Recently,. I finished a fantastic book named The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In it, the author details the hero’s journey–an idea that applies to most any decent fiction, dating back to antiquity. The formula centers around the protagonist’s progression through the various acts of the story. The first act introduces the hero, while the second and third act elaborates on their ordeals, and the fourth finishes round circle. I’ll do my best to elaborate on the peculiar elements sowed therein.
The beginning act opens with the ordinary world that the protagonist finds himself/herself in. Usually droll and uninteresting, this is the realm of the hero before the adventure begins. From the miasma of the typical, a call to adventure emerges, evoking the first stage of the process. The hero may deny the stimuli, in what’s termed the refusal of the call, out of fear or a lack of interest; other protagonists may embrace reckless the opportunity from a frantic need for excitement.
Whether or not they agree to adventure’s proposal, an individual appears to offer counsel. This character is a mentor, more often an elderly person, but can manifest as a younger individual or inanimate object such as a legendary sword–an additional and encouraging stressor that propels the hero onto their journey.
Upon heeding the mentor, the hero comes to a point of no return. This is termed the crossing of the first threshold–leaving the ordinary world beyond and pioneering into the unknown. This signifies the commitment of the hero, in leaving their home and embarking on their quest, whether concrete or abstract. Now in a world of mystery and danger, the hero encounters trials, allies, and enemies.
Every obstacle is a stepping stone to unearthing the hero’s personality and capabilities. Abilities are sharpened and pain is endured. Temptations are met and the hero struggles with his/her inner shadow self. The protagonist’s shape hardens from the stressors, molding into an able character to face the antagonist or supreme ordeal. Setbacks occur, but the hero endures, priming for the final showdown with the antagonist–typically a character who is a reflection of the hero with exaggerated flaws. The antagonist can also be a dark reflection of a father figure, such as with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
This ultimate tribulation challenges the hero immensely, evoking his/her greatest fears and requiring all the experience they’ve gained from their quest. Usually failure results, leading to the hero’s death, a dearth of all hope, or even a serious injury that mars the hero. The protagonist is reborn from the flames of demise, returning as a new person–transmuted into the true hero, and no longer the false facade from before. Following the threshold of death, the adventurer conquers the supreme ordeal, or the dragon at the final threshold, earning the reward or seizing of the elixir. Reconciliation with the Father is obtained and the hero is purged, fully equipped to end the venture.
The reward is multifaceted, manifesting either as a damsel in distress, a mighty relic, or a shift in the climate of the realms. The protagonist then takes the road back, which is the opposite of the call of adventure. Instead of worry or pain, fulfillment and satisfaction arise. The adventurer returns to the ordinary world as a changed person. Using the elixir, s/he improves upon the realms and a new era of peace and reflection results, termed atonement. Now back in the ordinary world, the hero has finished the journey on the return home.
While the hero’s cycle is a general formula for a fiction plot, there are additional elements involved, such as sub-cycles that stretch over the course of a trilogy. Sometimes antagonists transmute from villains to vindicated persons before the death. Other times, the hero cannot return to society as they are, instead choosing a form of exile to live a life more suiting to their new nature.
Regardless, this mythological structure repeats time and again, a reminder of the journey we all take in our lives. Thank you very much for reading and I hope you enjoyed this article. 🙂
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