The Hero’s Journey is a fundamental paradigm of human experience that is frequently the basis for written stories, drama, and film. It was initially described by mythologist Joseph Campbell, who relied in part on the insights of psychologist Carl Jung. The stages and archetypes of the Journey have been developed and applied to film by Christopher Vogler. The writings of these men demonstrate that the Journey is helpful in understanding both fiction and reality.
What follows may be modified and used as a handout or serve as the basis for direct instruction. It is designed to be used with TWM’s Lesson plans on the Hero’s Journey which are listed in the English Language Arts Subject Index.
Most films recommended by TWM for the study of the Journey are not action/adventure movies. This will allow teachers to demonstrate that this structure can be found in any important quest and in all types of stories.
The Hero’s Journey in Life and Art
The human condition requires purposeful effort for any achievement and often for survival. Myths and stories in all cultures contain tales of successful quests through which great achievements have been made. Some are efforts to save an individual or a group; others are missions to protect or transform a community; many are stories of personal growth and development. The protagonists of these successful quests are often called heroes and the tale of their efforts has come to be known as “the Hero’s Journey.” Mythologist Joseph Campbell, who pioneered the study of the Hero’s Journey, referred to it as “the Monomyth” because it appears in all cultures and is basic to what it means to be human.
The origins of the Hero’s Journey/Monomyth are in the earliest beginnings of the human race. Undoubtedly, tales of struggle and triumph were heard around campfires of tribes long forgotten. When starvation had stalked the community, there would be a celebration when hunters returned from the first successful effort after many failures. The hunters would have told the story of the difficulties they had overcome and their eventual triumph. When tribes had been locked in mortal combat and the resolution had been in doubt, the victors would have delighted in recalling the tale of the battle and how they had vanquished the enemy. Those best at telling stories, people who had a way with words or music, would be asked to repeat the tale, again and again, praising those who had saved the community.
When people started to put stories into writing, the first epic poem was The Odyssey, which describes the Hero’s Journey of Odysseus on his quest to return home from the Trojan War. Since that time, stories of the Monomyth have appeared in countless variations, not only in epic poems, but also in novels, comic books, and plays. Movie plots frequently employ versions of the Hero’s Journey.
Joseph Campbell describes the mythical quest in its simplest form:
A hero ventures forth from the world of the 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.
In life and in fiction, certain stages can be identified in most Hero’s Journeys. These include a starting place, an ordinary world that is somehow deficient or inadequate; a call to action; first steps on the journey; meeting with a mentor; the crisis, a reward, and a return with the result or a prize that corrects the deficiency or inadequacy that launched the quest. Each journey has its unique aspects and not all stories of the Monomyth contain all of the stages of the classic Hero’s Journey. In many situations, some of the stages are combined or occur simultaneously. The order of the steps usually follow in a certain sequence, but not always. Different scholars have described the stages in slightly different ways, but in countless myths and stories, the outline of the Hero’s Journey can be clearly seen.
In addition, stories that manifest the Monomyth contain certain types of characters whose functions relate to the hero’s progress on the Journey. These include not only the hero and the mentor, but also the threshold guardian, the shadow, the trickster, and the shapeshifter. In similar fashion to the stages of the Journey, not all of these characters appear in every Hero’s Journey and in some Journeys functions of different character types are combined in one individual. Because these character types have a structural relationship to the Hero’s Journey and they are parts of the human experience that appear in generation after generation and in story after story, they are called the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey.
The Monomyth can appear in many different types of stories. Adventure tales describe the experiences of heroes as they overcome villains who threaten certain individuals or endanger an entire community. In a romance, one of the characters, or the couple acting together, are on a quest to requite their love and live happily ever after. Sports stories involve the effort of one team or one contestant to triumph over all the others. In tales of personal transformation and growth, people examine their own lives, muster the courage to change, and accept the challenges presented on the path to fulfillment. Each of these types of stories often employ the stages of the Hero’s Journey.
One reason that the Monomyth has endured is that it matches the way in which many events actually occur: it illustrates how human beings on an important quest interact with their environment and with other people. Each person will at certain times in life perform different versions of the Hero’s Journey or they will see others do it. Some people will go on a quest to make a difference in society; most people will, at times, serve as the hero for a quest that is important to their family, their school, a friend, or themselves. One example of the Hero’s Journey, which has been undertaken by millions of people will be explored in detail in detail in this essay. It is the journey of an alcoholic or a drug addict who decides to take control of life and stop using drugs.
