The monomyth is famous as a way to describe the journey of the hero, oft cited by writers, novelists and moviemakers as their main source of inspiration, but anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was about a lot more than heroes.
After all, what good is a hero without a villain?
He is Lex Luthor trying to stop Superman from making a better world, Magneto resisting the thought of peace, Darth Vader clinging to his childhood pain. Campbell called this archetypal bad guy Holdfast, and yet the word has never entered the popular lexicon.
“He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past, but because he keeps.”
“He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine.’ The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.”
Basically, the Holdfast is the villain who thinks of himself as working for the greater good, but is actually out to make himself as important and powerful as possible. He hates the hero both out of respect and rivalry – often he’s the hero’s own father. Letting the Holdfast win means the world stays in the dark.
“Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past, but because he keeps.”
But, like any good villain, his hubris will mean his downfall. Because he believes he is perfect, he will be defeated.
“The tyrant is proud, and therein resides his doom. He is proud because he thinks of his strength as his own; thus he is in the clown role, as a mistaker of shadow for substance; it is his destiny to be tricked.”
Sometimes the Holdfast does win, of course, and it is up to the hero’s son to battle on.
And the cycle continues.
(Quotes from Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd Edition, pages 15 and 337; images represent DC’s Darkseid and Marvel’s Destroyer Darkmass)