2) the quest is to get rid of power, rather than find it. That alone, I think, sets it aside from most other tales.

    Course then there is Firefly …

  3. Sara E.M. Says:

    Right. Another example of how the Hero’s Journey fails as a useful model. The parts that don’t fit are ignored.

    If you read David Brin’s LotR article linked in the post I think you’ll find he was arguing that the fact the power of the ring was evil is something that carries an anti-Elightenment message. One could view it as a group of elites (kings, wizards, elves) using a common man (Frodo) to destroy something which threatens their establishment. That view doesn’t have so much to do with the Hero’s Journey as it does the premise that if you’re going to interpret a message from the story it can be one which romanticizes monarchy.

  4. Carl Says:

    Couple of comments:

    1. You say that Star Wars represents a theocracy, but the main difference here is that the “god” (aka the Force) of this reality is unequivocally real. The Jedi can demonstrate their supernatural abilities under scientifically valid conditions, so it’s a very different kettle of fish to our world. Sure, Force ability might be genetically determined, and that might seem unfair, but so is being able to run fast or play chess at a genius level. And like our real world, these abilities still have to be honed through practice and dedication in order to fully utilise them, so character, environment and guidance all come into play. So this is nothing like the heredity of kings, or the perversion of a privileged theocracy here on Earth. I guess I’m just not sure what your point is here. I think you’re right on the money for Lord of the Rings (which has always kind of bothered me), but not so much for Star Wars.

    2. Regarding Harry Potter, one aspect of those stories that seems to go against what you’re saying is the sorting of students into houses based on presumed character. It always seemed to me to be a bad idea to pigeon-hole kids like that, and a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. Everyone likes to think that they’d be a Gryffindor, or maybe a Ravenclaw, but if you found yourself cast into Slytherin, where everyone expects you to be a power-hungry, unethical bastard, you’d feel pretty pre-judged and hardly likely to want to “rise above” those expectations.

    But yes, other than that (and the absurdity of the Quidditch rules), Harry Potter is a great example of secular values of reason over superstition and character over entitlement. Which is why it’s so annoying when certain atheists can’t see past the fantasy elements and decry it for leading kids into magical thinking. That’s just idiotic, IMHO.


  5. Sara E.M. Says:

    Whether or not the force is real is irelevant. It’s the fact that a privileged class dominates based on their claim to divine power.

    With Potter, there’s a lot people miss if they only see the films. There are references made to a person’s choice when being sorted. Regardless, the sorting into houses is done to show them all joining together as one school on various occasions and most especially at the final battle. Rowling separates them so that she can make a point to join them together in the end.

  6. Carl Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I think it matters a lot whether or not it’s true. If we had evidence that God/Allah existed and than the Ayatollah was blessed with a rare gift of being able to communicate with Him, then I’d be a lot more positive about the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example. It might annoy me that only a privileged few had this gift, but no more than it annoys me now that only a privileged few are blessed with other gifts that I don’t have.

    And besides, in the case of Star Wars, the Jedi don’t actually have political power — the democratic Senate rules things, so the Jedi do not “dominate”. They are more like a police force, or a diplomatic protection service. And real police forces have physical and mental standards that they require of their candidates, so why not the Jedi?

    Thanks for the discussion.

  7. Greg Says:

    Another virtue of Harry Potter is that although superficially about magic, the underlying mechanisms are meritocratic and scientific.

    Hogwarts exists to educate students about consistent, replicable, teachable phenomena. Those students who excel, such as Hermione and the Half-Blood Prince, are those who research, work, experiment, refine, and record. Those who attempt to coast on bloodlines e.g. the Malfoys find themselves caught ill-prepared in events run byt he prepared.

  8. Jim Says:

    Great post! Thanks.

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