Stages of the Hero’s Journey
Set out below is a description of the stages of the Hero’s Journey developed for screenwriters by Hollywood story consultant Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. Vogler’s work is based on the stages of the Monomyth developed by Joseph Campbell.
Note that: Vogler’s formulation of the Hero’s Journey is not the classic mythical journey in which there is repeated divine intervention and a meeting with the goddess. Vogler’s version is updated for modern sensibilities and reflects the contemporary view of life. It has been adopted by TWM because it has direct relevance to the stories told in film and, quite often, to quests undertaken by people living in modern times. Note also that while Vogler’s work has been in movie-making, the insights in his book apply to any work of fiction.
The stages of the Hero’s Journey can be separated into three sections. The first consists of the expository phase of the story. The second unfolds the complications and the crisis which describe the Hero’s struggle and provide the action in the story. The third section concludes the journey with resolution and denouement.
SECTION ONE — Introduction to Setting, Characters, and Conflict
1. The Ordinary World: This is the setting with which the protagonist is familiar, the life experienced before the quest. There will probably be many loved ones and the comfort of familiarity in the Ordinary World. However, in some way it is unstable or dissatisfying for the protagonist of the mission described in the story; either the Ordinary World has changed or the hero-to-be comes to feel the need for change due to some internal conflict or realization. In some tales that express the Monomyth, the Ordinary World has been destroyed or made uninhabitable by an outside force and the protagonist has no choice but to start on the journey to find a new life. In other stories, the Ordinary World still exists and often exerts a strong influence pulling the protagonist back from the challenges of the quest. In the classic Hero’s Journey, a victorious hero returns to the Ordinary World bringing back objects: the hunter brings food and the victor brings the spoils of war. In other Journeys there is no return to the Ordinary World and the successful hero lives in a new world that is better than the old. This also occurs in quests of personal growth in which a character seeks to resolve contradictions in his or her personality or overcome an emotional challenge, such as grief from the loss of a loved one.
The journey of an alcoholic/addict from addiction to sobriety is an example of a Hero’s Journey. Like all examples of the Monomyth, in life or in fiction, it has its unique aspects. For example, the journey of the recovering alcoholic/addict continues through the life of the individual and has no final conclusion. This contrasts sharply with most Hero’s Journeys, such as those of a hunt to bring food back to the starving clan or the tale of an athlete who wins a medal at the Olympics. However, most stages of the Monomyth are clearly evident in an alcoholic/addict’s road to recovery.
The Ordinary World of alcoholics and drug users are the days, months and years before they decide to quit. For an alcoholic/addict the ordinary world is one in which the drug controls most actions. It is a time of lying, cheating and stealing to support the habit. It is a time in which the alcoholic/addict manipulates loved ones to support the habit or avoid the consequences of an intoxicated life. It is a time of failing to meet responsibilities and in a fundamental way, it is a time of being isolated and alone. For many heroes the comfort and familiarity of the Ordinary World calls to them during their journey, and that is certainly true for alcoholics/addicts. Many recovering alcoholics and drug abusers never lose the urge for their intoxicant of choice.
2. The Call to Adventure: The call to adventure can take many forms, but it always pulls the protagonist away from the Ordinary World into a new situation. The Call to Adventure may be something that the hero-to-be voluntarily accepts or it may be an event which compels the journey, leaving the protagonist no choice but to embark on the journey.
For many heroes there is one call to adventure that sets them on the Journey. For alcoholics/addicts, there are usually many calls to change their lifestyle. For those who become the heroes of their own journey to sobriety, there is a Call to Adventure that finally sends them on their journey. Recovering alcoholics/addicts call this “hitting bottom.” That’s the time when the alcoholic/addict realizes that to continue drink alcohol or use drugs is intolerable. Some come to understand that they will actually die unless they stop. Some, who drive drunk, realize that they will probably kill someone else as well. For others, it’s the knowledge that continuing as an alcoholic/addict will destroy their relationship with their children or other people whom they love.
3. Refusing the Call: At one point (or on many occasions) the potential hero feels the pull of the familiar comforts of the Ordinary World and resists going on the adventure. After all, every quest carries with it the risk of failure and some Journeys are downright dangerous.
There are many alcoholics/addicts who relapse and after hitting bottom, start to use alcohol or drugs again. This is the equivalent of Refusing the Call to the adventure of their personal Hero’s Journey to sobriety. Some of them can rebound from this set back and continue on with their quest; others are lost.
