Joseph Campbell is one of my heroes. His writing is vast and covers a wide range of human experiences. If you get a chance, I highly recommend taking the time to read one of his many books. He is the creator of the term ‘finding your bliss’, and he established the famous ‘hero’s journey’. In case you aren’t aware of what the hero’s journey is, let me provide you with a brief overview. And, please note, where I write ‘hero’ I am talking about a male or female hero. ‘Heroine’ seems like such an old-fashioned word to me, and using hero keeps things simple. I like simple. I’m going to use ‘her’ for the hero’s journey segment, but feel free to replace that term with whatever is appropriate for your gender.
Campbell studied mythology and symbology for many years. His interest began when he spent about four years reading in a cabin in the woods during the Great Depression. It was during that time that he identified some common themes running through the hero myths and legends from around the world. He identified a set of stages that a hero must go through on his journey, on his own unique quest. Interestingly, these stages are the same no matter in what country the story originates.
Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey has been the inspiration for many famous writers and film-makers. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, said that The Hero’s Journey was the inspiration for his famous movies. It can be speculated that it is because George Lucas used such a time-honored structure that his films worked so well and became so iconic and globally popular. As we walk through each of these stages, see if you can identify how they relate to you.
The journey begins in what is considered the ordinary world, the world we currently operate in, the generally uneventful world of routine day-to-day living. The hero may be considered a bit unusual or odd by those operating within the norms of society. Additionally, the hero often possesses some ability or characteristic that may make her special and different, but may also make her feel out of place. A good example is Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, in Kansas before the cyclone strikes – she is alone, perhaps a bit isolated, and feeling out of place in her world, where she doesn’t seem to quite fit in.
The next stage is when our hero receives a call to adventure and is called away from the ordinary world to begin their quest. The hero may initially show some reluctance to leave their home, friends, and family to head away, but usually they will accept the quest that is their destiny. The hero may happen upon their quest by accident or may be called to the quest to save their world.
The quest takes place in another world, which Campbell describes as a “fateful region of both treasure and danger...a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state...a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.” This description appears to cover many magical realms. It reminds me of the magical world Alice discovers in the story of Alice in Wonderland.
Next, there is the refusal of the quest or the challenge to the quest. This stage occurs when the hero is called to adventure and given a task or quest that only they can complete. At this stage, they do have a choice – they can accept the quest or deny it. Although this may seem like a simple matter when looked at superficially, it is not as clear-cut as you might imagine. The hero may be tempted by another offer, or possibly a reward to stay at home, or they may decide that they don’t want to accept their destiny. Remember the temptation I had to go to Peru rather than heed my call to adventure.
Unfortunately, for those heroes who decide that they do not, for whatever reason, want to accept their destiny, the future is not a rosy one. These individuals generally end up being the characters in need of rescuing or may even end up as the villain in a future tale.
Let me interrupt the story for just a moment, and ask you, does this remind you of anyone? Do you know of people who have been offered an amazing opportunity that required considerable life changes but also offered a huge opportunity for growth, who were not brave enough to take the opportunity when it was presented, and ended up becoming bitter and frustrated? For those accepting the call, sometimes it is a matter of the call having to be presented a number of times until it is finally accepted.
As the hero embarks on her journey she enters the world of the unknown, a world that may be filled with supernatural creatures, spectacular vistas, adventures, and dangers. This new world will have a set of rules that are different from the hero’s homeworld. The hero learns these rules as she progresses on the journey. This is the start of her learning process, which continues through the entire quest experience.
It is at this ‘point of entry’ into the new world that the hero is likely to meet their mentor. This stage has also been interpreted to mean that the hero will receive some form of supernatural assistance before beginning their quest. The mentor has already mastered the new world and can provide the hero with confidence, insights, advice, training, and sometimes magical gifts that may overcome future challenges. The mentor shares his experience and knowledge so the hero is not rushing blindly into the new world. The mentor often provides a gift or some form of wisdom that is required for the quest to be completed. To quote Campbell himself, “One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear.” A good example of the mentor archetype is Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
The next step is crossing the threshold, where the hero commits to the journey. The hero is now ready to cross the gateway that separates the ordinary world from the world of the quest. The crossing may require the acceptance of one’s fears, a map of the journey, or perhaps an incentive offered by someone else. The hero must confront an event that forces her to commit to entering the new world. At this point, there is no turning back. The event will directly affect the hero, raising the stakes and forcing some action. The event may be an outside force, such as the abduction of someone close to the hero that pushes her ahead. Or there may be a chase that pushes the hero to the brink, forcing her to move forward and commit fully to the quest.
