I was almost a year late filing this piece. A year!
When I pitched it in the autumn of 2021, I thought I knew what I was going to say. A couple of months earlier, I’d moved home to England, after living abroad for 11 years. They had been life-shaping years, often beautiful but often brutally hard. I’d suffered ego deaths of some form or other in Buenos Aires, in New York City, in the Mojave desert, and in the depths of a Vermont winter, and spent six years in Los Angeles, white-knuckling a life that was never going to work, until my marriage and everything else finally fell apart around me.
And every time a version of me died, once the agony passed, I found that I hadn’t just broken, I had broken open. I was more fully myself on the other side, and more fully part of the world, too. Your standard hero’s journey, I figured, except the hero is really a fool. Well. Aren’t all heroes, really?
And thanks to old Joseph Campbell, we all know the arc of the hero’s journey, that road in three parts: departure, initiation, return. A year ago, I thought I’d completed the circuit; with my feet back on home turf, I thought I’d have something to say about its last leg, the return. Ha.
What I should have known then and have since learned the hard way (the only way I seem to learn anything) is that the return is the most challenging part of the journey, and also the most important. I’ve learned I might never complete it—that it might be my life’s work. That truly coming home isn’t about booking a flight or flashing your passport, or where you unpack your bags. It’s about bringing everything you’ve learned in the world back over the threshold, and using it to live differently. It’s about figuring out what “live differently” means, in light of your journeying and of what’s needed in the home you came back to.
The old stories show us that coming home was always a navigation, a negotiation—think of Odysseus having to fight Penelope’s suitors. These days, it’s even harder than that. Most travelers today return home from life-altering journeys—whether that means an odyssey or a pandemic—to societies with no formal rites of passage, and so no rituals of return. Societies that have been alienated from their indigenous practices, and so from themselves, for hundreds or thousands of years. Societies they might well have left in the first place because they never felt like home, because they had never managed to belong there.
How do you go home when your home never felt like home? When your society has been rootless and unmoored for millennia?
I suppose at this point, we’d better have a conversation about Joseph Campbell. As a woman, I’ve had a rough journey to fully accepting the ways my own life has followed what Campbell so suffocatingly called the monomyth structure. Give me Circe over Odysseus; give me Baba Yaga and the Furies; give me, every damn day of the week, the kinds of stories Angela Carter told, or which mythologists like Maria Tatar and Sharon Blackie have unearthed and respun: fairy tales and myths of female heroism and rebellion, too long ignored because their subversive, relational, organic movements don’t fit the “monomyth” format Campbell traced.
Who in this day doesn’t find Campbell punchably unselfaware when he says things like, “Not everyone has a destiny: only the hero who has plunged to touch it, and has come up again—with a ring”?
The truth is, there can be no such thing as a monomyth. Stories are alive, and like all living beings, they exist in ecosystems. In the living world, a monoculture always spells death. And so when queer and feminist scholars went searching for stories that live outside the “monomyth,” they brought back riches: stories of empathy and curiosity, of connection and symbiosis, of rebellion and magic—the kind of stories that fill Tatar’s The Heroine with 1001 Faces, to name the latest and most pointed riposte to Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Thank the gods for those alternative stories and those scholars.
And yet when I look at the shape of my life, there it is: that familiar trip in three parts. I heard, resisted, and finally succumbed to an inexplicable call to leave; I charged around getting humbled (and humbled… and humbled), until I was lucky enough to feel forces far bigger than myself at work; and I came home and tried—am trying—to live differently. And I’d wager that I’m not alone—that many if not most people have had an experience something like this in these pandemic years.In the living world—the world we’re trying to get back to—the answer is always relational, ecological. It always means fostering a greater diversity of living things.
So the soul journey Campbell traced clearly exists. It’s a path through life. Not the only path, but certainly one a lot of people end up treading—especially in these pandemic years, with their enforced tour of Hades. Which only makes the question of how to go home the more urgent.