4. Meeting with the Mentor: A Mentor is a guide or a teacher who will help the hero-to-be gather the courage, find the right path, or pass the tests required for successful completion of their mission. The meeting with the Mentor can come at any point in the Hero’s Journey.
Mentorship is so important for recovering alcoholics/addicts that everyone who enrolls in Alcoholics Anonymous is assigned a sponsor, a person to whom they can go for support and who will answer questions about the process of recovery. The same is true in many treatment programs for alcohol or drug addiction. The sponsor is the mentor for the recovering alcoholic/addict. Of course, alcoholics/addicts can also find people outside of AA or their treatment program to serve as mentors.
5. Crossing the First Threshold: This is the point at which there is no turning back without an admission that the protagonist is not to be a hero. Crossing the first threshold can be a voluntary, considered action or it can be an external event which launches the protagonist on the quest.
For most alcoholic/addicts, Crossing the First Threshold is entering treatment or attending the first AA meeting and committing themselves to join the program. For the very few people who can rid themselves of addiction without AA or a treatment program, Crossing the First Threshold is the first time they put down a drink or a syringe, the first time they reject a line of cocaine, with a personal commitment to stop using drugs and reform their life. However, alcoholics/addicts can always start their quest again, and in this way, the turning back is not a permanent admission that they will not be a hero. In this way, the journey of an alcoholic/addict to sobriety differs from the classic Hero’s Journey.
SECTION TWO — Action, Climax, Triumph
6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: In most important quests there will be obstacles to overcome and challenges to meet; on most, there will be allies to assist the protagonist toward the goal. There may also be enemies seeking to obstruct the way. Enemies may also be aspects of nature or a part of the protagonist’s psyche. In both film and literature, these elements of the Journey provide the action, provoke interest, and serve as complications on the path to the goal.
Many alcoholic/addicts never lose the desire for intoxication; every day they must resist the urge to relapse. In AA there is a saying that recovery occurs one day at a time; every day is a test for the heroes of their own journeys to sobriety. There are also special challenges, as when, at a party, someone mistakenly hands a drink with alcohol to the person in recovery. Another test may occur during a time of emotional distress when the desire to escape and numb reality becomes especially strong. There are allies on the road of recovery, such as family and friends who provide support as well as other members of AA. There are also enemies, such as friends who still drink or use drugs and who want to include the recovering alcoholic/addict in their intoxicated experiences.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: This is the turning point, the moment in which the protagonist seems to realize completely what must be done and to accept all accompanied risks including the possibility of failure. In some stories, failure means death. The Approach to the Inmost Cave is an essential element in most stories describing a quest. It reveals the fact that the hero-to-be is operating with full awareness of the consequences of failure.
There comes a time when the alcoholic/addict is well launched on sobriety and realizes the extent to which their life has changed and will change forever. This occurs when people in recovery fully accept that they will never again enjoy the intoxication of the drug, something that is desperately desired and physically craved. It comes when they understand that all aspects of the intoxicated life are being left behind. But there are also the benefits of recovery which beckon and the alcoholic/addict must choose. In recovery from alcoholism/addiction, this stage may come after the Ordeal, while in most Hero’s Journeys in which there is a specific challenge that has to be overcome, this stage comes just before the Ordeal. “Hitting bottom” could also be seen as the Approach to the Inmost cave, but this occurs early in the process and is more like the Call to Action.
8. Ordeal: The climax, or the peak experience in the adventure, appears in virtually all stories. The hero-to-be faces the moment of truth: will he or she prevail in the struggle with the enemy?
For a person entering recovery from alcoholism/addiction, the most intense times often occur early on, when the body’s physical desire for the drug is the most intense. However, given the nature of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, the moment of truth can be said to reoccur occasionally throughout the life of an alcoholic/addict, or even every day. As they say, for many alcoholic/addicts it’s one day at a time.
9. Reward: The payoff for the protagonist’s struggle may be as simple as survival or it may involve fantastic riches or symbolic prizes that make the experience worthwhile. The Reward may be personal growth, self-knowledge, or the reconciliation of conflicting parts of the personality.
The payoff for a recovering alcoholic/addict is a life without addiction and all that this means for a better quality existence. For many, it means avoiding death, because the alcoholism/drug addiction would have killed them. Many alcoholics stopped maturing emotionally on the day they started to drink, usually as a teenager. When they had a problem in life, instead of dealing with it and learning what was necessary for growth and development, they just took several drinks or a hit from the drug. Many alcoholics/addicts report that when they went into recovery, they were back at the age when they began their intoxicated lifestyle. Recovery allows them to experience growth to maturity, with all of its challenges and rewards.
