Why Do Humans Tell The Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Three)

Much has been written about “the hero’s journey” as an underlying structure in contemporary storytelling -- one that is explicitly evoked by many working in the industry, from George Lucas’s open acknowledgement of the insights he drew from Joseph Campbell to the use of these concepts in many of the most widely used books on screenwriting. What do you see as the use value of “the hero’s journey” as a tool for authors in structuring contemporary stories? As a means for audiences to interpret and make sense of contemporary stories?

The “hero’s journey” is both a tool for the authors in structuring the story and a means by which the audience can interpret this narrative formula and benefit from it. It is through the use of this tool, the “journey” – essentially a ritual mechanism – that the two groups meet, as the Initiating and the Initiands (to borrow Turner’s terms). Both the former and the latter need the knowledge encoded within this narrative paradigm.

It was Campbell who coined the phrase “hero’s journey” to represent what is one of the most effective dynamic templates in human culture. Rooted in ancient initiation rituals, the symbolic journey facilitates transformation, adjustment and growth. Its purpose is to aid a male youth in his transition from boy to man. Over time, this ritual-mythic narrative has expanded to embrace and stimulate a range of transformative experiences for people of all ages and genders.

Joseph Campbell wrote a magnificent book bringing attention to this timeless mythic-ritual narrative. Victor Turner too wrote about the Sacred Journey as a core of a ritual structure. The Journey remains capable of influencing contemporary societies, but does so by means of such genres as action-adventure, fairytale, fantasy, science fiction, and recently magic realism. As highlighted in Fictional Worlds, the symbolic journey has many goals; most importantly, the leapfrogging of knowledge.

The ritual-mythic Journey Story, with its balance between centrifugal (toward the World’s Edge) and centripetal (Homebound) movements, is proposed in Fictional Worlds as a modeling system of crucial importance to the symbolic construction of community. On the outward trajectory, the Hero explores the Unknown, encounters a boundless diversity of species and types of consciousness, and must grow rapidly in order to survive the journey-ordeal. On the Journey’s inward path, as the “reborn” and enlightened Hero makes his way back home, to unite with family, s/he must process these new experiences, extract vital information and evaluate how this new knowledge will impact the Homeworld. Essentially, fictional world-building is an attempt to fix the Homeworld, improving the life of its inhabitants by means of acquiring advanced knowledge obtained only through traveling the far-reaching external path.

While I admire Joseph Campbell’s books and always recommend them to my students, along with Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, I added quite a lot to their interpretation of the Journey. Campbell based his books on the studies in folklore and myth that were contemporary to him. His conceptions can now be effectively updated, given developments in anthropology, semiotics and narrative theory. I had an opportunity to add some vital ideas from a spectrum of thinkers to the Journey formulas, and proposed a 10-step breakdown of the Journey script (defending my ideas as a doctoral thesis in 1998).

Incidentally, in addition to The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, my personal favorites on-screen are Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Lord of the Rings. More experimental “drawings” on the Hero’s Journey narrative on-screen, which often avoid a simplistic “happy ending,” include: Port of Shadows, Casablanca, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Passage, as well as Antonioni’s The Passenger, and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev and Solaris.

Three points are highlighted in the approach towards the Journey paradigm in Fictional Worlds: (1) its transformative capacity; (2) its “astonishment” value, manifested in the unpredictable richness of the Wonderworld and its limitless opportunities granted through: magic, discoveries in Sci-Fi, or the journeying Hero’s wise choices; its alien-magic inhabitants; beguiling and maze-like landscapes; mysterious conscious or subconscious workings of the mind; fantastic, yet to be discovered, “natural laws”; and the many ways one can connect with the Unknown. And finally: (3) advanced knowledge as a story goal: both a gift to the community and a catalyst of progress.

While in Fictional Worlds I put a lot of effort into explaining a step-by-step script for an effective journey, a surprisingly large number of readers conveyed to me their acute interest also in the sections on failed journeys. Such “failures,” or stories falling flat, occur because of the flaws or mistakes of the hero, his author, or even their Homeworld.

Readers are aware of the fact that popular culture is overpopulated with fake heroes and recognize that media is oversaturated with cheap imitations of the Journey story. Dragons and zombies have been overworked and lost their evil appeal. Software makes it a breeze to create assembly lines of unimaginable beings (Men in Black), but often neither the monsters nor the authors know what they are doing in the story. The Initiands, sword-wielding or shooting from the hip, promptly destroy their enemies, but gain no wisdom and return without a message for community. The visual candy of special effects has been widely accepted as “the key points” of the story.

