The Hero’s Journey made SIMPLE

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(Last updated on: 30/09/2021)

The Hero’s Journey is a theory that I have come across on many occasions throughout my life in academia, both as a student and as an academic. With both practical and philosophical applications, Cambell’s writings of The Hero’s Journey are relevant within a number of different disciplines, but what does it mean? Read on to find out…

What is The Hero’s Journey?

This is a theory within narratology and comparative mythology. It is also known as the monomyth. The hero’s journey is a common template, used in stories which involve a hero going off on an adventure. The hero is victorious in a decisive crisis, and then comes home ‘changed or transformed’. A classic – and very famous – example of this would be The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein.

The Hero's Journey
The Hobbit is a popular film.

Where does The Hero’s Journey theory come from?

The hero’s journey theory was popularised by Joseph Campbell. He was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, now one of the most expensive universities in the world. He worked primarily in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, is his most famous work. This is where he discusses The Hero’s Journey theory, or the monomyth.

He wasn’t the first to recognise this pattern, however. Otto Rank, an Austrian psychoanalyst, philosopher and writer, discussed the hero narrative – as did Lord Raglan. Both did so in the context of Freudian psychoanalysis and ritualism.

Campbell was certainly influenced by this, as well as Carl Jung’s ‘analytical psychology’. The Swiss psychiatrist coined this term in order to describe the research into his new empirical science – that of the psyche. Campbell built on all of this, and used the idea of the monomyth to both deconstruct and compare religions. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he described the narrative pattern as this:

“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.”

The Hero's Journey
Learn more about Joseph Campbell here.

Criticisms of The Hero’s Journey theory

Campbell’s work and theories have been criticised extensively. It is said to be non-scholarly, and to also be suffering from ‘source-selection bias’ – as in, Campbell is said to have been biased when choosing his sources, to make them reflect his hypothesis. Much criticism comes from those who study folklore. Barre Toelken, an American folklorist, said of Campbell that he ‘could construct a monomyth of the hero only by citing those stories that fit his preconceived mold, and leaving out equally valid stories…which did not fit the pattern’. 

Other critics of The Hero’s Journey theory say that it is vague and risks lumping all myths together in terms of their narrative. Alan Dundes, another American folklorist, said that ‘there is no single idea promulgated by amateurs that have done more harm to serious folklore study than the notion of archetype’. He has been outspoken in his criticism of Campbell and the monomyth theory.

And of course, there have been valid criticisms made in terms of Cambell’s Hero’s Journey theory focusing on the masucline and disregarding the female or feminine hero. Two books have shifted the focus onto a feminine hero. These are The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock, and Valerie Estelle Frankel’s From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend. These both examine the journeys of female heroes, and how they differ from the monomyth Campbell presented us with.

The Hero’s Journey theory itself

Let’s look at Campbell’s actual theory: The Hero’s Journey. Campbell says there are three ‘acts’ or sections. These are as follows…

  • Departure
  • Initiation
  • Return

These three sections are broken down into a further 17 subsections or steps. These 17 steps go something like this…

  • The Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Supernatural Aid
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold
  • Belly of the Whale
  • The Road of Trials
  • The Meeting with the Goddess
  • Women as the Temptress
  • Atonement with the Father/Abyss
  • Apotheosis
  • The Ultimate Boon
  • Refusal of the Return
  • The Magic Flight
  • Rescue from Without
  • The Crossing of the Return Threshold
  • Master of the Two Worlds
  • Freedom to Live

Campbell suggests that every hero’s journey within mythology can be fit into this narrative structure. And many philosophers and academics today will utilise this theory as a means to understanding different aspects of life and human behaviour. Below I’ll briefly examine each stage of the journey, with examples from contemporary fiction to illustrate each step.

The Call to Adventure

This is part of the departure act of the hero’s journey. It is the beginning of the story, in the protagonist’s ‘ordinary’ or home setting. They are just living their life when someone or something provides new information which acts as a call to venture into the unknown. An example of this can be found in the Star Wars saga. Luke lives a simple life on a farm on Tatooine with his aunt and uncle, when he receives a ‘call to adventure’ from R2-D2. This is a message of distress from Princess Leia, needing someone to transport the droid to Alderaan…

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Refusal of the Call

Stage two is where the protagonist and would-be hero refuses to go, or needs convincing. This could be for any number of reasons, such as being scared or not wanting to leave behind their current responsibilities. In the first part of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is called to adventure but is unsure about leaving his home (the Shire) as he has no previous experience of the outside world.

