Hit and Myth – Avatar and the Monomyth

January 30, 2010 § 6 Comments

(Warning: very mild spoiler alert!)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you will have heard a fair bit of talk about Avatar. Everyone’s got an opinion on it, even those who haven’t seen it, and I’m no exception. Some loved it, some hated it. A search for “Avatar” in google returns 580 million results as of today. Regardless of this, it seems most people who have seen it have an opinion on it. Some people have said it speaks of the plight of indigenous peoples of Earth, that the struggle of the Na’Vi is akin to that of the peoples of The Amazon forests or the jungles of Borneo.

I’m sure you read the reports of people suffering “Post-Avatar Depression” after seeing it, with people saying it was so beautiful and realistic that they are having trouble distinguishing the world of Pandora from their own lives, and are shattered by the realisation that they will never be able to visit Pandora. Yes, odd, isn’t it?

Others see it as simply a rollicking adventure in a fanciful world. Some have said that the story was what let it down, that it was too predictable. Despite this, its popularity comes from exactly that, the nature of the story, and the way that hero tales resonate with us.

But this is not just ANY hero tale, this is a perfect example of what has become known as The Monomyth.

In 1949 mythologist Joseph Campbell produced a book entitled “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, in which he identified the archetypal Hero and the journey that the Hero takes to becoming triumphant. He called this The Monomyth. He summarised the Hero’s journey thus:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The Hero’s journey consists of 17 distinct stages:

  1. The Call to Adventure – Summoned to replace his brother on Pandora
  2. Refusal of the Call – Though unsure of himself, Jake convinced that this was the right thing to do
  3. The Mentor/Talisman – Grace as guide, the Avatar as talisman
  4. The First Threshold – Jake in Na’Vi body
  5. Belly of The Whale – Jake finds his feet, and runs, in the new body; disabilities disappear.
  6. The Road of Trials – Jake surviving in Pandora’s forests, captured by The Na’Vi who give him further tasks; also provided with tasks for the military (Colonel Quaritch)
  7. The Goddess – Jake falls in love with Neytiri
  8. Temptation – Jake is promised new legs by Colonel Quaritch if he provides information on the Na’Vi
  9. Atonement with the Father – Jake accepted into the tribe as a man by the chief of the tribe and the tribe itself
  10. Apotheosis – After destruction of the tree, Jake is captured and held in prison
  11. The Ultimate Boon – Jake’s capture of the Toruk
  12. Refusal of the Return – Jake unwilling to return to his “real life”
  13. The Magic Flight – Jake runs away in his Avatar with the help of others
  14. Rescue from Without – After asking for help from spirit of the planet, the animals of Pandora rise to help in the battle.
  15. The Return Threshold – Jake is ripped out of his Avatar by the Colonel
  16. Master of Two Worlds – Neytiri accepts Jake’s real self as the one she loves
  17. Freedom to Live – Jake takes on the new Na’Vi body, his spirit leaving the other behind

All of these 17 points are addressed in the story of Avatar, albeit they’re are not in exactly the same order. Some of these points are doubly reinforced in the film, or a represented on more than one occasion. But if you see the film with these plot points in mind, they are easy to identify. I’m not going to do an in-depth plot analysis of the film, this has been done a thousand times, and I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it.

But the power of The Monomyth is such that it can be identified over and over again in many cultures, past and present. Some examples of The Monomyth include:

– The story of Osiris
– The New Testament – The story of Jesus Christ
– The trials of Buddha
– The trials of Mohammed
– Frodo in Lord Of The Rings
– Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (the original stories)
– Simba in The Lion King
– Neo in The Matrix

You can see by the list above that some of the most popular stories ever told, and some of the more popular recent stories have used the same basic plot points. Joseph Campbell suggests that this resonates with us so much, because are key as representations in the journey of life.

As a way of ending, I did thoroughly enjoy Avatar, and though I was familiar with The Monomyth and was able to identify that this was one of these stories, knowing this actually made the story even more powerful for me. Read “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” and you’ll see this story everywhere.

Further Reading:


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§ 6 Responses to Hit and Myth – Avatar and the Monomyth

  • godlizard says:

    The Hero’s Journey is also widely used in other ways — I work for a design firm that has been incorporating this narrative structure (along with Maslow’s Hierarchy) in our methodology for years, and tonight I read this awesome article about user experience design that was amazingly close to our approach: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/01/29/better-user-experience-using-storytelling-part-one/

    I won’t babble on too much because I realize I might find the subject of design strategy far more fascinating than anyone else does, but, great post! It’s always good to have perspective and context, and yes it does make the experience better.

  • I read that George Lucas was a huge fan of Joseph Campbell, and intentially wrote the Star Wars saga with his ideas in mind.

    My Avatar experience is here http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/01/03/my-avatar-spiritual-experience/

    soon to be followed up with a sequel.

  • […] friend Martin Pribble correctly notes that Joseph Campbell’s monomyth can be seen in the story. While I enjoy Campbell’s […]

  • Shine says:

    Very interesting! I think I remember seeing interviews with Joseph Campbell in the documentary “The God Who Wasn’t there.” (Or maybe he was just referenced, if not directly interviewed.) I think that an analysis of heroic mythology provides some of the most compelling arguments in exposing the literary fabrication of supernatural divinity in the Jesus mythology.

  • Lori says:

    Great blog post!

    I found it interesting when Jake prayed to the tree and Neytiri tells him (something like) Jake, Ai’wa does not take sides. She only helps the balance of life (or something like that). I am sure christians are using that line to justify why “god” never answers their prayers. Just a thought I had while watching it.

    I really liked it a lot!
    Lori (AKA Treehugster)

  • Unfortunately the use of the monomyth in Hollywood has become so ubiquitous I’m wondering if scriptreaders aren’t simply sitting there with the 17 point checklist and tossing out anything that doesn’t conform. I personally found that Avatar lacked depth. I congratulate Cameron for having the balls to suggest that his ex-wife’s movie, The Hurt Locker, was a far better nomination for an Oscar.

    I didn’t hate it. I’m just an adult. I want to be told an adult story.

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