Improve Your Storytelling by Understanding All the Stages of the Original Hero’s JourneyAug 25, 2020
You’re Most Likely Not Using the Original Hero’s Journey
When you think of the Hero’s Journey, you most likely have Christopher Vogler’s version in mind and not the original framework of Joseph Campbell. Sure, you may know that Campbell developed the first (and still the most exhaustive) version of the Hero’s Journey, but when it’s time to create or analyze a story, you’re likely using someone else’s structure. Here are the four popular versions of the Hero’s Journey you may be familiar with:
- Joseph Campbell (1949)
- David Leeming (1981)
- Phil Cousineau (1990)
- Christopher Vogler (2007)
Vogler’s Version was Originally Intended for Films
I reference Vogler not only because his approach to storytelling is the most recent and popular iteration, but because it was developed for film and television. That is why you’re more likely to use his framework. Unless you’re a bibliophile, you’ll likely be more exposed to the Hero’s Journey in films than you would in reading books. In an engaging 20-minute interview, Vogler said he intentionally created a version of the Hero’s Journey to align with the current movie structure of storytelling. The Lion King, for example, was treated with Vogler’s Mythic Structure. Films like Star Wars or The Matrix (my favorite movie) are typically analyzed with Vogler’s approach.
Nothing is wrong or ignorant about exclusively using Vogler’s framework. I think it’s currently the best approach of the Hero’s Journey for modern storytelling. However, while I’m not a purist, I also believe there is immense value in referring back to the source to understand the seminal theory that connects ancient myths, contemporary screenplays, and everything in between. A personal study will also help you to form a custom framework to shape your own method of storytelling. After all, that’s what Vogler did.
The (Original) Hero’s Journey
Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, also known as the monomyth, is divided into 17 stages and is categorized into three sections or three-act structure: Departure, Initiation, and Return. It is widely understood the monomyth is a universal approach to storytelling.¹ ² ³ My overview includes authors of diverse backgrounds to help strengthen the case for its universality.
The Departure is the introduction to the hero and the beginning of their journey.
- The Call to Adventure: The Call to Adventure is the hero’s notice that everything is going to change. The hero lives a mundane life until some information is received, which challenges them to head off into the unknown.
- Refusal of the Call: The future hero usually refuses to answer the call. Their denial may be from a sense of duty, fear, or insecurity that holds the person in their current circumstances.⁴
- Supernatural Aid: When the hero commits to the journey, their guide and magical helper appear. This special mentor will present the hero with one or more gifts that will help them in their journey.
- The Crossing of the First Threshold: As the hero crosses into the realm of adventure, they leave the familiar limits of their world and venture into a dangerous realm where the rules and boundaries are unknown.⁵
- The Belly of the Whale: The last separation from the hero’s known world and normal self is dark, unknown, and frightening. By entering this stage, the hero shows their willingness to die, undergo metamorphosis or completely change himself.⁶
In the Initiation phase, the hero must prove worthy of hero status by facing a series of challenges. The obstacles are either physical or spiritual.
- The Road of Trials: The hero must go through a series of tests, tasks, and ordeals to begin the transformation. He often fails one or more of these tests, which usually occur in threes.⁷
- The Meeting with the Goddess: The hero experiences an unconditional love that a fortunate infant may have with their mother. It is a sacred marriage that may also take place entirely within the person. In other words, the person envisions a powerful union with another person, thing, or idea. Unconditional love or self-unification does not have to be represented by a woman.⁸
- Woman as the Temptress: This stage goes deeper than temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from their quest. According to Campbell, it is about the male hero’s disgust for his human weaknesses and then projecting that aversion towards women. The woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life.⁹
- Atonement with the Father: This is the center point of the journey. All the previous stages led to this place, and all that follow will move out of it. The hero has to confront whatever holds the ultimate power in their life, which is the father, or a father figure who has life-and-death power. The hero must be “killed,” so the new self can come into being. The killing is sometimes literal, and the earthly journey for that character is either over or moves into a different realm.¹⁰
- Apotheosis: To apotheosize is to become god-like. When the hero dies to the self to live in spirit, they move to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion, and bliss. The hero is in heaven and beyond all strife.¹¹
- The Ultimate Boon: The ultimate boon or prize is what the hero went on the journey to get. In many myths, the prize is something transcendent like the elixir of life, a plant that supplies immortality, or the Holy Grail.¹²
The monomyth is a cycle that includes a going and a return. However, the Return is not always reached. There still may be challenges.
- Refusal of the Return: The hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to present the boon to their community after tasting happiness and enlightenment in the new world. The hero wants to stay in the realm where they have achieved perfection.
- The Magic Flight: If the gods have been fiercely protective of it, the hero must quickly escape with the prize. Returning can be just as adventurous and dangerous as it was to Cross the First Threshold.¹³
- Rescue from Without: Just as the hero needs guides and assistants to set out on the quest, they must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the hero has been wounded or weakened by the experience. Or the hero may not realize that it is time to return, that they can return, or that others need their boon.¹⁴
- The crossing of the Return Threshold: The key in returning is to retain and integrate the newly gained wisdom into human life, and then figure out how to share the knowledge with the rest of the world. This is usually a difficult task.
- Master of the Two Worlds: This stage can represent a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. It can also symbolize achieving a balance between the material and the spiritual for the earthly hero. In either case, the hero has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.¹⁵
- Freedom to Live: Mastery results in freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. The hero is living in the moment — neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.
You Are a Hero
Every time I read through the stages of the Hero’s Journey, I cannot help but see myself as Campbell and Vogler’s hero. It has less to do with my brooding inner-narcissist seeking attention and more of my need as a human being to extrapolate meaning from a world that is becoming increasingly chaotic. It’s an intrinsic desire for a North Star that will help me understand who, when, where, and why I am in the world — in my world.
You are also a hero. Leveraging the full monomyth to appreciate and understand your protagonist is already half the battle to not only submitting the manuscript of your next novel but also discovering who you are in this story called life.
- Bliss, J., & Burgess, M. N. (2012). My Macguffin: Business as a spiritual practice. Balboa Press.
- Houston, J. (2012). The wizard of us: Transformational lessons from Oz. NY: Simon and Schuster.
- Taheri, M., & Jalaly, R. (2013). The archetype of the hero’s journey in Odyssey. International Journal of Language Learning and Applied Linguistics World, 4 (2), 246–260.
- Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
- Packer, S. (2010). Superheroes and superegos: Analyzing the minds behind the masks. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Smith, E. L. (1997). The hero journey in literature: Parables of Poesis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- Rochelle, W. (2001). Communities of the heart: The rhetoric of myth in the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (Vol. 25). Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.
- Monaghan, P. (2011). Goddesses in world culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011 Vol.1, 194.
- Jobling, J. (2010). Fantastic spiritualities: Monsters, heroes and the contemporary religious imagination. London: T & T Clark, 36.
- Salla, M. E. (2002). The hero’s journey toward a second American century. Westport, CT: Praeger, 23 & 24
- Leeming, D. A. (1998). Mythology: the voyage of the hero. 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 96 & 257.
- Indick, W. (2004). Movies and the mind: Theories of the great psychoanalysts applied to film. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 86.
- Okum, D. (2006). Manga fantasy madness: Over 50 Basic lessons for drawing warriors, wizards, monsters and more. Cincinnati, OH: Impact Books.
- Bartle R. A. (2004). Designing virtual worlds. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Pub., 436.
- Ellwood, R. S. (1999). The politics of myth: a study of C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. Albany: State University of New York.