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06 February 2013 @ 06:33 pm
The Monomythology of Buffy  
I've been having lots of thoughts lately about the mythology of the Buffyverse, particularly in relation to Joseph Campbell's theory of the "monomyth" - a detectable pattern of the hero's journey that seems to crop up across many cultures and eras.  The theory holds that, when deconstructed, most stories about mythological and religious heroes appear to share the same underlying structure.

In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell proposed that this structure was made up of three elemental stages - The Departure, The Initiation and The Return - which could be further broken down into a seventeen-step heroic journey that explored common themes, rites of passage, archetypes and psychological components.  The theory has influenced many postmodern artists and critics since its publication, and attracted its share of flakes and wannabes as well.  George Lucas, for instance, proclaims loudly to anyone within earshot that he purposely composed Star Wars to mimic Campbell's structure, but Lucas loudly proclaims a lot of silly things.  It's entirely possible (probable?) that George overheard someone comparing Star Wars to monomyth at a party once, and decided it would make him sound smart if he said, "I meant to do that."  That's because sometime during the 20th century race to deconstruct everything that wasn't welded directly to the Earth's core, self-awareness in art became a badge of honor, and promised the artist a pat on the head from the same structural critics they were borrowing pencils from back in Semiotics 101.  By the time the first fully postmodern generation of students were graduating college in the 80's and 90's, we started seeing conscious reconstructions of "the journey" everywhere in popular art.  Most of these turned out to be lazy, emotionless irony-fests that confused the deconstruction of form with the absence of meaning.  But there was always the chance that, someday, a gang of kind, clever souls would attempt to faithfully reconstruct the monomyth without stripping it of the fundamental insights about human nature that made it resonate so deeply in the first place.

So, was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that self-aware monomyth of which the ancient prophecy foretold oh shit, wait, that's just more monomyth?

The stories of the Buffyverse certainly appear to be aware of their own construction, so I thought I'd apply Campbell's component structure and see how well the patterns align.  But rather than belt out some dry, boring snoozefest of an essay, I decided to try exploring Buffy's journey visually, selecting images from the show to help flesh out a possible synchronicity with that thousand-faced hero who keeps reappearing in our most enduring legends.

The roadmap I came up with isn't intended to be a precise record of the story's timeline.  One of the discoveries I made while designing this image was that, while the journey was becoming undeniably visible in the broader story, there were also many smaller permutations of it woven into individual subplots and arcs.  Moreover, certain archetypal characters fulfill different roles at different times, and some stages and themes are repeated or slightly displaced.   At some point I realized that, if I tried to include it all, the resulting diagram would be a nightmare of overlapping and concentric circles, crisscrossing arrows and other powerpoint-y stuff that would make it confusing and unpleasant to look at.  Therefore, not all of my chosen images are intended to be direct and/or chronological analogs to the text they appear beside.  Sometimes, I chose them because they evoked a certain time period in Buffy's life rather than a specific event, and other times I chose them because I thought they depicted a particular theme well, whether or not the theme in question was directly related to the scene the picture was taken from.

In all cases, however, I selected my pictures in the hopes of sparking further thought and discussion, because one hundred hours worth of television isn't easy to summarize, even if a picture is worth a thousand words.  In that spirit, feedback and suggestions are welcome.

"Lostboy, you pretentious blabbermouth you!  That's an awful lot of text for someone who claims he wants to show me a picture."

Okay, tru dat, tru dat.



:::::::::::::  Click the picture below to view the full-size image (1280 x 1024)  :::::::::::::

The-Buffy-Monomyth_sm

~*~*~
Edits:
Since I thought this picture might evolve and change somewhat based on feedback from friends, I thought I'd append a section detailing any edits I make.

1. After a conversation with eilowyn, I began to rethink my choice for step eleven, since it relied too much on a single scene to describe something very complex.  So, I substituted the shot of the hero's illuminated face with a shot of her by the campfire of "Intervention", being told "love will bring you to your gift" by her spirit guide.
2. After conversations with several people, I decided to add a screenshot from "Welcome to the Hellmouth" to step two, to reinforce the idea that Buffy wants to refuse her destiny again when she first moves to Sunnydale.
 