Supernatural Aid

By this point, the hero has decided that they will go on the adventure after all. A supernatural aid, as the name of this step suggests, appears in order to guide them and offer advice/support. Usually they give the hero something to aid them in their quest. To go back to the Star Wars example, Obi-Wan Kenobi is the supernatural aid and he presents Luke with his father’s lightsaber.

The Crossing of the First Threshold

This is still part of the departure section of The Hero’s Journey. It is when the actual adventure starts, and our hero gets going. Using another contemporary story as an example to illustrate Campbell’s theory here, we can look at The Matrix. This stage is when Neo chooses the red pill and sees what the Matrix is.

Belly of the Whale

This is the final separation, and the last stage of the departure. The hero is now completely unattached from his own world, and showing that they are going to (and are willing to) undergo some change. Usually there is some danger at this point, like Jonah himself being swallowed by a whale…

The Road of Trials

We are now in the initiation stage. The road of trials is part of the hero’s journey that sees him undergo a series of tests in order to begin his eventual transformation. There tends to be three tests, though this isn’t set in stone. The hero will often fail and then succeed. An example is the three tasks Venus sets for Psyche in the ​​ancient Roman novel Metamorphoses

The Hero's Journey

The Meeting with the Goddess

This is basically where our hero meets (any) woman. This step is the final test of the hero’s talent in order to win the ‘boon of love’. The hero will also gain items to help him on his journey. An example would be Frodo in The Lord of the Rings meeting the high elf Galadriel. She shows him a possible future and gives him a token.

Woman as the Temptress

The woman here is a metaphor for something that tempts the hero, and may lead him astray from his quest. For example – Luke in Star Wars meeting Leia, before he knows they are siblings…

Atonement with the Father/Abyss

This tends to be where the hero meets whatever it is that holds the ultimate power within his life, and this tends to be the central point of the hero’s journey. This turning point can be seen in The Lion King, when Scar admits to killing Mufasa – this causes Simba to undergo a transformation.

Apotheosis

This is the very next part of the hero’s journey theory – when the protagonist has passed the halfway point – the point of no return. They are changed and can’t turn back. This is the ‘aha’ moment of every Sherlock Holmes story, for example.

The Ultimate Boon

This is the last stage of the initiation act. Our hero will achieve his goal, and everything is worth it – like when Luke destroys the Death Star in the Star Wars saga. Every hero’s journey has one, as this is ultimately the point of the story. All previous parts of the story were simply leading up to this moment, Campbell theorises. It’s a good point.

Refusal of the Return

We are now in the return act of the hero’s journey theory. The first part is, however, the refusal of the return – our hero is so happy with himself that he doesn’t want to go back to normal life. It is almost a ‘comedown’ of sorts, after the goal has been achieved – like when Frodo and his party stay in Gondor for a while after completing their quest in LOTR.

The Magic Flight

This is when the hero must make a sudden return home. Sometimes this is supported by their supernatural aid, and sometimes it is thwarted by god, demons and so on. An example is when Neo is seen to ‘jack in’ to the Matrix.

Rescue from Without

One of the latter stages of the hero’s journey, this is almost a second half of The Magic Flight – it sees the hero being rescued or brought back home, like Sam and Frodo being rescued by eagles from Mount Doom… Linked to the Refusal to Return, Campbell explains that ‘in so far as one is alive, life will call. Society is jealous of those who remain away from it and will come knocking at the door’.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

This examines the hero’s return to his normal world, and how he must try to hold onto what he has learned on his journey. It is a symbolic rebirth, like when Sherlock Holmes finds himself and returns after eventually defeating Moriarty.

Master of the Two Worlds

This is the 16th and penultimate stage of the hero’s journey. It describes when our hero has achieved a balance between his normal life and that which he had on his quest in the ‘other world’. Another Star Wars example – this is when Luke finally becomes a jedi knight!

Freedom to Live

The final step. Our hero has defeated his enemy, achieved greatness and can now live as he pleases. For example, in Nicholas Cage’s fantastic film National Treasure, he is seen running off into his grand mansion at the end, laughing and smiling with his new girlfriend. He is settled down, and his story has come to an end.

The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey is an old theory, but at the same time it remains current. Utilised throughout the world as a means of understanding life and human behaviour, Campbell’s theory is often applied to a wide range of scenarios and situations, including those that may take place in the context of travel and tourism!

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