The monomyth inside Heidi

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Quite a while ago in my ongoing thread on storytelling, I told you about a fascinating theory that all stories (or at least all good and lasting stories) are really at some deep level the same story, because that is how we humans seem to be wired. This meta-story is the so-called monomyth. The idea goes back to Carl Jung’s ideas about archetypes but was made popular by Joseph Campbell.

Well, I was just reading Heidi to my daughter, in the original (Swiss) German. Don’t think that you can ever get too old for good children’s stories. We both had moist eyes at the end, but mine were moister.

What struck me is that Johanna Spyri’s great and simple and timeless tale is really, you guessed it, another version of the monomyth. So indulge me, please, as I “translate” the plot and characters of Heidi into the nomenclature of the monomyth. (Archetypes are in italics.) Here goes:

  • Heidi is, obviously, the hero–ie, heroine. She is a different hero than, say, Achilles or Odysseus, of course. She is an orphan, and thus the archetype of the vulnerable part in each of us. Her less-than-warm aunt wants to get rid of her and drags her up an Alp to the hut where Heidi’s cranky grandfather, or Öhi, lives.
  • We stay with our hero just long enough to become part of the scene and characters so that we never want Heidi (or ourselves) to have to leave. Heidi befriends Peter and they have fun herding the goats. Heidi thaws Öhi’s heart and he falls in love with her. Heidi brightens the darkness of a blind woman nearby whom she calls grandmother. Even the goats are besotted. Oh please, we readers want to scream, let nothing ever change!
  • But the monomyth kicks in: There is a call to adventure, which Heidi, like many heroes, tries to refuse. But go she must. A rich family in Frankfurt has a sweet daughter in a wheelchair who needs a companion. Heidi’s nasty aunt, smelling money, has already sealed the deal.
  • As our hearts break along with everybody’s else’s (even the little orphan goat’s), Heidi sets off and crosses several thresholds. These are physical, such as the descent from her Alp, the arrival in Frankfurt and the crossing of her new home’s threshold. Thresholds are reminders of liminality. We are on edge.
  • Heidi has now, willy nilly, accepted her call to adventure. She meets other archetypes. There is Fräulein Rottenmeier, the annoying (and annoyed) spinster who looks after Heidi’s charge, and who seems to be the anima, ie the dangerous woman who must be overcome. Heidi meets her new friend Clara, her ally. She meets Clara’s father, the understanding, powerful and sympathetic Wise Old Man.
  • Heidi overcomes adversity and trials. To everybody’s surprise, she learns to read, thus obtaining a boon to society (in addition to the boon of her presence). She is lonely and so homesick that she sleepwalks at night.
  • With the help of the Wise Old Man (Clara’s father, once he understands that Heidi sleepwalks out of sadness), Heidi returns from her quest. She passes the thresholds (and her liminal state) again, in the other direction.
  • She arrives home, and brings the boon of her quest back, thus completing the monomythical definition of a hero. She makes life worth living again for Öhi, for grandmother (to whom is now able to read books aloud!), for Peter and the goats. Oh, and for us.

Simple, universal, powerful: great story-telling!

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