The Hero’s Journey in Storytelling

The monomyth is the hero’s journey, broken into three separate phases that encompass the hero’s emotional and spiritual growth from his overall experience. In his writings, Joseph Campbell described a simple formula for these rites of passage: the departure or separation of the hero, the hero’s initiation, and the return of the hero, which encompasses the unit of the monomyth.

Mythology can be seen as a pronouncing of images that formulate the life of archetypes. Heroes like Heracles and Theseus are models who teach us how to behave, through the course of events in their respective monomyths. Carl Jung said of his interpretation on Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, “The archetypes of behavior with which human beings are born and which find their expression in mythological tales are called the “collective unconscious.”

A monomyth usually begins when the hero is in the normal world, and the true Departure of the Hero is initiated when he receives the Call to Adventure, either from a supernatural source, a sign, or a gut instinct that tells him he needs to go. In his preparation for the journey, he usually encounters help along the way in the form of a Wise Old Man or Sage, or other Supernatural form of Aid, who offers counsel and tools to help the hero (i.e., in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is counselled by Gandalf on keeping the ring safe, and is given supernatural tools to detect the foul presence of his enemies before departing on his journey).

The hero then enters the stage of Crossing the First Threshold, which marks the true departure of his normal world and the crossing through to the unknown one. When the hero withdraws from all that he knew and braces himself for what is to come (hopefully ending in success), this period is called the Belly of the Whale.

In the pattern of the monomyth, there are six subsections of initiation: “The Road of Trials,” “The Meeting with the Goddess,” “Woman as the Temptress,” “Atonement with the Father,” “Apotheosis,” and “The Ultimate Boon.” In these subsections, the hero/heroine is given tribulations, and put through self-actualizing tests and challenges that ultimately define his or her character.

A recurring motif in monomyths lies in the need for personal compasses in the hero’s life, be it in the form of the Wise Old Man, Earth Mother, Beta Lover (in the case of heroines, such as Peeta to Katniss in The Hunger Games) or the much-overused Temptress.

The Road of Trials can be considered a sort of ‘gauntlet’ stage, where the hero is put through a series of rigorous and challenging tasks and ordeals to test his personal stamina. The Meeting with the God/Goddess is an integral part in the hero’s pilgrimage, as it is when he enters into a relationship that has the same kind of love which an infant finds in its mother. Part of what may appeal to so many about the story of the historical Pocahantas and John Smith (even though Disney completely ignored the actual paternal-esque relationship) is that upon being captured, John was put through a series of severe ordeals by her father, Pohatan, and she saved him from being killed at the last possible second, embracing him as a person with complete, unconditional loyalty and devotion (not necessarily as a woman would to a man, but more as a mother would to her child).

The stage of Woman as Temptress/Beta Lover marks the entering of temptation into the hero’s journey, be it of the material or sexual variety. The hero must overcome the temptation to achieve the Ultimate Boon. In Atonement with the Father, the hero confronts and is initiated by the source of ultimate power, usually God or a father/king-like figure that holds sway over life or death. The hero achieves peace with ‘the Father’ in this period and comes to peace with who he/she is in the stage of Apotheosis. The hero rests his/her soul, and has a time of reflection or meditation before continuing.

The Ultimate Boon is usually a princess, a treasure, or a piece of coveted knowledge/holy writ that the hero has been searching for, and it is in this stage that he/she finds it.

The Return of the Hero has many stages. After the Ultimate Boon is The Refusal to Return, when a hero experiences misplaced feelings. The hero harbors a reluctance to go back to his old way of life, or secret some anxiety as to how the boon he has conquered will be received. The stage of Magic Flight denotes the escape from his supernatural environment to return home. He may encounter many dangerous snares and hardships during his escape. The Rescue from Without is a subjective stage that, if necessary, enlists the aid of mortal men if it is the supernatural elements the hero must go up against.

The Return Threshold is the veil between worlds, another part of the hero’s journey as he makes his way home. The final stretch of his trek comes in the Crossing of the Return of the Threshold, where the hero faces who he has become through all of his trials, and he prepares himself to enter the normal world that he had left.

Upon crossing the Return Threshold, the hero becomes the Master of Two Worlds. This is a transcendental period, where the hero achieves a oneness with his mastery of both the inner and outer worlds. This Mastery leads to a Freedom to Live, where the hero no longer fears death, but embraces it as another possible adventure. He lives for each day, without carrying any fear or regret.

Monomyths are psychic metaphors of universal proverbs; everyone can understand it, everyone can embrace or relate to it, everyone can learn from it. From Sophocles creating some of the first-ever plays to the plight of Elisa Esposito in The Shape of Water, monomyths continue to play a large part in storytelling today.

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