Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Hero's Journey

A more elaborate version of the Hero's Journey

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 6 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!

You could call this a "meta-story."

In 1949, English professor and mythologist Joseph Campbell published a book entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he suggested that virtually all the stories about the world's heroes share a single pattern, something Campbell called The Monomyth.

As we shall see, even when the pattern isn't followed, it helps us make sense of things. Some have even applied the idea of "the hero's journey" to the way we live our lives!

I'd like to share that pattern with you. Not a "story" in itself, it is a foundation on which many stories are built, and it has helped me immensely in understanding the books I read and the movies I watch.

In its simplest form, the hero's journey involves a going forth and a return. As Campbell himself put it in a summary, The Monomyth says: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

That is, he crosses over into another world, where he achieves some goal, then returns to his world with a new status.

(Sorry, ladies: most heroes are male, and anyway the writing conventions in 1949 cast people of unknown gender as "he" and "him.")

We can distinguish five episodes in this story:

  1. Home ("the world of common day");
  2. the crossing of the First Threshold into
  3. the Other World;
  4. the crossing of the Second Threshold; and
  5. the Return.

Fleshing this out: the hero (who is not called yet a hero) is going about his business when something happens. Sometimes it is an actual call: in The Hobbit, Gandalf appears to enlist Bilbo in the dwarfs' adventure, and in China's Journey to the West, Guanyin commissions Tang Sanzang to go to India to fetch the Buddhist scriptures. Sometimes the hero is forced to go, as when a tornado carries Dorothy's house away in The Wizard of Oz; and sometimes circumstances force a choice, as when Hua Mulan saves her aged father's life by taking his place in the army.

Some heroes display a "Refusal of the Call" and never accept their task. When the ghost of Hamlet's father calls him to avenge his death, Hamlet dithers around until it's too late, and everybody dies. But most refusals are only temporary, as when Dorothy runs away from home but returns in time for the tornado to whisk her--and her house--away.

The crossing of the threshold can be dangerous. Sometimes there are fierce guardians there, like the Heng and Ha that guard the literal threshold at a temple's gate. As Dorothy's house flies through the air, she sees Miss Gulch, the woman who has caused her to "leave home," turn into a witch on a broom. Other times, the circumstances make the crossing hard. This difficulty reflects the hero's natural reluctance to leave his "comfort zone."

At last, the hero is on his (or her) way. Along the path he will often find allies, like Dorothy's three friends. Many see in such figures elements of the hero's own personality: the Scarecrow can be Dorothy's mind (he needs--and gets--a brain), the Tin Man her spirit (he needs a heart), and the Lion her body or physical appetites.

Also along the way, of course, there are challenges and enemies. But the hero will often have supernatural aid, as when Glinda intervenes to help Dorothy.

Finally, the task is completed. This may be the winning of a battle; the attaining of an object, such as the scriptures in Journey to the West; the fulfilling of a task, like the destruction of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings; a sacred marriage (which need not be an actual wedding) representing the joining of physical and spiritual natures, like when Belle dances with the Beast in Beauty and the Beast; or some other achievement. All of these represent the fulfilling of the hero's potential.

The hero must then cross the Second Threshold back into his home world, sometimes smoothly, and sometimes with more adventures. Upon his Return, he is hailed as a hero. He is now "Master of Two Worlds."

Remember, in modern stories there may be no "supernatural" element at all. A woman's husband leaves her; a man loses his job: these "heroes" are thrown into new, difficult situations--a "new world"--and must overcome obstacles, make friends, and achieve some new way of living before the story ends. Or sometimes, she or he fails. We call that, in literature as in life, "tragedy."

Joseph Campbell


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. avenge
  2. bestow
  3. boons
  4. conventions
  5. decisive
  6. dithers
  7. intervenes
  8. meta-story
  9. obstacles
  10. reluctance
  11. threshold
  12. ventures forth
  1. once-and-for-all
  2. a piece of wood, stone, or other material under a door opening
  3. can't decide; vacillates
  4. dares to go, and goes
  5. a story that includes and explains other stories
  6. gets involved
  7. problems; things that might stop one
  8. get justice for
  9. gifts; blessings
  10. the standard ways of doing things
  11. hesitation; unwillingness
  12. give

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What is The Monomyth? Who proposed it?
  2. Briefly, what are the five stages of The Monomyth?
  3. What causes a hero to go on his or her journey? What is special about the story of Hamlet?
  4. What positive and negative things happen along the hero's path?
  5. How are modern stories different from traditional ones?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Can you see any way in which The Monomyth might be useful in living your life?
  2. Do you think it's right to refer to heroes as "he"? Can you think of examples of female heroes?
  3. How accurate do you think Campbell's idea of The Monomyth is? Can you think of many stories that don't follow at least most of the pattern?

1 comment:

  1. Answers:
    Vocabulary: 1. H; 2. L; 3. I; 4. J; 5. A; 6. C; 7. F; 8. E; 9. G; 10. K; 11. B; 12. D

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)

    1. The Monomyth is a pattern found in the stories of the world's heroes, proposed by Joseph Campbell.
    2. The five stages of The Monomyth are: (1) The hero is in his home world, (2) crosses a threshold (3) into an unknown world, where he accomplishes something, (4) returns across the Second Threshold, and (5) is changed by his experience.
    3. A hero receives a "call": either an invitation, a forced journey, or a situation that pushes toward a choice. Hamlet refuses his Call, which leads to disaster.
    4. Along the way, the hero meets allies and recieves supernatural help, but also faces challenges and enemies.
    5. Modern stories are usually different because there no supernatural elements in them.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").