The hero’s journey, also known as the ‘monomyth’ (meaning literally the ‘one myth’) is a theory that has implications for both literature and media as well as for our psychology. Essentially the idea refers to the fact that there is in fact just one real story, or at least one basic narrative, that sets the rules for almost every other story seen in almost every culture. It is also said that this story is based on our most fundamental struggles that transcend culture and time and that it acts as a metaphor for the ‘right of passage’ and ‘actualisation’ that we all hope to go through – our becoming an adult and finding our way in the world, before settling down with a partner, resources and general happiness. These are the same things that may fuel much of our art too, our ambitions and our psychology.
The concept was first put forward by one Joseph Campbell in his book ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ written in 1949. Here he noted the widespread similarities between many well known narratives from around the world, while paying particular attention to folklore, fairytales and religion. These he described succinctly as:
‘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.’
Immediately we could use this to describe many myths and legends, though it is a little brief and specific in this quote. A more expansive description can be found in his 17 stages also outlined in the book. These are as follows:
The call to adventure: Here the protagonist will start off in a situation loosely described as normality. From here he is compelled to venture into the unknown. Often this is preceded by the hero feeling a sense of being trapped in their current state, or feeling out of place in their environment. Often they will be somehow different from their contemporaries and may have been orphaned or outsiders of some kind.
Refusal of the call: Normally the hero will first of all refuse to heed their call due to fear, duty, or inability. The hero at this point will be walled in, or ‘trapped’ within their state of normality. There are several things that can then force the hero to go forth – whether they be the death of someone close (often the Father) or manipulations by a higher power.
Supernatural aid: Once the hero is committed, often they will then be greeted by some form of supernatural aid. In other situations they may simply take the form of someone with great wisdom. Often they will give the hero crucial information and/or talismans/tools that can help them on their quest and that will often come in useful later on in the journey.
The crossing of the first threshold: Here the hero will actually cross into the threshold of the new world where they must complete their task.
Belly of the whale: The belly of the whale as it is referred to, is the symbolic separation between the hero’s known world and themselves as they let go of the world they have left behind and come to terms with the new world order. Often the hero will be ‘swallowed’ into this new scenario or world and will appear overwhelmed or even appear to have died. This is thought to represent how our willingness to journey into a new challenge this way is in fact a form of ‘self annihilation’. In fact it is a metamorphosis that will allow them to survive here.
The road of trials: The road of trials is a range of tasks or tests that the hero must undergo that will be subservient to their main calling and that will begin their transformation. At the same time they will often be covertly aided by their magical guide.
Meeting with the goddess: Often this is then followed by the entrance of the goddess (or god) – the romantic interest of the protagonist. Here love is shown to be all powerful and all conquering. The romance will also be shown to be compatible with the hero’s quest.
Woman as Temptress: Often there will also be some form of temptation, often in the form of another potential partner. This time the woman will attempt to lead the hero away from their quest.
Atonement with father: Here the father may or may not be an ‘actual’ Father, and is in many cases another figure representing authority from the hero’s previous state. This will then represent that character becoming a ‘man’.
Apotheosis: This point is often some form of epiphany where the hero gains extra insight into the nature o their lives and thus goes forth with extra knowledge and fulfilment.
The ultimate boon: The boon here is the goal or quest that the hero went on the journey to get – often a trinket granting immortality, or the goddess from earlier.
Refusal of the return: Here the hero has their trinket but may wish not to return to their usual state or world. This might also be because the individual feels that their message cannot be ‘communicated’ to the masses.
The magic flight: At the point the hero must often escape with the boon when they decide to do so, and this can sometimes take the form of a chase or battle.
Rescue from without: Here the hero might have to be brought back from their adventure via help from their friends in the real world, or from allies in this new domain. In this case the world might have to come and get the hero back with their boon, possibly because the hero is weakened from their ordeal.
The crossing of the return threshold: Once the hero is back they can share their wisdom or enjoy a life of piece. Sometimes this can be a psychological task as the hero is forced to come to terms with their old lives in their banality or their restrictiveness.
Master of two worlds: Sometimes the hero will be able to retain the knowledge, the aid, or some of the powers gained on their journey which will bring them more fulfilment in both. Sometimes they literally will be able to pass between worlds.
Freedom to live: The hero now lives without the fear of death, he has succeeded in his task and is ready for any changes that may come again, while having come to terms with the realities of his existence.
