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Ever since MLP The Movie premiered last Autumn, I wanted to compare its structure to that of a “monomyth”— a myth–based template often applied to modern storytelling.
Before we dig in, there are a few things to clarify:
1/ Scholarly work on the monomyth is filled with Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysis of mythology as reflection of deeper human desires. While the conclusion that Tempest role is to shatter Twilight’s “superego” and make her aware of the workings of the universe is an otherwise interesting avenue to pursue, we will skip this sort of deep analysis here.
2/ This editorial focuses on Twilight as she fulfills the Hero’s Journey as Movie’s protagonist — although at times some steps are “outsourced” to Mane5 & Spike or even Tempest.
3/ Finally, a story doesn't have to follow all the steps and/or in the same order; some might be inverted or exercised by supporting characters, as mentioned above. Frodo Baggins is a good example of how stories can differ: he seeks to destroy the artifact not obtain it and fails to regain the wisdom at the end. Yet, despite those differences, in each of those stories, we can map a coherent, recognizable structure.
Just like with the peaceful Shire or boring Tatooine, the story find our heroines in what we know to be a normal life in Equestria. More precisely — Canterlot, Equestria’s capital city (and symbolically, Twilight’s town of birth).
“A magic day in perfect harmony”
This normal life is interrupted...
“Here's the deal, ladies. I need your magic.”
...and Twilight receives The Call of Adventure.
There are many ways in which hero receives the Call. Being sent abroad by “benign agent” is one of them. While Twilight didn’t receive the Call directly from Princess Celestia, she has no choice but accept it as the only Princess standing:
“Seek help from the Queen of the Hippo—”
“Luna can't, so I have to”.
Paraphrasing Campbell, the call of adventure is to “a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountain top” — places filled with odd creatures, intense dangers and amazement.
And voilà! Here we have the destinations, straight from the Campbell’s list . Even if there wasn’t enough screen time to flesh them out, they are at least hinted:
“Beneath the waves”:
“Above the sky”:
Sometimes the hero refuses the Call at first and doesn’t want to leave his or her home. In our case Twilight doesn’t refuse it; instead she assumes that her friends might:
“I understand you're scared, and nopony else has to go”.
Gandalf the Grey, Albus Dumbledore, Rafiki, Obi Wan–Kenobi and Princess Celestia are what Campbell calls a “supernatural mentor”, “the ageless guardians” or “a protective figure”.
They show up to aid the quest and sometimes provide the Hero with artifacts. Such person symbolises hope, promise, destiny, bigger powers at play — Princess Celestia is after all a thousand–years old Alicorn — that are “always and ever present within or just behind the unfamiliar features of the world”.
Nonetheless, in the Movie the Princess still offers our heroine a bit of crucial advice for the future:
“You are the Princess of Friendship. You already have all the magic you need”.
The adventure finally starts. Ponies and Spike leave Equestria — a place they know and understand — and venture into a dangerous, aliien Klugetown.
Campbell: “The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky”.
Campbell then writes: “the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the 'threshold guardian' at the entrance to the zone of magnified power.” At the very entrance ponies meet Capper:
“You could really use a friend out here…”
The passing of “the magical threshold” is a moment when our heroes get completely separated from what they know, and leave the familiar Equestria behind.How is the threshold described by Campbell? “The temple interior (...) and the heavenly land (...) are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil–slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls.” If that sounds similar to Lord of the Rings is because that’s exactly the same step. Here is how the ponies first see the entrance to the Hippogriffs’ Kingdom:
Once they step into the water, “the hero (...) is swallowed into the unknown ––
–– and would appear to have died”.
(It’s one of those blink–and–you–miss–it moments, but for a second or two, Twilight loses her consciousness after running out of air).And guess what the next step as described by Campbell is? “The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis”:
This step, also known as the Tests, Allies, Enemies is about a succession of trials. This is the beef of the story; this is when our heroes are tested and often fail. “Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed — again, again, and again.”
"Best... escape... plan... ever!”
––and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land."
“In the tabernacle of the temple” ponies meet the “goddess” — in our case it’s a Hippogriff–turned–seapony Queen Novo. In this step our hero often gains an artifact (the Pearl) that should aid her plight. However...
“I'm the queen. I know everything”.
...things go murky when a hero faces temptation and strays from her quest.
––“is all on me”.
"Aww, the "Princess of Friendship". With no friends!"
In this step, a hero confronts a being that holds an “incredible power” described as the power of life and death.
This step is also meant to help a hero “open his soul” — or, in the Movie...
“Open up your eyes”.
At this moment a hero achieves a greater understanding — or, in Twilight’s case, reaffirms what she already knew and betrayed.
It is fulfilled when she rejects the chance to get the powerful Staff of Sacanas and saves Tempest, her enemy, instead. In Equestria, the friendship — and its many aspects— is the most powerful magic after all.
“Because this is what friends do”.
“Now... we fix everything”.
Some heroes refuse to return to the ordinary world after saving it (see again Frodo Baggins). This step however doesn’t apply to Twilight or her friends — it is partly carried out by Tempest, who is unsure about her place in Equestria after she’s helped to save it.
“I hope you'll stay”.
In this step “powerful guides and rescuers” lead a weakened hero back to the ordinary world. Captain Celaeno and her crew, Capper and Princess Skystar help the Mane 5 & Spike return to Equestria and aid Twilight. “An apparent rescue is effected, and the adventurer returns."
“Y'all ready to do this thang?”
The hero must retain the wisdom upon her return to “the world of common” (her friends and Canterlot) and integrate what she has learned into everyone’s life. When Pinkie Pie says “You've got this, Twilight! ” for our enlinghed heroine it’s no longer “all on me” but:
“No. We've got this. Together”.
This is where the hero achieves “a balance between the material and spiritual” like a transcending god-like character. It’s beautifully symbolised by the serene scene of Twilight slowly emerging from the sky after her near–death
And so the hero, freed from “the fear of death” is given the the freedom to “live”. She can once again live in the moment, letting go of the past.
Thanks for reading! If you would like to dig further, take a look at “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell (that hugely inspired George Lucas) or a more modern book “The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers” by Christopher Vogler (who worked on The Lion King).