After crossing the threshold, the hero faces tests, encounters allies, confronts enemies, and learns the rules of the special new world she has entered. This is the introduction to the new world, and we can see how it contrasts with the ordinary world the hero has come from. It is at this stage in the journey that the hero determines who can be trusted. A sidekick may be found, or even a full hero team developed. Enemies reveal themselves, and a rival to the hero’s goal may emerge. The hero must begin to prepare herself for the greater ordeals to come, and so tests her skills, and, if possible, receives further training from the mentor.
The hero must then approach the innermost cave that leads to the journey’s heart or the central ordeal of the quest. Maps are reviewed, attacks planned, and the enemy’s forces whittled down before the hero can face her greatest fear or the supreme danger that is lurking. The approach offers a chance of a break for the hero and her team before the final ordeal. The team may need to regroup, remember the dead, and rekindle morale. At this point in the journey time may be running out, or the stakes may rise.
The hero reaches the ordeal, the central life-or-death crisis during which she faces her greatest fear and confronts her most difficult challenge. She may experience a form of ‘death’. She may teeter on the brink of failure, and we may wonder if our hero will survive. It is only through ‘death’ that the hero can be reborn, experiencing a resurrection that offers greater powers or insight to see the journey through to the end. This is often the ultimate battle of good versus evil.
Once the hero has survived death and overcome her greatest fear or fears she will earn the reward she has been seeking. The reward may come in many forms – it may be a magical weapon, a secret potion, knowledge or wisdom, or the return of relationships lost. No matter what the treasure, the hero has earned the right to celebrate. The celebration gives the hero a new burst of energy.
Next, the hero must recommit to finishing the journey and taking the road back to the ordinary world. The hero’s success in the other world may make it difficult for the hero to return home. Like crossing the threshold, the return home may require a special event or something that pushes the hero back toward home. This event may re-establish the central dramatic question, pushing the hero to action and raising the stakes. As with any strong turning point, the action that galvanizes the road back may very well change the direction of the story.
The hero then faces the resurrection, another dangerous meeting with death. This is the final life-and-death ordeal that shows that the hero has learnt and maintained what she needs to bring back with her to the ordinary world. This is a final ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’ that must occur now that the hero has emerged from the other world. The hero is reborn or transformed with the addition of the lessons and insights learned from her journey.
Once the hero has been resurrected, she has earned the right to return with the elixir to the ordinary world. The elixir can be a great treasure or magic potion, it could be love, wisdom, or simply the experience of surviving the other world. The hero may share the benefit of the elixir, using it to heal a physical or emotional wound or to accomplish tasks that had previously been considered impossible in the ordinary world. The return signals a time when rewards and punishments are dished out, and the end of the journey is celebrated. The return with the elixir generally brings closure to the story and balance to the world. The hero can embark on a new life knowing she has survived the trials of her journey.
“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.”
William Shakespeare (As You Like It)
Throughout the journey, there are many archetypes or roles that characters play. You can consider each archetype as a mask that a character wears in a scene. Sometimes the character may wear the same mask throughout the story. However, as with life, each character may play many roles throughout the journey and represent different archetypes. The key archetypes are listed below:
Hero – to serve and sacrifice
Mentor – to guide
Threshold Guardian – to test
Herald – to warn and challenge
Shapeshifter – to question and deceive
Shadow – to destroy
Trickster – to disrupt
Allies – to offer support
You may find that you face similar archetypes in your own journey through life.
What I love about the hero’s journey is that it is surprisingly reflective of what happens in our own lives. You may think, no way, I’ve never journeyed to another world, I’ve never fought dragons, I’ve never died and been resurrected. But think of the hero’s journey as a metaphor for life, with each stage of the journey symbolic of a stage of life.
This excerpt comes from my most recent book - Ready For A Career Change.
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