 
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embers_log: b cheeseman by simply_me88embers_log on February 7th, 2013 12:17 am (UTC)
Wow, this is very impressive work. Would it be okay if I took it to Whedonesque to post there? I would understand if you would rather not go that 'public', and of course there is always the possibility that they wouldn't keep the post (I've posted things before that were taken down... but no harm, no foul.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 7th, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
Thanks for the nice compliment. :)

I'm actually a member of Whedonesque, too. I hadn't thought of posting it there, but now that you've mention it I might do so after getting some feedback here (i.e. I might end up wanting to swap in/out certain pictures or change the layout based on what my friends think).
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Bone_Dry1013: OMWFbone_dry1013 on February 7th, 2013 02:56 am (UTC)
Huh, this was interesting. The last and only time I learned about Campbell was like...five years ago in a lit class, so I can't say anything constructive. But it is interesting to see the mythos in this light.
My one question is why you chose to include the film in with the show. As far as I know Joss and a lot of the fanbase don't consider it to technically be canon. Not that it doesn't fit, but I was curious about what spurned that decision.

Awesome work, as usual.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 7th, 2013 03:41 am (UTC)
As far as I know Joss and a lot of the fanbase don't consider it to technically be canon.

I can't speak for the fandom, but I don't think I agree with this statement. While there's a lot of formal differences between the movie and the series, the show certainly considers the events of the movie canonical. It references them as part of the story on multiple occasions -- and not just the broad strokes, but narrow ones like Merrick and Pike. Hemery happened before Sunnydale, according to the reality of the show. And while I've heard Joss complain that he didn't have enough control on the movie, I don't recall Joss disowning Hemery from a story-perspective (though I could be wrong about that... although, Author Dead, and whatnot).

I for one think that there was a bit of necessary overlap/redundancy of storytelling between the film and S1, but not complete redundancy. There was something special about Buffy's move to Sunnydale; it felt like the hero was crossing the first threshold, even though that and many of the other stages had been emulated in super-fast-forward in film. That's one of those overlapping/intersecting problems I was referring to. I briefly considered drawing two separate, intersecting circles for the film and the show, but in the end I thought it might be more useful to combine them, and phase the film out after step 5.

Edited at 2013-02-07 03:56 am (UTC)
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Lexi: Buffy - Big Damn Heroeilowyn on February 7th, 2013 06:33 am (UTC)
I really, really want to delve into this deeper because I had a major Joseph Campbell phase about ten years ago, but I am exhausted and may not even get to this until Friday. And I want to debate with you where Surprise/Innocence through Becoming I and II would be. I think it would be more significant than a stop on the road of trials. And here I'm getting into it and I really want to sleep so thumbs up for subject matter and I'll get back to you on this.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 7th, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
Hey, no rush. Take your time. :)
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Shapinglightshapinglight on February 7th, 2013 11:00 am (UTC)
This is nifty, and way too clever for me.

I do feel having the Buffy/Riley pic illustrating temptation is a little hard on Riley. Did you choose it because he represents (is that even the right word?) not so much physical/sexual temptation but more the temptation to abandon the journey and live a 'normal' life?

I love the way Spike's and Willow's hero's journeys are woven into Buffy's, btw. Which is not to say they were the only other characters apart from her to make that journey, but I do see how theirs tie in more closely with hers than the others (possibly because they all ended at the same time).
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 7th, 2013 04:09 pm (UTC)
I do feel having the Buffy/Riley pic illustrating temptation is a little hard on Riley.

Really? If a picture of me illustrated "temptation", I think I'd be a bit flattered. :D

Did you choose it because he represents (is that even the right word?) not so much physical/sexual temptation but more the temptation to abandon the journey and live a 'normal' life?

