Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Hero's Journey Pt 1: The Story of Myths, Movies and Mankind

All good stories (and even the not so good ones) all seem to share the same three universal components: The all have a beginning, middle and and end. From Myths of antiquity to blockbuster movies at the mall, they all start with some version of "once upon a time..." and end with "The End," that is, of course, unless there's going to be a sequel, in which case the end is followed by an "...or is it?" If you're a screenwriter, you'll begin your masterpiece with "FADE IN" and end with "FADE TO BLACK." Same thing. Oh, and a bunch of stuff happens to people in between.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Living things, including you, seem to follow this same theme: You're born, you live, you die. Some creatures go through this cycle in mere hours, while stars may take billions of years. And stuff happens to us as well, filling the space between the bookends of our lifespan.

This three part theme plays out again and again in the stories of our lives: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl, boy wins girl over. I came, I saw, I conquered. Psychologically, this theme shows up as something like: We believe in Santa Claus, we don't believe in Santa Claus, we become Santa Claus. Or, the more cynical: We love our parents, we hate our parents, we become our parents.

And spiritually, the wise sage tells us that: When you begin the path of enlightenment, trees are trees and mountains are mountains, as you travel along the path of enlightenment, the trees and mountains are no longer trees and mountains, and finally, when you reach illumination, the trees are once again trees and the mountains are once again mountains.

The point to this recurring theme, whether in fact of fiction, is that some significant event or catalyst will set a person or character into motion, cause them to go through changes in both their inner and outer worlds, and then return back to a place that resembles the beginning but is somehow different because it is the the person who has changed.

In writing movie scripts, this is called three act structure. Joseph Campbell, in his book "Hero With 1,000 Faces," calls this the Hero's Journey, and it too has three acts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Campbell maintains that this "monomyth" is universal in all cultures across time, as told in myths and wisdom tales, it shows up in movies like Star Wars and many others, and it is the same journey that we take as people, several times in our lives. In addition to the "big" journey of birth, life, death, this patten repeats in the various adventures we take such as going off to college, marriage and family, career to retirement, or even just getting out of bed in the morning, facing the day with all it's challenges, and returning at night with something gained from the trip.

There is much more detail and many more layers to Campbell's "monomyth," but for now, let's stick to the three main parts:



This is the home world, one that the hero is comfortable with, the one he knows. This is very important because it is from this place, the known, that the hero will depart and enter the unknown. Campbell states there is THE CALL TO ADVENTURE which sends the hero off on the journey, but not too fast, as there is an initial refusal of the call. This reminds us that big challenges and facing change can be difficult for us, so it's natural to be reluctant at first.

So the beginning is a sort of ending. Often, it's the last day of the soon-to-be Hero's life as he or she knew it up till this point. And that's about to change, and set off an adventure that will change the Hero forever. The call is answered, with or against the Hero's wishes, and we're on to the next phase.


Like being inducted into the military, or getting married, the Hero is now in a different situation entirely, a strange and wonderful realm of new discoveries, trials and tests, and victories and losses. Often there is a sort of Gatekeeper figure and the Hero must prove worthiness to be allowed entrance into the "forest." For about the fist half of Initiation, the Hero rises to the tasks and passes the challenges, and, he or she meets the 'sacred other,' or the love interest, to borrow a Hollywood term.

Then just when things are going so well, disaster strikes. Things start to fall apart and the Hero seems powerless to stop them. Eventually things digress into the underworld where there is a MEETING WITH DEATH. This can be a close brush with death or an actual death of someone close, someone important to the quest such as the Mentor or Guide. Or it can be a symbolic "death" in that something once near and dear to the Hero is taken away. It could be all of the above, but the purpose is to bring the Hero to a point where s/he cannot solve the problems or surmount the obstacles; these difficulties have become to much to bear and all hope is lost.

It is at this very moment of despair and defeat that the Hero DOES give up, almost immediately followed by a visitation from a supernatural entity or power, or a deep inner realization that rises from the ashes of hitting bottom. This is THE transformative event that will now get the Hero back on his or her feet and with a renewed sense of purpose and resolve.


Aided by a power beyond (or witin) himself, victory in the final battle is all but assured, yet there is more ahead. This is the Return Home, a sort of journey in itself, when the Hero takes all s/he has learned and lost along the way, aided by a higher power, and brings it all together to solve the outer goal and satisfy the inner need (more on this later). And, one of the most important aspects of the Return, in addition to "slaying the dragon," is that the Hero brings back the Wisdom and gifts gained from the experience, so that all members of the home world will benefit from the Quest. This, then, becomes a kind of new beginning, and here is where we end the story.


One obvious benefit of understanding the universal Hero's Journey is that it enables us to better understand ALL Myths, since they all draw from this "monomyth" to some degree or another. Such stories are really Wisdom tales, handed down over the generations, that tell us something about ourselves and how to make it through the many challenges of life.

