The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was first published in 1949. It represented the culmination of Campbell’s work researching and analysing myths, legends, parables, fairy tales and stories spanning thousands of years from ancient times to the modern day. In the book he presented a compelling argument that there is a single basic storyline that all these stories have in common. He called this story The Monomyth. It is more commonly referred to as The Hero’s Journey.

Campbell argued that this universal story exists because it has universal relevance to the human drama, and as such evolved along with human civilisation. It is a reflection of ancient wisdom that has helped people of countless cultures through the millenia come to terms with the limitations of their lives, their struggles, suffering and mortality. It provides a map to help us navigate the great journeys, crises, losses, thresholds and transitions of our lives, a guide to support us to transcend our limitations, face our deepest fears, and make the voyage across the ocean of our unexplored potential, find our purpose and move from a state of merely surviving our lives to actually thriving in them.

It is a story that is symbolically coded into our collective unconscious. It’s a fundamental part of our cultural inheritance that has been passed down through the generations without needing to be consciously taught or understood. It is a story that is alive within each of us, so much so that it colours our dreams as well as our waking lives. When we tell a story, we cannot help but frame it in the universal terms of The Hero’s Journey.

So what is this great narrative thread that runs through all these stories, from Homer’s Odyssey to Star Wars, from Pride and Prejudice to The Matrix, from the story of Jesus to the story of Snow White? At its most basic it contains three stages:

  • Separation
  • Initiation
  • Return

The Hero’s Journey is a story of growth and change, of leaving behind the parts of us that have become stale and stagnant in order to become richer, deeper versions of ourselves. It’s a story of separation from the safe, familiar world of our lives up to that point, of transformation through initiation, of descent into unknown territory, into the underworld, into the heart of darkness, of the profound challenges and tests we encounter there that stretch us beyond what we believed we could cope with, and finally of ascent and return to the middleworld, fundamentally changed and with a gift for our community; the gift of our more authentic selves.

Campbell elaborated on the three basic stages of the Hero’s Journey and identified a variety of more specific chapters, each with a particular challenge to overcome and opportunity for growth. Not all stories contain all of these chapters, but all of them contain some of them. Some of these chapters are:

  • The Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • The Belly of the Whale
  • The Road of Trials
  • The Meeting with the Goddess
  • Atonement with the Father
  • Crossing the Return Threshold

Increasingly in modern times we have lost touch with the essence of The Hero’s Journey and it’s direct relevance and utility for our lives, as we have gradually become what Guy Debord calls a Spectator Society, one in which we are invited to sit back and spectate as our heroes of movies, music, television, sport and computer games take us on adventures while we sit safely and passively in the passenger seat.

For this reason many of us get stuck in an endless repetition of the first two chapters of The Hero’s Journey. We hear the call to adventure and then we refuse the call, often by distracting ourselves by immersing ourselves in one or another of the various superficial entertainments our culture has to offer. There will always be another superhero movie to watch, a new first person shoot em up to play or a new romance novel to get lost in. If we persistently ignore it, eventually the call becomes so insistent that it begins exhibiting itself as symptoms: depression, anxiety, despair.

It’s no coincidence that in the postmodern era in which we live, where we celebrate the dissolution of the institutions and traditions that have long been taken for granted, we have begun to see more stories that deliberately set out to subvert and disrupt The Hero’s Journey story structure. These are stories in which nothing really happens and no-one really changes.

Some of these “anti-hero stories” usefully challenge our illusions about the process of change, our belief that it is easy or inevitable, and therefore reflect reality more accurately than the dramas we’re more familiar with, in which the characters are transformed by their adventures and often live happily ever after. Others reflect the dangerous idea that it is futile to try to change anything or improve ourselves or the world, an idea that keeps us imprisoned in a kind of cultural cul-de-sac, forever destined to displace our hopes and dreams onto entertaining fictions that keep us comfortably spectating on the sidelines rather then becoming spect-actors, taking to the stage of our lives and engaging in the difficult and dangerous task of learning how to live our myth.

Dangerous not because “living our myth” compels us to put our lives on the line like the Luke Skywalkers and Katniss Everdeens of our popular myths, but because if we set out on any journey of growth and change we will inevitably face the dragons of failure and disappointment and the demons of fear and shame. In this sense, we really are putting our lives on the line, because if we embark on a Hero’s Journey at some point something in us will need to die.

We have a great deal to lose. We also have a great deal to gain.

The journey of psychotherapy is undoubtedly a Hero’s Journey. It requires courage, commitment, patience, resilience, self compassion and ultimately an understanding that in order to grow we must learn how to die to ourselves, and that while we may meet guides, companions and helpers along the way, it is a journey that we need to take total responsibility for, and in this sense it is a journey that we must always take alone.

The counselling client has a lot in common with the archetype of the Hero, who is often depicted as a confused, troubled, flawed, imperfect and immature figure, a fiery and passionate adolescent rather than a stoic and seasoned warrior. Contrast Neo with Morpheus in The Matrix, or Katniss with Haymitch in The Hunger Games. When they meet at the beginning of their respective stories these characters are separated by the fact that one has already undertaken a Hero’s Journey and returned both with scars and gifts of wisdom and the other has yet to depart on theirs, has yet to learn who they are and what they need to.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam accompanies Frodo on the long, arduous journey to Mordor, to the summit of Mount Doom, to destroy the One Ring. He even offers to carry the Ring himself out of love and care for his friend. But Frodo is the ring bearer and it is his task alone to do the seeming impossible, to bear the overwhelming weight of the Ring and finally destroy it. In the end, after all the pain, struggle and sacrifice Frodo is not strong enough to do so. He cannot bear to cast the Ring into the fire because he has become too attached to it, in the same way we can become too attached to our pain, anger, despair and resentment.

It takes an ironic twist of fate for Frodo to finally let the Ring go. Gollum intervenes; the tragic creature that Frodo once cursed and wished was dead. This shadowy creature, judged by all but Gandalf as a pitiful and wicked wretch, provides the necessary energy to destroy the Ring once and for all. In the same way it is the parts of ourselves that we have disowned, hated and wished we could cut away or kill off that we need to reclaim in order to find the necessary energy to change and transform.

In a Hero’s Journey there is always a dragon that we need to face. This dragon stands guard at the threshold of our potential and has the energy we need to transform. Our task is not to destroy it but to befriend it, understanding that it is only by doing so that we can learn to harness it’s wildness in the service of creation rather than destruction, in order to create the life we want to live.