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Myths and Fairytales

he Basic Storytelling Steps of Myths and Fairytales

(07 October 2007)

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell asserted that all myths, no matter what part of the world they come from or when they were written, were derived from a single template that he referred to as the ‘Hero’s Journey’, or ‘monomyth’, comprising of twelve basic steps. The power of this monomyth is demonstrated in the present day by the success of movies such as Star Wars and The Matrix, which are closely modelled on Campbell’s story-telling template. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey(1992) borrows heavily from Campbell’s work and presents the monomyth in a more accessible and contemporary form.

Vogler lists the twelve components of the monomyth as:

 1) Ordinary World 2) Call to Adventure 3) Refusal of the Call4) Meeting with Mentor 
 5) First Threshold 6) Tests, Allies, Enemies 7) Approach to the Inmost Cave 8) Ordeal
 9) Reward (Seizing the Sword) 10) The Road Back 11) Resurrection 12) Return with the Elixir

The archetypal figures that populate The Hero’s Journey are: The Hero, the Mentor, the Herald, the Shadow, the Threshold Guardian, the Trickster and the Shapeshifter.

Many of these same steps and characters appear in fairytales. However, characteristically, a fairytale contains fewer steps and fewer archetypal figures.

If we take Jack and the Beanstalk as a typical fairytale, we can highlight the reduced set of steps that feature in a fairytale. There are eight in general:

1)      Ordinary World: Jack lives in a cottage with his widowed mother. They are poor and need to sell their cow at market.

2)      Call to Adventure: Jack meets an old man on the road to market and trades the cow for magic beans.

3)  First Threshold: Jack must climb the magic beanstalk to enter the extraordinary world, the Land of the Giant. (The extraordinary world is the world of magic, the faeryworld, the Otherworld, and is entered via some sort of portal. In Jack’s story, the beanstalk plays the role of portal.)

4)      Tests, Allies, Enemies: Jack in the Land of the Giant.

5)      Ordeal: Jack chased by the Giant.

6)      Reward (Seizing the Sword): Jack successfully steals the Giant’s treasures.

7)      The Road Back: Jack climbs back down the beanstalk and chops it down while the Giant is clambering down in pursuit.

8)      Return with the Elixir: Jack returns to his mother with the Giant’s hen that lays golden eggs, and the Giant’s golden harp that sings. At the end of the fairytale, Jack and his mother are rich and happy. Jack’s adventure has transformed their personal fortunes.

Refusal of the Call, Mentor, Approach to the Inmost Cave and Resurrection are the steps that are typically omitted in fairytales. In the first case, fairytale characters are usually eager to begin their adventure (as Jack is); in the second case, there is rarely a need for a mentor because the adventure is too simple to merit one; in the third case, the approach to the inmost cave might be too traumatic for a child to read about, and the same is mostly true for the Resurrection component (though Red Riding Hood, for example, is ‘resurrected’ in the usual ending of that particular fairytale, emerging from the dead wolf).

Vladimir Propp, a Russian scholar, analysed Russian folktales and proposed that they contained thirty-one basic elements. Others reduced this number to five:

1)      hero discovers a lack in himself or his life

2)      hero goes on a quest

3)      hero finds helpers/opponents

4)      hero is given tests

5)      hero is rewarded, or a new lack develops

Evidently, these have much in common with the steps listed earlier.

In conclusion, the most enduring stories of a traditional character, whether myths, fairytales or folktales, appear to be built around a small number of basic steps. The formula is a simple one: a hero leaves his ordinary world, enters an extraordinary world where he has a great adventure involving tests and trials, and returns (tragedies excepted) as a better person, often with a treasure.