“Richard, thanks so much for your fascinating analysis of the Contact film. Your skillful and illuminating abilities gave me exactly what I needed to work through some of my experiences over the past few years. I have always struggled with how much of life is ‘destiny’ versus ‘choice’, and would like to explore that dynamic further with you.”
“I'm busy watching movies that I've loved and that have meant something to me and applying the mythological lens to them. I'm amazed at how it's helping to clarify things in my own life and giving me the perspective to be able to move forward. Please never underestimate the value of what you're doing. Many, many thanks.”
"After learning about risk-taking through your film study, I have Crossed the Threshold and am on this particular Quest, gaining invaluable skills for understanding how all the traditional stories retold by humankind can help me comprehend and improve my own life. Thank you!”
“Richard, thanks for showing me creative doors I never knew were there. In a large way you have inspired me to think for myself and be open to the possibility of everything.”
“Thanks Richard, for your wisdom and for leading by example in both worlds! Of all the teachers I have known, you are the one who helps me the most in the practical matters... Witnessing your journey taught me how to absorb wisdom, interpret it, and apply it to life.”
In graduate school I studied the classical philosophies of the ancient East and West, also called the Perennial Philosophy of the Axial Age. When I completed my master’s degree, I knew I wanted to teach to a general audience. I wanted to communicate the collective wisdom of the classical philosophers—some who have been called great world teachers—to those personally interested in self-discovery.
The problem was to find a way to relate to students the deep plunge into the unconscious the great world teachers spoke of. This was "heavy material", often couched in metaphor, that takes repeated exposure to seep in and form new neural nets in the mind. I was concerned how well the metaphysical writings of the various self-knowledge teachers would translate to those who may have only a veiled understanding of what a mystical dive into the depths of the psyche might entail. My book The Education of Adam Speaker was considered by many students to be a very good vehicle for grasping the ideas of the perennial philosophers, perhaps because I had written it in a dialogic, conversational, story format. Still, I was often dealing with obscure and sometimes heretical source materials (e.g., the Fragments of Heraclitus and the Gnostic Gospels of Jesus). I knew there must be other ways for self-knowledge inquirers to relate such deep ideas to their own lives.
As The Fates would have it, I kept bumping into the work of the twentieth century mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was completely versed in not only in all the world’s spiritual philosophical traditions, but also the depth psychology of Carl Jung. I found Campbell’s concise yet cogent explanation of the hero’s journey archetype, which he laid out in his classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to be an able blueprint for plunging into the deeper mind, as it were.
Through his writings and lectures, Campbell completely illuminated the powerful idea that the quests we all face in our lives in the outer world are tangible expressions and mirrors of the more important inward journey we are also taking—the deep psycho-spiritual adventure we must navigate to reach anything approaching enlightenment…or at least a rich life that makes sense with all its heavenly highs and hellish lows. Though Campbell was a brilliant thinker and writer, his prosaic style was a bit old-fashioned, Edwardian perhaps, and I wanted to find a more accessible medium to convey his stages of the hero quest.
It hit me one day that film might be a useful means of communication, simply because everyone loves to watch a good movie. This was the late 1990’s and my initial research revealed that not much had been written academically on using film to teach the hero’s journey and its parallel psycho-spiritual meaning for the individual. And yet there were countless films out there that, consciously or not, fully utilized the hero's journey motif--everything from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars. So I began a deep perusal of probably a hundred Hollywood feature films over a two-year period, and identified a dozen that I thought would best demonstrate Campbell’s seventeen stages of the heroic quest.
The eventual result was a class I created called Quest Mythology in Film, one of the most popular educational events of my teaching career. I taught this 12-month class for three years, with over seven hundred participants. We watched and discussed all the selected films together, and I wrote a paper detailing my interpretation of each film in the context of Campbell’s stages of the heroic quest, with substantial student input. It was a very co-creative process and a huge learning experience for me. In this blog I have published the twelve film papers.
Recommended Instructions for this Blog:
I encourage you to read the first two chapters which respectively introduce the idea of hero mythology in film, and outline the stages of the hero quest. Familiarize yourself with the stages. Then, before you read one of my papers on a particular film, rent and watch that film first, in a dark, quiet room (just like in a theater!) and simply enjoy the film in a relaxed state of mind. (In the class I taught, I would mildly hypnotize the students before we began watching each film. This helped activate the unconscious mind so students might be able to recognize the stages intuitively without thinking or analyzing). After you have viewed the film, make some notes about whatever stages of the hero’s journey you might have noticed. Then read the corresponding paper in the blog that provides my interpretation.
NOTE: You will notice when you read through the chapters that mythically interpret the films, that I will often Capitalize and/or Italicize terms for the various stages of the Hero's Journey, such as Crossing the First Threshold. I will also do this with certain words that convey archetypal meaning, such as Warrior or Trickster. My intent is to get you to feel these word-ideas from a place of wonder instead of thinking about them through the lens of concrete determinism. It might be an academically unacceptable literary technique, but I am no longer in the academy.
Contact me if I can help, and enjoy the ride!
Richard Dance http://www.mindfulmedicine.com/