Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Everlasting Journey of the Hero

Naive and immature protagonist is thrust into strange and dangerous world. Guided by a wise mentor he suffers through innumerable misadventures to return, wiser and transformed. 

It is a plot arc that has been written a thousand times. Classic examples can be traced back to the beginning of storytelling itself, from early epics like Homer's Odyssey to the Arthurian tale of Percival to modern favorites like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and even Harry Potter. Scholars have even posited that the stories of Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Siddhartha Guatama fit neatly into this common pattern. This plot, a type of bildungsroman sometimes called the Hero's Journey, forms one of the keystones of storytelling throughout the ages.

The Hero's Journey
Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces
was the first work that explored the "monomyth" of the Hero's 
As a definable term, the "Hero's Journey" entered in the modern lexicon with mythology scholar Joseph Campbell's 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In this seminal work of comparative mythology, Campbell describes a recurring narrative, what he calls a "monomyth," that is present throughout the ages and across nearly every culture. What is it about this "coming of age" story that makes it so compelling it has captivated the human imagination for millennia virtually unchanged? The hero wears his thousand faces, but at his core he is the same. The details of the story, as Campbell illuminates, are recognizable to the point of predictability, yet are employed by storytellers subconsciously. It would seem that the notion of the Hero's Journey is buried inside every one of us.

The Components of the Hero's Journey
Campbell identified several stages of the Hero's Journey, split into three "acts." Here is an oversimplification of each using modern or classic examples:

Act I- Departure
  1. Call to Adventure- The call to adventure most often interrupts the hero's stasis of normalcy, pushing him (I will say "him" throughout but the Hero's Journey can and has been undertaken by many female figures as well) towards a dangerous fate at the end of a long, desperate road. Usually this call to adventure is forced on the hero. For example, when Gandalf sends Bilbo out against his will with his dwarf companions in search of the Lonely Mountain, or when Odysseus is driven into the far seas by Poseidon's angry winds. Both represent a sudden, unexpected departure and the beginning of an obstacle-laden journey.
  2. Refusal of the Call- In many examples, the Hero experiences a moment of fear, doubt, and unwillingness which often leads to them refusing the call. Such as Luke Skywalker's reluctance to abandon his aunt and uncle at the moisture farm to join Obe Wan Kenobe's journey to Alderaan.
  3. Supernatural Aid- Inevitably the Hero meets a helper, often in the form of a guide, crone or older mentor (which coincidentally often fits cleanly with Carl Jung's archetype of the wise old man, or "senex"). This guide frequently presents the hero with a token or amulet that will help keep him safe on his journey, such as Obe Wan gifting Luke with the lightsaber, or Dumbledore giving Harry the cloak of invisibility.
  4. Crossing the Threshold- The point at which the Hero departs the safety of his world and begins the epic journey. Sometimes the order of these things can vary, but think of how Bilbo runs out of Bag End, famously forgetting his hat.
  5. Belly of the Whale- A first crisis, one that often appears nearly fatal, represents the final departure from the hero's former world and his plunging headlong into the journey. With The Hobbit, this could be either the run-in with the trolls or perhaps, even better, Bilbo getting lost in the tunnels and having to face Gollum in a riddling contest.
Act II- Initiation
  1. The Road of Trials- The road of trials is a series of tests that the Hero must face in order to gain
    George Lucas used The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template for Star Wars
    The original Star Wars trilogy fits nicely into the Hero's Journey
    framework, a move that was intentional by George Lucas
    wisdom, skill and knowledge that will help his reach his ultimate success. The hero often fails at one or more of them and is bailed out by his mentor, often covertly. Frodo has to survive being grabbed by Old Man Willow, captured by the barrow wights, and being stabbed by a morgul blade at Weathertop, among other things, before he has the strength to face his ultimate test at Mount Doom.
  2. The Temptress- Having passed, or merely survived, many of the early trials, the hero now faces temptation(s) that threaten to draw him away from his journey. This does not always have to be a woman as the term temptress implies, but it represents the seduction or lusts that could draw the hero from his quest into an apparently easy life of pleasure. A classic example is Circe in the Odyssey. Circe is a goddess who gives Odysseus and his men comfort, food and drink. At this point their quest nearly fails as they grow gluttonous (and are even turned into swine) on pleasures of the flesh.
  3. Atonement with the Father- The hero now faces the figure which holds the ultimate power over his life, often represented by a male figure or even the character's literal father. An obvious example is Luke's confrontation with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. While it is difficult to say Luke and Anakin reach "atonement" in this sequence, it is the confrontation, and the subsequent acquisition of knowledge, that is at the heart of the quest.
  4. Apotheosis- Apotheosis is the point in which Hero realizes he has reached a greater understanding. Like Luke casting aside his light saber after defeating Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi and proclaiming himself a "jedi." The hero is now ready for the final and most dangerous part of the journey.
  5. The Ultimate Boon- The ultimate achievement of the goal or quest. Having survived the trials, reached his state of enlightenment, the Hero is now ready to complete the goal he set out to accomplish. This is when Frodo finally casts the ring into the lava at Mount Doom, or Harry defeats Lord Voldemort, or Luke (and Anakin together) overthrow the Emperor. The goal is achieved and the most dangerous part of the quest is over.
Act III- The Return
  1. Refusal of the Return/Magic Flight- Much like how the Hero needs help getting through the threshold, he may also need help starting the return. In many instances, an escape is necessary for our hero. As Campbell says: "The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him." For example, without being rescued by the eagles in The Return of the King, Frodo (and Sam) would have laid on the rocks until the lava overtook them.
  2. Crossing the Return Threshold- A crucial part of the complete Hero's Journey is the return. The character struggles processing what he has learned and, by extension, how to share that wisdom with the rest of the world. In The Return of the King, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin return to the Shire to find it overrun by crooked men and hobbits who are operating under the will of a depleted, malicious Saruman. The world they have returned to is an ugly pantomime of the one they left and they must now utilize the wisdom gained on their journey to rescue their former world.
  3. Freedom to Live- In the final stage of the journey, the Hero reaches an inner peace with the world that he has faced, how it has changed and how it changed him. The shedding of the fear of dying allows the character, at last, to live fully in peace. This can be seen in Harry's settling down to marry Ginny, have children together, and make peace with Malfoy. This moment of understanding is also apparent at the last moment of the Return of the Jedi when Luke sees the corporeal figures of Anakin, Obe Wan and Yoda apparently restored to their former selves, peaceful and unified, representing the achievement of inner peace.
The Hero's Journey in Today's World