It's a bit of both, actually. Riley (and later, though less directly, Ben) represents something more this-worldly and solid than the world of magic and monsters offers, and the chance to have something approaching a normal life, including a normal love life (which she could never have with Angel).

I love the way Spike's and Willow's hero's journeys are woven into Buffy's, btw. Which is not to say they were the only other characters apart from her to make that journey, but I do see how theirs tie in more closely with hers than the others (possibly because they all ended at the same time).

Yes, as Buffy's supernatural helpers, they often integrate into the stages of the journey more closely than the others, I think, sometimes even fulfilling certain steps on their own (or, at least, in parallel to Buffy).

Edited at 2013-02-07 04:28 pm (UTC)
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Kiki Maykikimay on February 7th, 2013 11:57 am (UTC)
Such an interesting theory. I didn't know Campbell, thank you for your explanation above. The graphic scheme is impressive. Once again, I ask you, can I translate the words in Italian or share it in my LJ? It's really nicely done. I love it.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 7th, 2013 04:03 pm (UTC)
Hi, kikimay. I don't think I'm done making this picture yet (it might change based on feedback).

Also, how would the translation be presented? Would you embed the picture in there below the translated introductory text, then retype the text of the 17 steps somewhere below it as a reference?
(no subject) - kikimay on February 7th, 2013 04:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
gillogillo on February 7th, 2013 02:12 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. Buffy has companions who undergo many stages of the journey - Willow and Spike in particular, arguably. This demands a lot more thought.

I think you could argue that Giles's presentation of the book Vampyr to Buffy in the library in WttH counts as a call to action, as her move to Sunnydale could be construed as the start of the story. (Like Frodo's move into Bag End, perhaps.)
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 7th, 2013 04:00 pm (UTC)
There's definitely significant overlap between the tale of Hemery and the tale of Sunnydale (which is why I interlaced some of the images in certain steps). Early in the design I considered even selecting some pictures from the series to interlace with steps 1-2 (funny you mention the Vampyr book, because that was an image I had in mind). But I still think the real "calling" took place at Hemery, with Merrick. By the time Buffy gets to Sunnydale, she has already embarked on the adventure, refused the call and crossed a threshold (and paid dear prices for it, as she tells Giles in WttH). It's a tough call, but if I changed it I wouldn't leave Hemery out. It's too important.

Buffy has companions who undergo many stages of the journey - Willow and Spike in particular, arguably.

Yep. This diagram is really tracing only Buffy's version of the heroic journey, albeit with bits of her companions tales sewn in here and there to illustrate how they reinforce certain stages of the myth (the return of Spike's soul in the Magic Flight stages, for instance). Even Xander encounters several of these stages along the way, though I think only Buffy fully embodies them all (being the actual mythical hero of the story).
local_max on February 8th, 2013 12:30 am (UTC)
Pretty!

Stormwreath has done his own take on the hero's journeys, including ones for Willow and Spike as well, starting here: http://stormwreath.livejournal.com/2956.html.

One thing that struck me immediately is the listing of Riley and Ben as Buffy's "temptations." I usually think of Angel or Spike as being closer to that role -- but I suppose, as immortals, they resonate with her spiritual side more. And Riley fits especially well, since, even though it was only a handful of episodes, the Initiative itself was one big package of temptation for Buffy away from her loving friends and calling into a high-tech shiny shiny but maybe evil institution. Season four plays with this a lot -- I love Buffy telling her friends off in The Yoko Factor saying that she's going to find someone she can count on, (implied) with Riley (while Riley is being mind-controlled in the next shot!), because it's regularly suggested that that's why she likes Riley -- that she can count on him, whereas her relationships with other people in her life are more complicated but ultimately more spiritually fulfilling. (By other people, I mean Willow, Xander, Giles mostly, though also Joyce and even Faith -- Faith does a good job calling Buffy on spending time with Riley instead of her own mother.) Not to diss Riley or anything.