SECTION THREE — Resolution and Denouement
10. The Road Back: Returning to the ordinary world can be a difficult journey in itself and may offer additional risks for the adventuring protagonist, who is still not yet a hero. Some will be able to negotiate the Road Back and some will not: the hunter bringing the kill back to the village may be set upon by a pack of wolves who steal the hard won prey. For those protagonists who do not successfully pass this stage, the quest ends in failure; they never become heroes.
The road back for a recovering alcoholic/addict can be seen as the rest of their life. In the alternative, it can be said that this stage is absent in this version of the Hero’s Journey.
11. Resurrection: At this point, the protagonist, now a Hero, becomes transformed by the experience of the quest into a new, or at least a better, person.
An alcoholic/addict committed to recovery is a transformed person.
12. Return with the Elixir: In stories in which the Ordinary World still exists, upon re-entering that world, the Hero shares with those who stayed behind the prize won on the adventure. The Elixir shared can be abstract, such as love, or it can be concrete, such as something the group needs in order to survive or prosper. When the Ordinary World no longer exists or the Hero cannot, for some reason, return to the Ordinary World, the Hero will share the Elixir with those who accompanied him or her on the quest or those who inhabit the new world in which the victorious Hero will live. In journeys of personal growth and development, the Elixir is the new realization that the Hero has about life or about the self. The last two or three stages are often combined, especially in journeys of personal growth and development.
The Elixir for the recovering alcoholic/addict is the understanding that a sober life is better than an intoxicated life.
Archetypes in Life and Art
Certain character types and their structural relationships with others in family and community are parts of the human experience that repeat again and again. The functions of the father, the mother, the child, the hero, the mentor, and the trickster are found in most cultures and are timeless. People can take on different roles multiple times during their lives and they will change roles depending upon the situations in which they find themselves. For example, a person may be on a quest in one aspect of life and therefore take on the function of the hero, while at another time or in a different set of circumstances, the same person may function as a mentor for someone else’s quest. People can take on different roles in different situations and at different times. People are children in relation to their parents and later they are parents to their own children. As parents age, they become more child-like and their children take on the role of parent. People can take on more than one function at the same time. For example, every parent takes on different aspects of the mother (nurturing) and of the father (stern and judging); that is, aspects of both the mother and the father usually exist in varying degrees in any parent; and the relative strength of the different roles changes over time and as the situation changes.
Character types which have persisted over centuries and across cultures are called archetypes. The concept of archetypes is derived from the work of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who theorized that people are born with a psychic inheritance, a collective unconscious, which affects all of human experience. Jung believed that this knowledge lies in our unconscious mind and can only be accessed indirectly through dreams, myths, forms of religious belief, and the arts, such as written fiction, movies, visual arts, music, and dance. It may be the Jung was correct or it may be that people learn about archetypes as children because there are certain basic ways in which human beings relate to each other in societies, in families, and in personal relationships. Whatever the source of the knowledge, the concept of archetype helps to organize and clarify human experience. As such, archetypes are an important part of understanding life and telling a story, whether in written form or presented on stage or screen.
Another way to look at archetypes is that they embody energies in the psyche that seek to fulfill a function in life and in story. Thus, one character can provide the energy to nurture, another the impetus to quest, a third the desire to the mentor, while a fourth provides the force of a leader, etc. The mother archetype nurtures, the father archetype judges, and the mentor archetype gives sage advice, etc. A person functions as a hero when engaging in purposeful effort, for example, putting a man on the moon or a journey of personal growth. The effort could be as simple as going on a trip and as mundane as learning to fit in when starting at a new school or asking a girl to go out on a date.
Every school contains character types that have existed for as long as we have had schools and which can be considered archetypes. The bully, the sports jock, the nerd, the class clown, and the teacher’s pet are examples. Centuries ago, the bully pattern of personality would have been evident in the powerful hunter or warrior who used his strength to dominate and hurt others. The characteristics of a bully contrast with those of a true leader, another archetype, who uses intelligence, knowledge, or the power of personality to take care of his people. And although math or science as fields of study are rather new in the long history of mankind, certainly there were members of ancient societies who involved themselves with numbers and were devoted to the accuracy of exchange, the measurement of distances, and even the passage of time. There have always been court jesters and comedians, and, of course, an individual favored by a person with power. Each of these functional types have recognizable expressions in school society.
