Through some of the most pathbreaking pieces of writing such as The Power of Myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell gave us the concept of the hero’s journey. At face value, the concept is basically a synthesis of the mythologies and legends from myriad cultures from all over the world — a “germ idea” that forms the foundation of stories.
The hero’s journey is symbolic
According to qz.com: “Anyone can become a hero — on purpose or even accidentally. But it involves a painful evolution that is a prerequisite to greatness.”
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However, the hero’s journey is much more than that. It is symbolic of the narrative we give to our lives and our very purpose of existence. It is the basis of almost all great adventure and mythological stories. There is truth in the sequence of events whether we take it subjectively through external media like movies or in our own personal, innermost cultivation journey. Let’s take a walk through the hero’s journey.
The ordinary world
In stage one, we see the hero in his/her natural environment. That person is imperfect, incomplete, and floundering in emotions caused by a lack of purpose in their life. The hero is forced to follow what society dictates. They are unaware or unwilling to realize their true potential. This essentially illustrates the default human state of mind.
Call to adventure
This is the point where the hero’s normal existence is challenged. There is a shift in their state of mind, and the most prevalent emotion here is confusion. The hero is faced with the dilemma of accepting a challenge that will change their life forever. They will need to get out of their comfort zone. The consequences of refusing this call are outlined at this stage.
Refusing the call
The hero experiences extreme turmoil and despite being presented with the challenge that threatens their very existence and/or the existence of the people around them, they find themself lacking and try repeatedly to avoid the inevitable. This phase is reflective of how we try to escape from our issues and hide behind excuses to not take the steps required to achieve our true potential.
Meeting with the mentor
In most stories, there is a strong and influential figure who helps the hero face their fears and prepares them for the challenge ahead. In real life, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical interaction with a master. It can be anything that you encounter — a book, a code of honor, a person you have never met but whose ideologies or insights inspire you.
Crossing the threshold
This is the point of transportation from the ordinary world to the special world. The hero may still hold uncertainties about their capabilities to face the challenge, but they are at a point from where they cannot return, and they have for the first time, made their commitment to the journey.
Tests, allies, enemies
One of the most crucial points in the hero’s journey is essentially the introductory phase to a special world. They are on their journey and encounter people with whom they forge alliances or fight battles. They are feeling their way through and understanding the rules of the special world. This represents how everyone goes through a phase where they try to make a positive change in their lives. You make an understanding of your new environment, forge friendships, make enemies, and learn new skills.
According to prezi.com: “The movie ‘The Godfather’ really encompasses this phase of the Hero’s Journey. It has it all: enemies (the Tattaglias), allies and teams (the Corleone family and their allies), and, of course, tests (a couple examples would be the death of Sonny Corleone and Michael being sent to Sicily).”
Approach the innermost cave
The penultimate step of the hero facing their ultimate challenge is a phase where a lot of reflection is involved. The hero has at this point achieved what they never felt was possible. They have established their strength and place in the special world, and at this point, they summon all the resources at their disposal to face their challenge.
This is what the journey is all about. The ordeal is the centerpiece of the hero’s journey. To be specific, the hero undergoes a “death” experience. The challenge has depleted all their resources and they are spent — physically and mentally. They are no longer the person who started on this journey and they are now reborn. This phase represents how we are forced to change through setbacks and in the process, emerge stronger, claiming our right to the reward.
There is the treasure that is guarded by every dragon; the elixir; the source of unlimited power — it is whatever the hero has earned through their ordeal. This is what essentially inspired the hero to set out on the journey, and what the audience or reader has been waiting for. It signifies the cause for celebration.
The road back
This is the reverse point for the call to adventure. While the call to adventure pulls the hero into the special world, the road back sets the hero on their path back to the ordinary world. The phase re-establishes the equation the hero holds with the ordinary world after their metamorphosis.
This forms the tail-end extension of the ordeal phase where the hero is required to reinforce their newly acquired hero status and make the ultimate sacrifice to maintain or reinstate order in the ordinary world. The phase is crucial in delineating the hero who started their journey from who they are now.
Return with the elixir
This phase symbolizes the celebration and sharing of riches that the hero has acquired from the special world with the ordinary world. It provides closure to the journey, as it establishes the purpose of the hero. The elixir symbolizes anything from a miracle drug, riches shared with the poor, new knowledge, or simply the realization of a truth. It provides the necessary momentum for resuming life back in the ordinary world.
The Hero’s Journey is essentially a cycle that involves the individual traveling between two worlds — the “ordinary world” and the “special world.” Like the hero, our journey starts and ends in the ordinary world. We are constantly required to pass through a special world and take on challenges to change ourselves. The question is: Are YOU ready for this journey?
According to scottjeffrey.com: “The hero’s journey represents a monomyth that we can observe in most, if not all, cultures; it represents a process that is relevant to the entire human family.”