Reading your exchange with eilowyn above, using Buffy's time in Heaven as the Ultimate Boon is interesting. I love the idea of the flamey-hands in Chosen as a kind of Buffy's-Time-In-Heaven-Recreated-On-Earth moment, which I had never thought of before. I have read/thought before (I can't always easily remember what it was that I'd read and what I've just concluded on my own) that Buffy needed to wed her sense of the eternal with an ability to live in the present and to share that with the world in Chosen. I was never sure exactly how that worked on a literal story level, though.

Certainly, the end of season six, to me, seems to be the moment wherein the main cast manages to come to terms with the concept of mortality, with Tara's death and Willow's apocalyptic rage as the trigger for the recognition in Buffy and others that life can still be lived, and well, even knowing that death lurks at the end of it, which is a progression from Buffy's ability to accept that death is a part of life in season five by embracing death. That the world is in pain and that death is permanent (and sometimes, as is the case with Joyce and even more so Tara, totally arbitrary) is easier to accept if one embraces death as a gift (as in The Gift), but that embracing of death, taken to its extreme, is what leads to Willow's death-is-the-answer which is wrong too. I think Grave is the moment where Buffy really fully commits to living fully, neither fearing death (her own or others') nor longing for it, though there's still a season to go before she figures out how to do that right.

I love Dawn as the (primary) immortal. Vampires are creatures with two natures (human and demon) but primarily because of a perversion of life/death -- they cheat by gaining immortality.

Is that pic of Willow in the "supernatural aid" thing from "Orpheus"?

Edited at 2013-02-08 12:42 am (UTC)
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 8th, 2013 01:55 am (UTC)
Hmmm... I just read through some of stormwreath's journey, and I'm not sure we understood Campbell the same way at all. I admit some of his selections were baffling to me. For instance, his version of Buffy's "Atonement with the Father" in particular seemed to me to miss what Campbell was saying about development of the ego. Glorificus is so obviously that final monster for me; that two-headed ogre that reflects the hero and reminds her of her inadequacies, that competes with the mother for familial attention, and that forces the hero to surrender her ego to pursue the enlightened state. Buffy's final resolution at the top of the tower also encompasses what I think Campbell meant when he emphasized the spelling of "At-One-Ment" in the step's title.

Riley was certainly the big temptation, as far as I can tell. Not only sexually and emotionally, but (as you say) structurally . Tangential to Riley's metaphorical role as a "campus radical", I think The Initiative also represented a kind of holistic approach to The Life Problem that is attractive because of its simple pyramidal structure. Riley himself is lost when the structure crumbles, but he still longs to co-exist with Buffy on that equal shelf he thought they were standing on. The temptation for Buffy is to accept that there are shelves to stand on at all, because that would be much easier in a multitude of ways.

Edited at 2013-02-08 01:58 am (UTC)
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snowpuppies.dreamwidth.orgsnowpuppies.dreamwidth.org on February 8th, 2013 12:39 am (UTC)
OOoh. Very fun.

Loved Dawn's inclusion and your comments about her significance to Buffy... On a slight sidetrack, I've always wondered if Dawn-haters realized they're hating Buffy, too (or if the Dawn-haters are Buffy-haters).

lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 8th, 2013 02:06 am (UTC)
Thanks!

Hmmm... I'm not totally sure where the hatred of her character comes from but I have definitely seen it (and heard it... don't get my wife started on "Scrappy Doo"!). It's possible it comes from lots of different reasons, some of them having to do with the story and others having to do with stuff external to the story (casting, acting, dialogue, etc). I for one thought the character was brilliant, and really raised the stakes.
Rebcake: btvs_lydiarebcake on February 8th, 2013 06:59 am (UTC)
It's official! You are NOT me! Because there is no way I could have come up with such an amazing pictometa! V. v. cool.