Some of our better movies serve the same function as myths, as the Cinema is the modern storyteller. But modern in appearance only, as the stories, while cloaked and adorned in current or future attire, underneath it these stories are the timeless myths, told once again. And, amazingly not that different than their ancient counterparts, the surround speakers and silver screens of the movies are just the modern versions of an elder storyteller next to the flickering light of the fire, whose booming voice stirs the imaginations of the audience sitting out there in the dark.

So the Hero's Journey can help us understand movies on a deeper level as well. For instance, the three phases of the Hero's Journey relate directly to the three act structure of screenplays and movies:



After initially refusing the call, Luke goes with Obi Wan to bring the Driod to the Princess. This is a grand departure, as he is not just leaving his village or country; he's leaving his home planet.


The Threshold Guardian is represented by the Cantina scene: Luke proves he's man enough to hold his own, but the Driods weren't allowed entry. Obi Wan, the Mentor, trains Luke and more challenges are met. In the 2nd half of this act, things go from bad to worse until the meeting with death (Death Star, dead planet Alderran, dead Obi Wan. The death of the Mentor is common in ancient myths, a necessary thing to happen so the student will then become the master. Supernatural help comes in the form of Obi Wan's disembodied voice, the compassion of the Princess and the higher duty to help save his comrades from destruction.


Armed with everything gained on his brief yet very eventful journey, Luke is able to defeat the enemy, and he returns with the Force, the all-but -forgotten tradition of sacred wisdom, for the benefit of all.

In general, say in a love story, the lovers meet - it's rough at first but they fall in love and eventually move in together (Departure). Now they are in unknown territory (Initiation) and they work through any difficulty until things are just fine. Then disaster strikes, in the form of an ex-lover from the past or due to some misunderstanding, and the relationship is on the rocks. Finally it's shipwrecked when one has an affair (or almost) and it's called off (meeting with death). Then cupid or eros plays a part, true unconditional love intervenes, and the one who was screwing up realizes he needs to change and does. Then in the third act, (Return), he wins her back over by proving his love and loyalty, and the gift they bring back is that of love itself - and with it, the hope for other lovers to also have a successful relationship.

More movie breakdowns will follow, so in the meantime read Christoper Vogler's "The Writer's Journey," which is basically Campbell's Hero's Journey, specifically geared for screenwriters. Many producers, executives, and directors swear by this book and for over 10 years it has sort of been an industry "bible" for storytelling in the movies.

This Universal Myth can help us better understand the stories IN our lives, and it can also help us understand the stories OF our lives. On a personal note, I found a strong parallel to the Hero's Journey when I broke my back in a plane crash and had to adjust to life in a wheelchair. The departure was from a life of being able bodied and pretty much taking that for granted. Then when I crashed and broke my back and became paralyzed, I was instantly initiated into a new and strange world of hospitals, surgeries, pain and wheelchairs. I made progress, got out of the hospital and then just wallowed in misery. The pills just made things worse along with the booze. Then as was about to give up hope, my brother intervened with a little help from Nature (an alternative to the pills), and brought the healing power of humor and music to my spirit once again. Then I was able to get out in my chair, learn how to drive again, and finally enrolled in college, back in the world again. The return was completed when I made a short film about my injury/recovery experience and shared it with the rest of the world, hoping that it would benefit at least one other person.

Even for smaller problems or situations, there are smaller journeys, and they follow this process as well. The process of buying a house or making a work of art can take a similar route: The decision to buy a house or the inspiration to sculpt a figure takes us out of our comfort zone, and we accept the challenge of the task in front of us (Departure). We learn much about real estate or sculpting clay. The possibilities grow, the sculpture takes form. Then disaster hits and we lose a bid or the credit is rejected and we want to go back to renting an apartment. We question the reason for making this sculpture and as any artist must, we question our own reason for existing and think maybe we should just forget sculpture altogether and trash the piece we've spent so much time on. As we give up, we open ourselves to other possibilities - any other possibility - and the right property shows itself, or the light hits the clay just right and we "see" the finished masterpiece and get back to work. Moving in to the house marks the return home, and maybe even the start of a family, and finishing the sculpture and displaying it is the gift of art for others to enjoy.

So if we know the process, and the journey is pretty much the same for just about everything, we can find where we are along this particular journey and have a road map of what will come next. So when we're at the state of despair and want to give up, we can recognize this as just part of the process and we are right where we need to be to succeed. This can take a lot of the anxiety and confusion that come with difficult and unknown situations, and remind ourselves that we have a purpose for doing this, that there is something valuable to gain and share with others, that makes the current challenges all worthwhile.

This is just an introduction to this subject and more will come regarding the other characters in the Hero's Journey, the inner and outer aspects of the journey and the personal inner transformation that must take place in order to satisfy the outer goal of the story.