While each archetype has its own constellation of attributes which most people recognize, everyone who functions as an archetypal character, in life and in story, will also have unique characteristics depending upon their culture, their own personality, and the situation. Dorothy Gale of The Wizard of Oz is a true heroine who defeats formidable adversaries on her journey. However, Dorothy, as required of a female by her culture, her time and her story, is always kind and considerate. While she kills the wicked witches of the East and the West as thoroughly as any action/adventure hero vanquishes a villain, Dorothy always kills by accident and without an intent to harm.
Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, refers to archetypes as elementary ideas and asserts that anthropologists and archeologists can account for the differences in the archetypes in mythologies across the globe as responses to environmental factors. In stories, the use of archetypes builds an empathic reaction as each reader or viewer sees many familiar aspects of characters who take on the archetypal roles. There is universal appeal when protagonists, antagonists, and ancillary characters exhibit aspects of various archetypes.
Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey – Characters of the Monomyth
There are certain archetypes which are often associated with the Hero’s Journey; their functions relate to the conduct of a quest. The following description of the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey are brief summaries derived from Christopher Vogler’s book. Mr. Vogler based his analysis on the ideas of psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Note that these summaries are an attempt to briefly describe complex personality patterns; they are necessarily incomplete.
1. The Hero is the person who embarks on the quest seeking to correct an imbalance in community, family, or psyche. For journeys of internal growth or reformation, the hero searches for the true self in its wholeness. The Hero can be willing or unwilling and can be acting on a matter which concerns society as a whole, relates to a specific group of people, or is personal to the Hero. The Hero can act alone or as the leader of a group.
2. A Mentor is an important individual, who transmits encouragement, understanding and wisdom to the Hero. The Mentor can simply give helpful advice or the mentor may also intervene and help the Hero surmount the challenges of the particular quest.
3. Threshold Guardians are characters who serve to challenge or obstruct the Hero’s progress from one stage of the Journey to another. They stand at the gateways to new experiences; their role is to keep the unworthy from continuing on the Journey. The Hero must prove his or her worthiness in some way, often by defeating and killing the Threshold Guardian or by passing some test.
4. A Herald issues challenges and announces the coming of significant change. The Herald is the voice demanding change and providing motivation for the protagonist to get on with the journey.
5. Shapeshifters, as seen from the Hero’s point of view, appear to change their form. The change may be in appearance, in mood, or in function with respect to the quest. For example, the Hero may have a romantic interest in a person who is fickle or two-faced. That person is a Shapeshifter.
6. The Shadow is a character who reflects or represents the dark, unexpressed, or rejected aspects of something, often a part of the Hero’s personality. A shadow character has the function of presenting the allure of qualities that a person must renounce and root out in order to successfully complete the quest.
7. The Trickster who sometimes supplies comic relief in a story, is nonetheless important as a catalyst for change and can sometimes be a Hero in his or her own right. Tricksters are also often Shapeshifters.
Some Other Important Literary Archetypes
Some of the archetypes identified by Carl Jung that are frequently found in the literature are summarized below.
1. The Father: Jung saw the authority figure as a powerful, serious-minded father, stern and judging. Usually, a character manifesting this archetype is male, but not always.
2. The mother: The individual who represents nurturing and caregiving is the Mother archetype. Often a character manifesting this archetype is female, but not always. Mentors often nurture and they are often male.
3. The Child: This archetype represents the innocence and potential for growth of children, who, with their honesty, pure-mindedness, and drive for growth and development offer salvation to errant adults. The Child Savior is a subset of this archetype. See TWM’s The Child Savior: An Example of a Literary Archetype.
4. The Maiden: Like the child, the maiden represents innocence and pure intention but has the added element of female sexual possibility and transition to another female archetype such as the Mother.
These archetypes may be found in many stories, including stories of the quest. They differ from the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey only because their function does not necessarily assist in reaching the resolution of a story of purposeful effort.
The Hero’s Journey/Monomyth is basic to the human experience. Jung, Campbell, and Vogler have shown that the stages of the Hero’s Journey correspond to what actually occurs in life. They have demonstrated that archetypes, assembled and reassembled in life and in stories, remain faithful to truths about human existence throughout time. The Hero’s Journey analysis assists in discovering the elemental messages of myth, drama, literature, and film. The Journey assists in understanding inner meaning and clarifying theme. In life, knowledge of the stages and archetypes of the successful quest will help people organize and understand their own experience.
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Vogler;
- The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers;
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; The quotation beginning “The hero ventures forth . . . ” is from page 23;
- The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1).