I like your inclusion of the movie, ftr. I saw it in the theater during its first run, and haven't seen it since, but I still remember it having some pretty elemental stuff — Merrick, Lothos, and Pike in addition to Hemery High itself. I don't think Pike is ever mentioned in the show, but I am utterly delighted whenever fanfic makes reference to him, such as in this gem: Pattern Recognition by beer_good_foamy

Where was I? Oh, yeah. I like the movie inclusion, I am thrilled that Dawnie is the Immortal, the Temptations seem good to me (though I can't imagine either of them would be any good as backup dancers). The Boon incorporating the Vision Quest is a good change, and Buffy as Counselor is perfect for Master of Two Worlds.

Using the Prom to depict "initiation" reminds me that it seems like the first time she attains "Master of Two Worlds" in the way these things keep cycling.

So, yeah. Neat.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 8th, 2013 09:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks rebcake! It's weird because I was really trying hard to be you this time. I can't get the hair right for some reason.

"I don't think Pike is ever mentioned in the show."

I admit that I might be wrong about this one. I could swear there was a phone call of some sort once, and his name was casually dropped, but that's possibly just a brain-burp.

Using the Prom to depict "initiation" reminds me that it seems like the first time she attains "Master of Two Worlds" in the way these things keep cycling.

Yeah, like I was saying to eilowyn above, S1-S3 could certainly align as a mini-version of the journey. This was probably due to the fact that they were only signed for three seasons, and didn't know if they would be renewed, so they tried to ensure that they could complete their artistic goals even if it didn't get picked up.

Actually, I feel like that's even more evidence of a consciously designed monomyth (a self-contained monomyth within the monomyth). They could have veered off into Dadaism after S3, but instead they knuckled down and completed an even better, grander and more satifying version of the myth, incorporating the mini version as merely part of the Road of Trials (albeit some very foreshadow-y stretches of that road).



cynical girl: kaylee squeeinggroovesinorbit on February 11th, 2013 04:59 pm (UTC)
Found you thanks to whedonesque. This is wonderful work!
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 11th, 2013 05:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
Katherine Joy Summers: Laughstars_inthe_sky on February 11th, 2013 05:26 pm (UTC)
Beautiful work!
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 11th, 2013 05:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Nikki Faith FullerMyth_Girl on February 11th, 2013 07:08 pm (UTC)
Love the monomyth image you created here. Great stuff. Campbell and Buffy fit together so well. In fact, in 2007 I wrote my MA thesis on this very topic! Would love to share ideas with you anytime.
~ Nikki
lostboy_lj: vamp!Andrew - Rockslostboy_lj on February 11th, 2013 07:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Feel free to jump in anytime. I love writing about the show and discussing all aspects of it.
Princess Strokenhamfiveandfour on February 12th, 2013 02:18 am (UTC)
I never made it all the way to the end of the Buffy series (I know, I know - I just loved Angel more and never looped back around to Buffy), but I think I saw enough of it and have read Thousand Faces enough times to say this is really wonderful work. It's given me a lot of food for thought.

One small point: for stage 10, did you mean to call it "Apostasis" and not "Apotheosis"? I seem to recall Campbell naming that stage apotheosis (aka reaching a state of divinity or divine bliss), but will admit it's been awhile since I've read Hero. Plus, in a weird case of timing, I just happened to have been thinking about Buffy's two deaths (I'm not counting the other death where she wasn't really herself) about a week ago and how it was during the second one that she reached the stage of apotheosis and how it seemed to break her heart to have been separated from the divine and brought back to her prescribed mission. (In other words, I had apotheosis on the mind - which doesn't mean it was on yours!)

Anyway, I love that Buffy and Angel were so dense in material that all these years later there is still so much to be found in them, though I sometimes wonder how much of the meaning we find was intentional and how much was happy accident.

Did you happen to catch the essay on Joss Whedon and mythology (http://www.neworleansreview.org/one-mans-myth-how-joss-whedon-showed-me-the-crack-in-the-invisible-wall/) that was linked through Whedonesque the other day? I thought it kind of funny that two such different takes on Buffy and mythology came about around the same time. For myself, I think the theme of the essay depends a bit too much on sticking to a more narrow interpretation of the word "myth" than what I use.

