As an anthropologist specializing among other things in myth and folk literature, and as a writer who has sat on many a con panel on myth, fairy tales, quest stories and the like, I often have to wrassle the monsters Monomyth, Universal Archetype, and their lesser-known littermates, who have been spawned by Joseph Campbell and other Jung-influenced writers.
The monomyth, a word Campbell took from James Joyce, is essentially a proposed universal structure underlying the hero’s journey, with phases that include The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, Crossing the Threshold (into the magical realm), and so on. What’s wrong with the monomyth? There’s no doubt that pieces of it are found not only in a huge percentage of fantasy fiction, but also in widely scattered mythic and folk literary traditions all over the world.
However. Is it universal?
Methodologically, what both Campbell and Jung have done is cherry-picking, and often from texts that have already been translated and/or rewritten to conform to Western notions of what makes a satisfying story. Let me start with an example of the latter.
You can find online a tale called “The Indian Cinderella” taken from a book called Canadian Wonder Tales by Cyrus Macmillan. Geez, it really does resemble the classic Cinderella story! Macmillan’s source was a tome by Charles Leland of seeming scholarly authenticity, called The Algonquin Legends of New England, first published in 1884 and reprinted by Dover a couple of times over the last 25 years. There, the story is titled “The Invisible One,” and Leland cites his source, Silas Rand’s Legends of the Micmacs. Rand was a missionary and scholar who lived among the Micmac, and he collected his version in the Micmac language from one of his parishioners–in the 1860s, if my memory is serving me correctly. His version was originally titled “The invisible boy: Team’ and Oochigeaskw.” (I don’t think it is online anywhere.)
Many changes in language and structure took place as the story was progressively re-anthologized. The biggest single change is that Leland’s version left off the whole second half of Rand’s original English translation. Now, one widespread formal characteristic of North American indigenous literature is that stories often have two halves, with the second one being a commentary or reflection on the events of the first. The half of the story that has been anthologized and cited as proof that the Cinderella story is to be found everywhere does indeed have a despised heroine who nevertheless wins the most desirable husband; she proves to be the only one who can see what the great hunter with the spirit power of invisibility is carrying. This half is about acquiring. But the second, omitted half of the story is about what happened next: the hunter with spirit power dies, and first the “Cinderella” girl and then the sister of the hunter, through carelessness, violating taboos, etc., manage to lose everything. This was the point of the story to the original story teller–the importance of proper behavior with respect to the spirit world–not the happy Cinderella ending.
The Cinderella version is much more satisfying to Leland and Macmillan’s intended audiences and, we could presume, to them as well. But it wasn’t what the original story was about. This kind of rewriting is more the norm than the exception when Native American traditional stories get anthologized, and I would bet it happens with other non-Western traditions as well. Stories that can’t be wrestled into a satisfying pattern don’t tend to even make it into the anthologies. Everyone knows some version of the Frog Prince story, right? On the north Pacific coast a widespread story has a high-ranking girl, who has refused all suitors. insulting a frog or toad. Then she meets a most handsome young man and goes away with him, vanishing from the sight of her people. Later two small frogs/toads come hopping into her father’s town and for one reason or another, according to the version, are clubbed to death because they aroused human disgust. They prove to be the girl’s sons; the handsome prince actually was a frog. The Native story is a tragedy not a romance, and the lesson is about the importance of treating even frogs with respect.
What about non-Western heroic quests? This post is getting long, and I’ll continue on that topic next time. The short version is, even stories that seem familiar might be about something quite different.