The monomyth inside Heidi

422px-heidi_titel

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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Grimm storytelling

Back to our story-telling thread. Why not take some of the most obviously great story-tellers in history and think about what made their stories so great? I think the most obvious two must be the Brüder Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. Perhaps I’m thinking of them first because I am re-reading them aloud a lot, in the original German, to my daughter these days.

They did not invent the stories they told. They collected and selected the folk tales that they heard all around them, rather as Homer narrated the legends that he grew up hearing. And that is the first interesting point about them. You don’t need to invent something completely new; instead, you need to tell something timeless in a new way. Indeed, if Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are right, then you can’t invent anything new, because there only are a few stories, or monomyths, which we tell again and again in different forms.

So what makes Schneewittchen (Snow White), Hänsel und Gretel, Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood), and the countless others–all of them with a Disney character, it seems–so enduring?

I’m going to try to answer that question, for the Grimm brothers and other story-tellers we’ll talk about, by using some of the ideas we’ve already tried on for size. If that doesn’t work in future posts, fine, we’ll adjust the framework. The point is to test these ideas.

Simplicity

By now you know that I consider simplicity the root of all genius and all beauty, whether we’re talking about Einstein or Brancusi or story-tellers. And the Grimm Märchen (fairy tales) are very simple. (But not simplistic.)

Momentum

The stories also all have have the kind of trajectory that Ira Glass describes. Recall that Glass talks about “portraying people at exactly human scale.” Well, Hänsel and Gretel are at extremely human scale–vulnerable, exposed, afraid, desperate. Like all of us, only more obviously so.

Glass then said that we immediately need a feeling that “something is about to occur”, that “things are heading in a direction”, that we “can’t get out” because we are trapped not with our “reason but emotion”. We know the wicked stepmother wants to get rid of them, by leaving them stranded in the dark forest. We see Hänsel’s first attempt to get back to safety, by dropping little pebbles, failing; we know that his second attempt, dropping bread crumbs which the birds will steal, is doomed. We’re along for the ride. We are now stranded in the dark forest.

And then the house: We know that the ginger bread and sugar windows are snares. Stay away! But they don’t. Then the witch. Now Hänsel is in the cage, to be fattened for the slaughter, with little Gretel to do the fattening….

Universality

But remember that Glass said that action for its own sake is not enough for a good story. It must be “action, action, action … and then thought!” There must be a recognition of the universal, otherwise the story is banal and loses us.

What is universal here? Quite a lot. In Jungian terms again, the characters are archetypes–that is, we already know them from our dreams and lives. The anima of the stepmother and witch; the Hero and Heroine who heed their call to adventure (Campbell’s terms), travel the road of trials, achieve the boon and self-knowledge, then return to the ordinary world in order to apply the boon.

Or, to put it in Glass’s terms, what is the thought? Is it that the world is full of people who can’t be trusted? I would call that the backdrop, the premise, the scene. But if that were all, my daughter and girls like her everywhere in all eras would not be glued to the story. No, the thought is that …

… Gretel discovers who she is!

The witch gets fed up and fires up the oven to roast Hänsel, and tells terrified Gretel to climb in to test that the heat is right for her brother. ‘I don’t know how to get in,’ says Gretel. ‘You stupid girl,’ croaks the witch, ‘you get in like this’–and climbs in herself. The ruse has worked. Gretel slams the oven door shut. Now it is the witch who is roasting.

Gretel, little red-cheeked Gretel, is the one to win the boon! She is her brother’s savior! She was clever, decisive and strong.

The “thought” is her sangfroid in the name of love, her savviness in overcoming. My daughter gets it. That’s why this is a great story. It is, as Isabelle Allende says, “truer than truth”.

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The Ur-Story

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

A follow-up to my my post on why truth is in stories: Many of you know about this fascinating theory that there really is only one story, which we tell one another again and again in infinitely many variations.

This is the so-called Monomyth, which I prefer to call the Ur-Story.

The man who popularized the idea is Joseph Campbell, whose book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is naturally on the bibliography of my own book.

To simplify his idea, it is that the same fundamental plot and character types and experiential vocabulary underlie all major myths and movies and novels and, well, stories. From Odysseus to Jesus and the Buddha, from Navajo stories to Chinese ones, from ancient tales to modern ones.

An archetypal hero of some sort receives a call to adventure, often refuses the call before accepting it, sets out on a quest, crosses various thresholds, overcomes adversity and trials, encounters a woman as temptress, atones with his father, obtains a boon to society and attempts to return and bring it back. And so forth.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Campbell was influenced by James Joyce, but the bigger credit, in my opinion, goes to Carl Jung. It was he who came up with the concept of archetypes (which I use in my book). The Hero, the Child, the Great Mother, the Mentor, the Wise Old Man, and so forth.

All this may strike you as odd. Aren’t there infinitely many stories, one for each person? Well, no. There are infinitely many variations and twists. But one fundamentally stable storyline.

This idea has wormed its way into conventional wisdom now. I was chatting about my book with my friend Evan Baily, a teller of children’s stories in film. Evan said that story is always about character, and how pressure is brought to bear down on him until he breaks down or reveals himself. Evan pointed me to Robert McKee’s seminars on story-telling, famous in Hollywood and beyond. Ultimately, this is all about the Ur-Story.

What’s most wonderful about all this is that we never get tired of hearing the Ur-Story. Telling and hearing it is about being human. And we all get to tell our variation of it. Which is why I’m writing a book.

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