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Separation, Initiation, and Return

According to Joseph Campbell, how many stages are there in the Hero’s Journey or monomyth — and why does it matter? What is the Hero’s Journey, really?

I talk to writers and others about this subject all of the time. Inevitably, when I share the image above (taken from the 2008 edition of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, page 208), I get a lot of anxious questions from some folks, and authoritative statements from others. The latter group will hold forth on the 12/17/25/1001 stages of the monomyth with great certitude.

Wait, I ask them, how many stages do you see here?

Because, in fact, this diagram isn’t the essential description of the hero’s adventure laid out in Campbell’s magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces and in other works like Pathways to Bliss. Here’s what the stages of the journey look like according to Campbell (Hero, 23):

The story has three stages, which Campbell calls Separation (x), Initiation (y), and Return (z). The rest of the events he explores in his wonderful book — the ones enumerated in the chart at the top of this post — are window dressing. The Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call, the Dragon Struggle, the Sacred Marriage, Apotheosis and the rest are all fascinating variations found in many, many, many myths and stories (going back as far as we have stories). But at its core, the monomyth isn’t a blueprint of a plot outline; it’s a description of a psychological process, one each of us goes through every time we’re challenged and have to change and grow.

Separation. Initiation. Return.

And it isn’t something a character (or person) goes through just once, necessarily. Campbell said that “a good life” — and, presumably, a good story — was

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. (Pathways to Bliss, 133)

Campbell saw the Hero’s Journey as a map of a psychological landscape that artists and poets and mythographers of every kind could lead folks through, creating transformative experiences

Want an example of a writer doing just that in a series of short stories written up to a decade before the publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949?

Check out Joseph Campbell’s collected short fiction, Mythic Imagination. The main body of the collection is made of six short stories and one novella written between 1938 and 1943. Each follows a protagonist — a cynical GI, a bored young woman, a racist politician, a romantic farm hand — as they are separated from the world of the familiar, initiated into a “world of supernatural wonder” (Hero, 23), and then either returned transformed to their former life, the bearer of boons, or destroyed by the experience. Each is a little gem of a Hero’s Journey. And each invites the reader on a journey of discovery and change.

And it only matters because I think a lot of my writer and myth friends have gotten hung up on the architecture of the Hero’s Journey schema, and forgotten that Campbell enumerated it as an observation not just of how to write stories but of how stories/myths/rituals affect the reader/audience/participant. The point of a monomyth story is that it leads the protagonist — and therefore the person taking in the story — through a process of personal transformation.

So whether the Magical Helpers appear before or after the Call to Adventure, and whether or not the Father/Mother Atonement appears once, three times, or not at all... none of that is essential. The elements that Campbell identified (Resurrection, Night-sea Journey, Elixir Theft, et al.) are, as I said, window dressing — or, if you will, the costumes that the storyteller puts on the myth in order to give it specificity and to make a particular point. But the ultimate structure of the journey — what makes it an effective and affecting way to tell stories — is just that three-part refrain: 

Separation. Initiation. Return.


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