Through the year that I spent failing to write this essay, I’ve come to believe that the answer to this question—how do we go home and why is it so goddamn hard?—has a lot to do with the monomyth framing itself. Going home is hard, harder than it should be, because of the solipsism of believing there can be a single story, a single perspective. Because of what happens to societies that subscribe to that perspective, to the exclusion of all else. Because such myths of exceptionalism necessarily alienate people from themselves and others and the living world, our first and only home.
Because you can’t ever be at home, not really, if your society believes that hero stories are the only stories.
We can trace this back to the origins of Western literature. You might remember the waves Emily Wilson made a few years back when she opened her translation of The Odyssey, “Tell me about a complicated man”—a dry departure from the traditional “man of many ways.” Personally, if I pulled half the shit Odysseus does, I’d be downright delighted to get away with “complicated.”
While Odysseus bigfoots around the Mediterranean, ignoring the gods whenever it suits him, he indulges in what the scholar Irad Malkin has called a kind of proto-colonialism: opening up new sea routes and stockpiling treasures.
It’s easy to miss this precisely because it’s in the background—because everything we experience in the story is mediated through Odysseus’s own eyes and life. In fact, this trick of perspective is really the only thing that upholds our sense of his heroism. I’d bet the many loyal men he gets killed on his quest for home didn’t wind up thinking he was such a great guy, nor their families. And now, thanks to Madeline Miller, we have a rich picture of what Circe might have made of Odysseus’s “heroism.”
Heroism is a story that elevates one person above the fray, which is to say above the ecology of living things. It’s a form of literary solipsism, in which most people’s fates don’t matter, so long as the hero triumphs. Odysseus’s story helped to enshrine the political mentality (and the physical geography) of colonialism, as well as a sort of emotional colonialism, in which the is-ness of all things and the web of relations that link them is shunted for the greatness of one.
The result is what I’ve started to think of as homelessness in the soul: a rupture from the intrinsic value of all living beings and from the magic of relationality. And once a people is homeless in the soul, it’s an easy leap to sowing homelessness in the world. To commandeering lives and riches in service of great men—that is, whomever one’s own society has deemed to be great.
And once we’re there, everybody’s lost. Everybody’s in the underworld.
Reason number 537 that I failed to write this essay for so long: the “home” I’m struggling to return to, England, is responsible for so much displacement, for making so many people around the world homeless. How can I possibly write an essay about my struggle to feel at home back in England, when not eight decades ago, my country tasked a man who had never even visited India with carving up the subcontinent using lines on a fucking map, forever separating millions from their homelands, their traditions, their families, and any hope of normality or belonging?
When this severance came on the heels of centuries of theft, murder, and control—a regime that at its height tyrannized a quarter of the world? When as I write, more than 33 million people have been displaced by floods in Pakistan whose severity is fueled by the Industrial Revolution that also started out on my own gray and still largely unscathed little island?The earliest English literature was a literature of pagans converted to the Word, who found themselves huddled at the northernmost reach of Christendom.
On the other hand, how can I possibly not write that essay, or at least get to grips with the question, when the source of so much suffering inflicted on the world is the inner alienation on my own isle? Is precisely the sense of soul homelessness, of unbelonging, of death in life, that I struggled with for 26 years before fleeing?
I’m talking about the inner alienation that’s long been associated with Englishness—the repression; the terror of emotion; the biting, defensive humor; the release through alcoholism—but which we’ve also managed to export to the traditional ruling class of the United States, in particular. I’m talking about WASPs and boarding schools and the whole class of men and women, but mostly men, who carved up the world and took what they wanted because, someday long in the past but still alive in their cells, they had been carved from themselves. What happened? And when?
It’s hard to talk about the earliest English literature and what its stories reveal, because it’s hard to know what “English” means. Probably not the culture of this isle before the Beaker People arrived 4,400 years ago, upending the local gene pool and technologies; nor before the Celts showed up in around 1000 BCE, nor the culture that flourished thereafter and would live on in the western reaches of the isles.