Odysseus fits nicely into the framework of the bildungsroman or the Hero's Journey
A depiction of the Odyssey from the 2nd century
There is something innately pleasing about the Hero's Journey that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Literally or metaphorically we all undergo journeys. It is through these trials, quests and accomplishments that we grow most profoundly into the wise people we are bound to become. Innovation as a storyteller then comes in ways we can invent a new and more interesting Hero, or creatively tweak the setting to create something fresh.

Or perhaps there is more. Perhaps we can subvert the Hero's Journey and show how its convenient template fails our modern world, either in part or catastrophically and completely.

In Joe Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged, we find a corrupted version of the Hero's Journey. In this novel the heroes are guided on a journey far from home that ends in a triumphant return of sorts. Outwardly it looks like that familiar form all over. But Abercrombie subverts the tale in several interesting ways. Instead of a wise old mentor, we get the wizard Bayaz, a corrupt, selfish and dangerous figure whose goal isn't to guide the hero's self discovery but to further his own wicked ends. And the ultimate boon turns out not to be some great object of power and wisdom but no more than a worthless rock. This intriguing, and perhaps quite intentional, subversion paints a non-idealized and realistic version of the journey that ultimately feels more applicable to the real world. 

It seems painfully possible that the Hero's Journey was a myth all along, something we're taught to believe in impractically, like the romantic notion of "the one" or the myth of "happily ever after." Perhaps the notion of the Hero is toxic: a projection of corrupt idealism in a realist's world whose failure is in part responsible for far-reaching cultural fatigue and disappointment. As storytellers it's our job to interpret the narratives of the world and either to forge a new and metamorphosing mythology that better fits the ever-transforming world or to reinforce the well-trodden trails until they are so deep that even those who are astray can easily return.

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  1. I think the hero's journey is powerful and dangerous. Learning about it has helped me understand more about what makes a story work, but I've also heard the argument that it's not supposed to be a tool for helping writers to structure their stories, but more a way for people studying stories to understand them. I think trying to shoehorn a story into this kind of mould without understanding it can lead to something stilted and dead.

    Intentionally subverting it can also be risky. There are psychological reasons why certain things work well in stories (thus are repeated over and over again, thus become tropes to subvert). Subversion can be good, but not when it destroys the reason the thing worked in the first place, and doesn't have its own reason to work.

    1. Interesting perspective. Some writers do (George Lucas) overtly pattern their stories after the Hero's Journey, and I have actually read at least one Amazon book blurb said the writer challenged and subverted it. Reading this was partially what prompted the idea for this blog post. Personally, I would never force my story to be something nor waste too much energy trying to make it be the opposite. A story works because it is a good story and has intriguing characters. Some authors prefer that type of heavy-handed approach but I tend to prefer to "feel" what seems natural.

      Anyway, thanks for taking a look!