In the not-so-merry chaos of popular culture today, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “What are the vital and irreducible steps of the virtuoso transition from youth (Initiand) to responsible adult (the Initiated), embedded in the Heroic Journey myth?” Aspiring artists and game developers want to know what is missing from their scripts, what “can go wrong,” and which missteps to avoid in designing an innovative yet true to its purpose Journey World of their own. Writers and videogame designers, who are making scriptwriting choices and searching for effective narrative forms, will be rewarded by the audiences’ attention.

While watching stories or participating in games, modern-day audiences are already invested in the transformative journey. To make sense of contemporary stories, which employ the Hero’s Journey in open or subtle ways, audiences consciously or subconsciously focus on the story structure and its embedded transformative arc. In the best media examples, their identification with the Initiand is empathetic and profound. The hero could be an undercover agent, or a youth in a road movie, while the confusing circumstances and hard-to-read strangers may substitute for the symbolic maze of the Wonderworld and its magic populace. The crux of the matter is that the hero must face the unknown, be insightful and diplomatic, face pain, confront fears; then win and return as a transformed grown man, or an empowered confident woman; so too does the audience.

Many of my readers will associate myth-analysis with an approach which is timeless (ahistorical) and universal (not attentive to cultural differences). In what ways do you see your book as responding to these critiques of earlier mythic approaches to understanding contemporary media? What roles do history and cultural specificity play in your approach?

Yes, I agree with these critiques. The “dated” approach toward mythological symbols preceded many useful developments in functionalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism, which began to examine myth as a dynamic system, connected to historical change and manifesting diverse worldviews. I follow this set of methods.

Mythological symbols are a database, while ritual is like hitting the “enter” button and activating the system. Whether through performance, dance or storytelling, it was ritual action that had the capacity to set mythological images in motion. Ritual activates and reinforces mythic structures, while the latter empower ritual with their symbolic weight.

Take the Sun, for example. As soon as people viewed it as a mythic symbol, they asked: “Where is it going?” Action was needed. Humans said, “The Sun-god is moving across the sky to marry Mother-Earth and create life.” Thus we had a mythic narrative. As soon as we crystallize a key mythic symbol, we want to know: what is it doing; what is it good for; and what is its story. Behind any emerging symbol is a story need – to explain and empower the story; and so it comes.

Diverse cultures and eras would have their own take on the mythic symbol of the sun and the “sun story.” The Egyptian pharaohs and Louis the XIV would call themselves “the Sun.” Hence within these historic-symbolic systems no one would dare to make a mistake as to who the sun was. In Bolshevik Russia the revolution was the Sun. Japan called itself the Land of the Rising Sun, considering itself “closer” to this divinity than any other nation. In Fictional Worlds I discuss how solar worship influenced Homer’s Odyssey. All core mythic images of symbolic nature have the potential of “unfolding,” a latent narrative power.

Odysseus is also a mythic-symbolic character – the quintessential Journeying Man. In my book I show his reincarnations in literature and on-screen of many eras and cultures, conceived via their historic-symbolic systems. Fictional Worlds features dozens of versions of “Odysseus-Ulysses,” so different that some won’t even shake each other’s hand, should they meet. As these many portrayals of Ulysses demonstrate, mythic characters don’t remain the same through time. This is also true for myths themselves, which are not frozen symbols but defined by action/story and constantly changing meanings.

Mythological symbols change, and may be reinterpreted or altered. (Lotman opined that symbols unfold into stories). We may add that all (good!) stories tend to fold into symbols. Each influential story, i.e. those from the Bible, contains something dynamic: it crystallizes story into meaning.

Our (neo) mythological comprehension of the world has moved from the rational/conscious into the domains of culture: art and storytelling, including fictional world-building. We may find new root-metaphors as we learn more about how the world is made. We may choose to add new key mythic symbols – such as (devouring) Black Holes, neighborly or unfriendly Parallel Universes, or blissful Reversible Time – to the repertoire of established ones, which will generate numerous new stories.

Yet symbols are not merely symbols, but symbolic processes (Turner); often polysemantic and multi-directional, but in all their manifestations they are part of an up-to-date map of the world, a mirror of their time. In sum, I employ “myth” in Fictional Worlds as a part of a ritual-mythological mechanism, a symbolic process manifest through ritual narrative or performance. Each myth can have multiple interpretations, historically determined by socio-political circumstances and diversified when viewed through alternate cultural lenses. Comparing representations of the same or similar myths can be enriching as we can see how cultures create multiple “templates,” some of which lead their respective societies in the right direction to a new, productive historical phase.

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.