Not these because when the Romans arrived around the dawn of the Common Era, all that was wiped out, at least in my own part of England, the southeast—the part that would become the engine room of colonialism and so much more. Does “English” mean the culture adopted then, under the Romans? Or in the pig-shit and bloodshed centuries after the Fall of Rome?
Most often, the root of Englishness is traced to those hungry, pig-shit years, and to the arrival of the Angles for whom we’re named, along with their Northern European companions, the Saxons and the Jutes. But let’s remember that by now, this island had been invaded unknown times; that it had been severed from its roots and absorbed untold imported ideas about power—and that there was still the world-ending cataclysm of the Norman Conquest to come.
And what do we find when we look at the literature of that time, of what seems to be the earliest “English”? Let’s take “The Wanderer,” an Anglo-Saxon poem from the 10th-century Exeter Manuscript (though probably composed earlier). Here, the speaker laments his exile, which began when his lord and all of his kinsmen were killed defending their home from an attack.It’s hard to talk about the earliest English literature and what its stories reveal, because it’s hard to know what “English” means.
“Often,” he says, in a line we might all adopt for our next Zoom therapy sessions, “every daybreak, alone I must / bewail my cares. There’s now no one living / to whom I dare mumble my mind’s understanding.” Or there’s “The Seafarer,” another poem of lone wandering, in which the speaker tells of the coldness and solitude of his life at sea:
This the man does not know
for whom on land
it turns out most favourably,
how I, wretched and sorrowful,
on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter
in the paths of exile,
bereft of friendly kinsmen,
hung about with icicles.
Clearly, this is not the literature of a cheerful people. Most importantly, it’s not the literature of a people who felt at home on this earth. Rather, it’s the poetry of unmoored, alienated people who already felt too easily severed from the heart of life.
In these poems, the heart of life was the kingdom of God. The earliest English literature was a literature of pagans converted to the Word, who found themselves huddled at the northernmost reach of Christendom, ever beating back the heathen wilds: in the forests and the fens and their own pagan pasts and hearts (not to mention, by 793 CE, on the shores and oceans, as Vikings arrived from the north to pillage the houses of God and whatever else they could find).
In his recent book Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World, Tim Flight argues that the harshness of their climate and the landscape, combined with this sense of teetering at the far reach of the Christian empire centered in Rome, led the Anglo-Saxons, more than any other early medieval people, to experience the living world around them as hostile. They fervently believed that the world beyond the village walls was populated with monsters, and that their Christian duty was to protect the beacons of civilization.
We can see this clearly in Beowulf, with its bright, lively mead halls, where once-cosy kinsmen are now menaced by marauding monsters—monsters who are the kin of Cain, no less. The wild was evil, ungodly, and it would take a hero to tame it.
Enter Beowulf, earliest hero of English literature—and that’s “hero” in Campbell’s sense. Beowulf is called away from the kingdom to fight the Grendelkin in their underworld lair; there, he glimpses the abyss. He returns triumphant and rules as a wise and noble king for fifty years. Departure, initiation, return.
Then the same shit starts all over again. A would-be thief disturbs a dragon by having a pop at his treasure trove, and the dragon starts stalking the kingdom. Beowulf the hero, Beowulf the monster slayer, sets off again, and kills the dragon, but gets killed himself in the process. And only one thane—Wiglaf, who’ll become the next king—is brave enough to stand by his side in that final battle.
And so, it seems, the cycle will go on, and on: evil forces threatening the kingdom, and one sole man having the strength and courage to take them on. As a model of governance, it’s about as fearful, violent, and life-denying as they come.“Your standard hero’s journey,” I thought, a year and a lifetime ago, “except the hero is really a fool. Well. Aren’t all heroes, really?”
In the hero’s journey as presented in Beowulf, we can see that the Romanized version of Christianity, which was already so tied up with empire and patriarchy, gave the people of this island a story of power and the natural world that made it all but impossible for them to feel at home in their land.
