& the Hero's Journey
A hero ventures forth from the world of 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 men.
Joseph Campbell’s first full-length solo book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series XVII: 1949), earned the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. In this study of the myth of the archetypal hero, Campbell posits the existence of a “monomyth” (a word he borrows from James Joyce), a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture.
While outlining the basic stages of this mythic cycle, Campbell explores common variations in the hero's journey, which he observes is an operative metaphor not only for an individual, but for a culture as well. This widely recognized classic has exerted a major influence on generations of creative artists, from the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s to contemporary filmmakers today.
THE ORIGINS OF HERO
The genesis of The Hero With A Thousand Faces served as Joseph Campbell’s own call to adventure. After the success of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (with co-author Henry Morton Robinson), an editor from Simon & Schuster approached Campbell with a proposal to write a book on mythology––“a modern Bulfinch,” he called it, referring to the 19th century popularization of Greek myths.
Campbell instead offered to write a book on “how to read a myth.” Though Simon & Schuster agreed, they ultimately declined the finished manuscript, which is how Bollingen ended up publishing it.
Campbell traces the inspiration for his recognition of the hero’s journey to German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius, whose 1904 Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes (The Age of the Sun God) pointed to a motif of descent into the underworld (“going into the belly of the whale and coming out again”) that appears in myths of many cultures.
Campbell, following up with his own study of hero myths, quickly recognized that movements key to the hero cycle corresponded exactly with those described by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep as central to all initiation rites.
That was when I started teaching my course at Sarah Lawrence College in Comparative Mythology, using this as my core structuring theme, and studying and always looking for some refutation of this, some way to blow it up. I found I couldn’t blow it up. (Bruckner, D.J.R.: “Joseph Campbell: 70 Years of Making Connections,” New York Times Book Review, 12-18-83)
Interestingly, the phrase “the hero’s journey” appears nowhere in the original text, though the book often refers to the “hero-quest” and the “hero-deed,” and describes how “the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces.” Over time, Campbell adopted the phrasing we’re familiar with today.
WHAT IS THE HERO'S JOURNEY?
The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation — initiation — return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.
Discussing the trajectory of the journey as depicted in the diagram above, Campbell summarizes the many possible variations within each stage as follows:
The mythological hero, setting forth from his common-day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).
We recognize this pattern in tales of Raven’s theft of fire from the House of the Sun, Isis’ search for Osiris, Ulysses’ long voyage home from the Trojan War, the sojourn of the children of Israel in the land of Egypt, and even the adventures of Luke Skywalker “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
UNPACKING THE JOURNEY
Campbell emphasizes three stages which he deems essential to the hero’s journey: separation (sometimes called departure), initiation, and return. Each of these stages must be present to make a hero’s journey, but the same doesn’t apply to all the possible variations within each stage. Much critical analysis gets bogged down in mistaking Campbell’s discussion of the most common elements of these stages as setting forth rigid, sequential steps found in all hero myths, which is not what Campbell was suggesting in his work.
Campbell highlights four possible climaxes to the adventure: the Sacred Marriage, Atonement with the Father, Apotheosis, or the Elixir Theft, but which one arises depends on the story:
One finds different orders of story. For example, in fairy tales it’s usually the finding of the bride — or sometimes stealing the bride — and the sacred marriage motif. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s the atonement with the father motif — and there the woman becomes either the guide to the father in the form of Mary, or seductress in the form of Eve and her children. In the Christian tradition one is not to experience the apotheosis. You are not to think of yourself as the Christ, whereas in the Buddhist tradition that’s the way.
Archive audio L1184, Big Sur, CA, 11/8/83
A tale containing every possible alternative can become clumsy and bloated; rather than “steps,” it helps to think of these as variations that are either included, or omitted, depending on the choices the hero makes.
THE HERO'S JOURNEY TODAY
The hero's journey is a simple yet powerfully creative concept, found not just in myths and fairy tales but also novels, films, interactive video games, or anywhere stories are told.
The influence of the hero’s journey in popular culture is especially apparent in film, as in George Lucas’ acknowledgment that Star Wars might never have become the phenomenon it has if it weren’t for Joseph Campbell:
I wrote many drafts of this work and then I stumbled across The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was the first time that I really began to focus . . . I went around in circles for a long time trying to come up with stories, and the script rambled all over and I ended up with hundreds of pages. It was The Hero with a Thousand Faces that just took what was about 500 pages and said, here is the story. Here’s the end; here’s the focus; here’s the way it’s all laid out. It was all there and had been there for thousands and thousands of years, as Mr. Campbell pointed out. And I said, “This is it.” After reading more of Joe’s books I began to understand how I could do this.
George Lucas at the National Arts Club in 1985, cited in The Hero’s Journey 215
A ROADMAP FOR LIFE
But this mythological motif is more than just a plot device. There's an argument to be made that the hero's journey is germane to the human experience. Though the giants in the field who preceded Joseph Campbell studied myth to understand other cultures and add to human knowledge, he was one of the first to grasp that mythology has relevance in the real world.
Campbell acknowledges the influence of his predecessors, but goes beyond them in asserting the motif of the hero’s journey can be understood metaphorically as a model for the living of life, which itself is a series of initiations. Campbell’s understanding of this aspect of the hero quest thus reflects what he terms the psychological (or pedagogical) function of mythology: “to carry the individual through the stages of one’s life.”
This is what Joyce called the monomyth: an archetypal story that springs from the collective unconscious. Its motifs can appear not only in myth and literature, but, if you are sensitive to it, in the working out of the plot of your own life. The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life.
THE FEMALE HERO
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looks at multiple myths, including what may be the earliest hero journey on record: the goddess Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld (the Sumerian version dates to c. 2112 BCE). Nevertheless, most examples in the book are of male heroes. As to why, Campbell observes that most of the world’s myths were recorded by men.
All of the great mythologies and much of the mythic story-telling of the world are from the male point of view. When I was writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces and wanted to bring female heroes in, I had to go to the fairy tales. These were told by women to children, you know, and you get a different perspective.
Asked during a workshop about how the hero’s journey can be adapted as a model for women today, Campbell acknowledges that it’s not up to him to say:
I don’t know what the counterpart would be in the woman’s case . . . There is a feminine counterpart to the trials and the difficulties, but it certainly is in a different mode. I don’t know the counterpart––the real counterpart, not the woman pretending to be male, but the normal feminine archetypology of this experience. I wouldn’t know what that would be.
Women will have to tell us the way a woman experiences the journey, if it is the same journey.
Archive audio L1184, Big Sur, CA, 11/8/83
Many writers have already taken up this challenge as they explore heroine journeys and degendered mythic structures.
THE JOURNEY AND THE GOOD LIFE
Reflecting on the hero’s journey and its relationship to life, Campbell writes:
What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco.
But there’s also the possibility of bliss.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE HERO'S JOURNEY
You can find more on the hero’s journey in the following books:
You can also listen to Joseph Campbell discuss the hero’s journey in greater detail in the following audio lectures:
I.2.2 The Inward Journey
II.6.1 Modern Myths of Quest
About Stephen Gerringer
Stephen Gerringer is the editor of Myth and Meaning by Joseph Campbell, and the author of Myth and Modern Living: A Joseph Campbell Compendium. He currently serves as Community Coordinator for the Joseph Campbell Foundation.