Your illustration more closely matches my interpretation of Buffy's arc and its relationship to universal mythology, though, getting back to my earlier question about intent vs outcome, I suppose I've been assuming that in some ways many of the stages were hit by accident, or at least, not by conscious intent. What I mean by that is that I think that the hero's journey stages that Campbell outlines are so universal that they inform story-telling both on a conscious and an unconscious level. I think that for people who know how to construct a story, it feels only natural for them to have characters go through certain stages and tests in a way that stands apart from a conscious decision to have characters specifically follow the hero's journey steps.

I don't mean for that to sound as though the story-telling accomplishments of Buffy are less than fantastic even if they did hit the hero stages by accident or that your work isn't amazing because you noticed how closely the arcs align. On the contrary, I think it's pretty amazing that the story-telling tradition of the hero's journey is still so compelling and so full of possibilities that a show spanning several seasons can follow the pattern yet still manage to be new and interesting and incredibly informative about human nature.

Thanks for your work and for sparking this discussion.
lostboy_lj: 5x5lostboy_lj on February 12th, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
Thanks for the detailed response, fiveandfour. :)

One small point: for stage 10, did you mean to call it "Apostasis" and not "Apotheosis"?

Though apotheosis applies too, I meant "apostasis", a term which has a dual roots(just like Glory/Ben) in religious and medical terminology. The two terms are closely related, but like my choice of "Immortal" instead of "Goddess" I was trying to press the point semantic indifference (for example, Dawn wasn't chosen because she was "female"). In the former parlance, apostasis is describes an abandonment of creed and/or principles (i.e. "apostasy"). In the latter medical parlance, it is a term that describes the final stage of a disease or attack. I'm guessing I don't have to describe much more how I think that relates to the events of Season 5 (with Joyce illness, with Ben deadly comfort, with Dawn and Buffy on the Tower), but there is a wonderful discussion going on at my friend local_max's brilliant post about the illusory comfort of medical authority here. I highly recommend it.

Your illustration more closely matches my interpretation of Buffy's arc and its relationship to universal mythology, though, getting back to my earlier question about intent vs outcome, I suppose I've been assuming that in some ways many of the stages were hit by accident, or at least, not by conscious intent.

Well, I think that this post was more about posing the question of self-awareness, rather than a definitive statement. I mean, yeah, obviously I'm of the opinion that it was a self-aware reconstruction (or two consecutive ones, maybe), mainly because of all the self-aware dialogue, humor, and the vast number of obvious mythemes on paraded by the text.

Does self-awareness make an artwork better? No, not in my opinion. I'm not teaching a class on Semiotics, after all ;) But I do think that the awareness is fascinating simply for the fact that it didn't curdle the storytelling, our emotional investment in the character or the timeless insights about humanity the way it does in many inferior self-conscious works.



Edited at 2013-02-12 04:01 am (UTC)
TV Whisperer: buffy - saviorelectrcspacegrl on February 12th, 2013 06:29 am (UTC)
I've been obsessed with how Buffy fits with Joseph Campbell's Monomyth of a long time, so this post makes me so happy.

Nancy Holder wrote an essay in Seven Seasons of Buffy about this very subject. It's called Slayers of the Last Arc. You might want to check it out.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on February 12th, 2013 04:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'll defo give that one a look.
thepuddinheadthepuddinhead on February 12th, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
Reddit
Thought you should know that someone posted this on Reddit. http://www.reddit.com/r/buffy/comments/18d4lj/the_path_of_a_hero_detailed_in_buffy/ It's unattributed and without any context at all so ... pretty typically reddit!
lostboy_lj: Hush - all over townlostboy_lj on February 12th, 2013 04:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Reddit
Hah! I guess that's both neat and kinda sucks at the same time. So... yeah, typically Reddit.
yourlibrarian: ScoobyXmasTop5-eyesthatslayyourlibrarian on January 17th, 2014 07:42 pm (UTC)
Here from buffyversetop5
Nifty!
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