And what happens when a country built on this founding mythos, and on the trauma of repeated waves of colonization, builds up some naval power of its own?
It colonizes a quarter of the world. It gets rich on the Atlantic slave trade.
It takes its homelessness in the soul and reenacts it around the world, in just about every painful, bloody way you could imagine.
This is the damage that can be done when a story is weaponized. When it’s allowed to become, or held to be, a monomyth.
How does a person, a country, a world recover from such weaponization? What’s the way back to belonging, and a sense of home?
In the living world—the world we’re trying to get back to—the answer is always relational, ecological. It always means fostering a greater diversity of living things, and stronger relationships between them. Whether the living things are insects or plants or stories.
This is exactly what writers in once-colonized nations were doing when they began to write in the mode of magical realism. It’s a brilliant form of resistance. A hero narrative insists on a single protagonist in a stable world made as his mirror and aid—the monomyth, in a way, insists on a monomyth.
But magical realism says: pah. It says: the world is both this and that. It says reality slips, shimmers, and dodges; and stories and possibilities are always multiple, infinite; and to reclaim this infinite possibility of the tongue and the pen is the ultimate act of liberation. This is how we end up with a novel like, say, The Satanic Verses, which is so irreverent in its treatment of mythology as to nearly get its author killed, but whose ultimate message is that stories, identities, and realities are plural, and any healthy culture must accept and celebrate that plurality.
For my part, this year of trying to come home has meant reckoning with my own internalized tyranny of story; my own false sense of heroism and monomyth. Without really knowing I was doing it, I spent a long time waiting for people to ask to hear what had happened to me, and feeling petulant and then desperate when they didn’t.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, some part of me wanted a hero’s welcome—probably to compensate for my shame about stumbling home with nothing to show for myself but a story, while other people my age were having second and third children, getting promoted, buying bigger houses.
Then, one rainy weekend on Dartmoor, around six months after I got home, I heard the mythologist Martin Shaw tell the tale of Parzival. In the Wolfram von Eschenbach version of this medieval Grail romance, Parzival is on a lifelong quest for the Holy Grail. And in fact, he has some luck early on: he stumbles into the Grail palace while he’s still a young rube, just setting out on his life’s journey. But he fumbles the moment catastrophically, doesn’t grasp the grace that has brought him there or realize that he’s found the Grail, and as a result is forced out of the palace, to wander lost for years more.
Finally, after a long ordeal, he finds his way back to the palace. And by now he knows enough, he’s seen enough and suffered enough, that he knows what he has to ask. He turns to the Grail King, who’s been mysteriously wounded since he first laid eyes on him, and he says: What ails thee?
The mythologist Sophie Strand points out that this moment subverts the monomyth by making the return relational. When Parzival steps out of his own story and asks to hear someone else’s, he sidesteps the doomed cycle of heroic repetition we saw set up in Beowulf, and brings the hero’s journey back into ecology, into life and relationship. He plants the sapling of another story right there in the hero’s soil.
In one of those magical convergences that prove beyond doubt that stories are alive, not two weeks after I heard this story, it worked through me. I found myself, finally, in a position to ask someone I love dearly about a story from their own past. A story I’d caught wisps of but never heard in full. A story that had driven their life and, it turns out, mine, too. (A story, incidentally, that is not mine to tell, so will remain unspoken here.) I’ll remember that night forever. I’ve never felt more at home than when I finally stepped out of my own story and opened my ears, fully, to someone else’s.
“Your standard hero’s journey,” I thought, a year and a lifetime ago, “except the hero is really a fool. Well. Aren’t all heroes, really?” And the answer is: yes. Because the most foolish thing of all is to believe that you stand alone. And the way out of this foolishness—which is to say, the way home—is so simple, and so good. It’s to ask: “What ails thee?”
Featured image: “View of Nottingham from the East” (ca.1695), oil on canvas, by Jan Siberechts.
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