The Hero With A Thousand Masks

Okay, pop quiz. What does this guy…    

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)


…have in common with this guy?

Tom O'Bedlam (The Invisibles)


If you said “they both have beards”, you’re technically right but kind of missed the point.    

See, Tom O’Bedlam and Obi-Wan Kenobi are the same character. Actually, it would be more accurate to say they’re the same archetype, a repeated character type that crops up over and over, across fiction. Specifically, these two characters are both Wise Old Men. I’ll get more into what that means later.    

When you boil fiction down enough, you get the same themes and stories appearing wearing different faces. Christopher Booker wrote in The Seven Basic Plots that the movie “Jaws” and the ancient legend of Beowulf are, basically, the same story – a seaside town being menaced daily by a water-borne creature of supernatural power; a hero emerging from obscurity to do battle with the beast in the water and eventually triumphing.  Booker calls this archetypal story “Overcoming The Monster“. 

Joseph Campbell went so far as to identify one single story recurring throughout myth, legend and religion – he called this the “monomyth”, the Hero’s Journey. His 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces set out what the monomyth looked like and the common stages every hero went through.    

Why is this important on a blog ostensibly about geeky stuff like comic books and Star Wars? Because if it wasn’t for Campbell, Star Wars would have been very different. The original Star Wars movie was explicitly based off of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. So was the original Matrix. The monomyth resonates throughout both films, and that’s what makes them so appealing to us. The imagery might be recycled, but that’s because it’s powerful and effective. We’ve learned, as storytellers, to use what works. And what works is the monomyth, the story we’ve been telling and retelling for thousands of years.  We’re still telling it today. 

So, in honour of Campbell’s unwitting contribution to the face of geek culture, I’m going to spend some time examining his Hero’s Journey and how it crops up not just across legend, but modern media.    

The Hero’s Journey can be divided up into three stages. In Departure, the hero begins his journey, setting off from home and striking out into the unknown. Initiation details his adventures along his path, as he gradually learns and grows, gaining knowledge and power. In Return, he finds his way home with the power to grant boons to his fellow man, usually after having vanquishing evil.    

These three stages can be further divided into smaller sub-groups. For instance, Departure contains common elements such as the Call To Adventure (Luke gets Leia’s distress message), Refusal of The Call (Having to help with the harvest) and Supernatural Aid (Obi-Wan saves Luke from the Sand People). 

Laid out in graph form, the monomyth looks a little something like this:     

The Heroic Cycle


That’s all I’m going to say for now on the topic. My next few posts will be more in this series, a closer examination of certain elements of the Heroic Journey filtered through the medium of the geek culture.  What I’ll be arguing is that the monomyth is very much alive and well, and can be seen throughout modern media; from comic books to video games. 

 The Harkin is a writer, blogger and Brit. You can read more of his self-indulgence here or try to endure his banal tweets. 

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