Looking at many of our more popular stories it is possible to see the patterns that Campbell mentions. For example the story of Superman had the orphaned hero travelling to Metropolis as Superman to find fulfilment and Lois Lane. The story of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe has the heroes travel into a new threshold where they must aid Aslan before they can return to their normal world – which proves quite a culture shock for them after their adventures as kings. There is even an aid with trinkets in the form of Santa Clause (interestingly Q from James Bond could be thought of as filling this role too). In Flight of the Navigator the hero goes on a journey with a new alien friend before returning to his normal life with lessons learned and not without a companion from his trip remaining there with him.
However Campbell’s theories were not without their flaws, and it is possible to suggest that while he started the study of the monomyth, he was too influenced by his source material and may have gotten bogged down with specifics. Many major stories feature no mention of the return to the starting point, and the emotions described will also often varied. Subsequent scholars and philosophers have gone on to expand on this theory and to find the very basic and fundamental aspects that are common in most themes in a kind of ‘Occam’s Razor’ approach such as Erich Neumann who looked at the monomyth in religious stories about Buddha, Moses, Christ and Osiris. David Adams created an eight step journey in his book ‘Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero’ which is far more fitting for many religions and major stories. They were:
- Miraculous conception and birth
- Initiation of the hero-child
- Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
- Trial and Quest
- Descent into the underworld
- Resurrection and rebirth
- Ascension, apotheosis and atonement
This can describe a vast number of hero’s stories and many religious tales. Osiris, Hercules, Jesus, Moses and others were found or immaculately conceived, sent on tasks and trials, subjected to some form of death whereby they entered a literal underworld, before being reborn stronger. Noting the similarities in these stories is fascinating for studies of religion, and while some might speculate that Osiris set a precedent, it seems possible that the beliefs all came from this underlying narrative that we all instinctively know. As an interesting side note, this demonstrates just how much Superheroes could be considered the modern day versions of these stories – particularly Superman who was found by his parents, trained for his destiny, sent away to Metropolis, forced to encounter many challenges, killed in a headline-grabbing story, before being resurrected.
This version of the hero’s journey also more accurately describes many of our modern stories and films, particularly if the death isn’t taken literally but interpreted as ‘defeat’ with the hero going through a ‘low’ third act, which sees them at the most dire point of their journey, before an epiphany or event gives them a new lease of life. The ascension, apotheosis and atonement come at the end of each story, where the hero usually has grown into a more accomplished version of themselves. At this point the journey can be used to describe every story from the major religions to rom-coms and comics.
Other scholars have noted countless other similarities across the board – with things like the goddess often being a ‘damsel in distress’ whereby they are held captive (emotionally or physically) when awaiting their hero to rescue them, either by their Father, a boyfriend or a symbolic dragon, and it is the hero’s job to best or slay them. Similarly many have noted at how the hero often finds that their home was what they were looking for all along – but that it merely takes them the journey to realise this and that this is the true ‘boon’ they were seeking.
Jung also added to this idea, by incorporating his theory of archetypes – that we all have certain characters based on our biological programming and culture that we see in dreams, visions and incorporate into our art. These are things such as the ‘shadow’ who is the protagonist’s ‘dark side’ personified. Someone like Bizzaro Superman, Shadow the Hedgehog, Warrio, Venom, Nemesis Prime etc – and in coming face to face with this nemesis the hero is thereby confronting certain aspects of themselves, and thereby helping themselves on the way to their metamorphosis or ‘rebirth’. Another is the ‘trickster’ who often gets in the hero’s way, but just as likely might help them. The trickster has the upper hand in all situations and its unsure where their allegiances lie. Examples include Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Loki, The Coyote and others. It is also possible for the trickster to be the hero themselves.
Of course all this comes from somewhere and it seems to be the right of passage we all go through. Often we feel a sense of alienation, and as we grow up we all undergo some form of training for the wide world. When we come of age we then head ‘out’ into the world, be it into the world of work or university where we aim to achieve financial security and romance. Here we often encounter a mentor who helps us further, and the object of our affections who we normally must steel away from another be it their parents or another lover. We come to terms with ourselves in this period and hopefully at the end of it all we come back a man (or woman) having learned a lot from the journey. Many psychologists and sociologists muse that we no longer have this kind of purpose and that our lives lack the kind of adventure that these stories suggest we crave. However the whole point of the hero’s journey is that it takes so many guises and sometimes it’s almost impossible to see it. Each of us are living a version of the hero’s journey right not.