Can we use Joseph Campbell’s classification of the Hero’s Journey to analyze recent popular culture, such as Harry Potter? Are the seven archetypes still valid, or do they need to be modified in each case?

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In Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the author does not suggest that there are precisely twelve stages in the literary hero’s quest, nor a limitation on the number of archetypes to seven. The narrowing of the stages to twelve is derived from author Christopher Vogler’s books,...

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In Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the author does not suggest that there are precisely twelve stages in the literary hero’s quest, nor a limitation on the number of archetypes to seven. The narrowing of the stages to twelve is derived from author Christopher Vogler’s books, including The Writer’s Journey, and was used as a guide for readers to follow when tracing the quest pattern through literature:

“Campbell gives an outline of the Hero’s Journey in . . . The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’ve taken the liberty of amending the outline slightly, trying to reflect some of the common themes . . .”

As Campbell states,

“The changes rung on the simple scale of the monomyth defy description. Many tales isolate and greatly enlarge upon one or two of the typical elements of the full cycle . . . others string a number of independent cycles into a single series (as in the Odyssey).”

With that understanding in mind, the simple answer to the question posed is:

  1. The hero’s journey may be used to analyze pop culture literature.
  2. The archetypes referred to by Campbell in his book are still valid.
  3. The archetypes specified in Campbell’s book are intended to be modified.

Campbell tells his readers that “the deeds of myth survive into modern times.” He recognizes that:

“The archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology and vision. These are not to be confused with the personally modified symbolic figures . . . that appear to the still tormented individual . . . But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind.”

Campbell’s vision of the hero’s journey may be applied in modern works like the Harry Potter series. Using his analysis, he concludes that all people are born, they live their lives, and they die. They have similar experiences, but they do not live the same lives. Authors displace the expected narrative patterns in their stories. If they did not, there would only be one story. While the surrounding material might differ from book to book, the pattern is clearly identifiable, because the belief in the hero remains part of the same human experience in everyone. The story changes, but the archetypes remain the same.

The most common archetype appearing in literature is that of the heroic quest, or the journey of the hero. Applying the guide provided by Campbell in his book, the reader can ascertain certain standard archetypal patterns that are as applicable to modern literature as they are to ancient classics. For example, most fiction novels will find the hero called to an adventure, which will be accepted willingly or reluctantly. The protagonist, despite opposition from an alter ego will embark on an ordeal, which is usually a dangerous journey in search of some treasure, valuable or not, of importance to the hero. At the end of the quest, the hero always dies at least symbolically because he or she is transformed by virtue of the experience and becomes a new person as a result.

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