The hero’s journey, also known as the monomyth, is an interpretive theory that articulates a way of understanding literature in a way that fuses psychology and mythology. At its root, the hero’s journey concept suggests that a single story-framework appears throughout history and across cultures. This narrative framework depicts a hero going through a number of stages of a journey and returning home with a symbolic treasure or with an important bit of wisdom.
Joseph Campbell helped to establish a branch of literary criticism known as myth criticism in the mid-20th century. Along with Northrop Frye, Campbell presented ways to look at contemporary texts through the lens of mythology, pointing to iconic patterns of narrative and symbolism that appear from ancient texts to classical texts to modern writing.
Part of the explanation for this recurrence of mythic patterns and symbols is drawn from the theories of Carl Jung, the psychologist who originated the notion of the collective unconscious mind. The basic idea is that human beings are faced with very similar emotional conflicts and psychological issues from youth to maturity. As we grow up, we are all subjected to the challenge to navigate family relationships, develop an identity and find a place in the adult world – and challenged to find love. The mind, as a result, is populated by certain basic and sub-conscious ideas and these ideas are what make the collective unconscious.
In myth criticism, Jung’s theory of a fundamental set of psychological concepts is applied to literature so that the journey of a protagonist can be read symbolically. In using myth criticism, we are approaching a text with the specific understanding that a narrative is using symbolic components that can be connected to certain universal icons, patterns or figures. In a related way, we are also looking for ways to interpret the symbols in a text according to a character’s psychological development or spiritual growth.
Depending on the text and depending on the reader, myth criticism and the hero’s journey concept can be applied either rigorously or loosely.
This mode of criticism offers a creative and rewarding approach to literature and it remains popular among students and teachers. Myth criticism is politically neutral, unlike a number of other modes of criticism that are currently more popular in academia. Perhaps it is the lack of a social element that both maintains a certain level of interest in myth criticism in the classroom and is responsible for a less than robust presence in academic literary writing. However, it is worth pointing out that Jung’s theory is ultimately social and the hero’s journey shares this inflection.
The hero takes the journey in large part to find a place within his society. This is as true of Gilgamesh (~2000 BCE) and Odysseus (~800 BCE) as it is of Luke Skywalker (1977). The hero’s quest ends with integration into a social fabric.
The Hero and Stages of the Journey
The hero’s journey is cyclical. It ends where it begins, at home, but the stages of the journey along the way test the protagonist and shape this character into a stronger, wiser and better person. Importantly, the protagonist does not begin as a true hero. This transformation is part of the journey.
We can also note that in heroes do not all look alike and many narratives will feature an individual that passes through the stages of the hero’s journey and attains some power or wisdom without also attaining glory or fame. The hero will always be a figure of growth and relative maturity, but not always a champion – just look at Rocky I or The Empire Strikes Back.
Importantly, the hero figure can be seen to represent a society or group. The protagonist will be associated early on with a specific community and will bear the marks of that community, even if this character is also marked by some “otherness” that makes him special. The representative qualities of the hero help to raise the stakes of the outcome of his or her journey. The hero’s success or failure can usually be seen to equate to the success or failure of his community (and its values).
Speaking of The Empire Strikes Back…as we run through the stages of the hero’s journey it may be helpful to think of a film or story you know well – The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings or The Lion King – and try to identify how these stages appear there.
The story begins in a familiar place. For one reason or another, the protagonist is not entirely at east or “at home” here. The protagonist belongs here in most ways yet does not seem to fit in or feel fully part of the community.
An event occurs or a visitor arrives. The protagonist is invited or forced to leave home. Often, the protagonist resists the call to adventure. However, in many stories the protagonist’s own curiosity or need for change drives him or her to look for an opportunity to leave home – a golden ticket, the announcement of a contest, etc.
While the protagonist is distinctly individual in the hero’s journey, there is no way to complete the adventure alone. After leaving home, the protagonist finds and solidifies partnerships with others. These figures can sometimes be figures of power that play the role of mentor and they can be figures of peerage and friendship. (In many stories, the protagonist’s cohort serves to clarify his or her own social identity in one way or another. The stranger the companions, the more normal the protagonist begins to seem in his home context.)
The protagonist remains unchanged at this point and uncertain. There is a test of the protagonist’s abilities (strength, integrity, intelligence, or willingness) and the result of this test will often determine the protagonist’s place within his group of traveling companions. We see the first proof at this stage that this protagonist may really be a hero…but this stage leads quickly to the next stage wherein more will be required of the protagonist – much more.
Having passed a test (or series of small tests), the protagonist enters a world that is unfamiliar and in many ways opposite to the familiar world that was left behind when the journey began. This place is sometimes literally an underworld, beneath a mountain or in the pits of a supernatural abyss. And sometimes this place is a metaphorical underworld, a dark and smoky gathering of threatening people. There is no turning back at this point. The protagonist has to become a hero. The only alternative is a complete loss of identity and possibly loss of the protagonist’s life.
The Second Threshold (also known as The Ordeal)
Here the protagonist faces the greatest challenge and confronts the enemy or the representation of evil. The result of the battle will be determined by the degree to which the protagonist has grown along the journey. If the protagonist is able to defeat the enemy, it is because maturity of some kind has taken place. This maturity can take many forms and often a growth in physical or supernatural abilities serves as a symbolic representation for growth in more traditionally human areas. Make no mistake – this face-off is far from a simple argument with a parent-figure about becoming a responsible adult. It goes much deeper than that. And the outcome will determine the course of protagonist’s life and that of his society.
This is a very important stage of the journey. Here, the protagonist becomes the hero and attains wisdom, strength and realization of a true identity. These qualities may be represented by a golden ring, a discovery and new-found control of spiritual power or the ability to finally do a spinning triple-axel ice-dance move.
The Return Journey
Having proven to be a hero, the protagonist faces a set of final tests that can sometimes take the form of a chase and sometimes take the form of a difficult choice. The relationships that have been forged over the course of the journey find their greatest test in this stage and the hero may be forced to decide between accepting a new status among people in power or remaining humble by maintaining bonds with a group of old companions. This stage can be tricky for the hero and for some protagonists this is the most difficult segment of the adventure.
The story ends where it began. The familiar place may look a bit different now and the hero almost certainly arrives home with a new appearance, but the society and its values are still the same. If the home community was a hard-working immigrant community at the outset of the narrative, it remains exactly that. The hero’s changes somehow help him to fit into his community now in ways that were impossible before. The hero has found an identity that fits – one that validates both self and society.
Symbols of transport
To move from the familiar world into the underworld (and back), the hero journey may include staircases, rivers, or mountain trails that divide one region from another and in some cases provide transport between these regions.
Doorways and Gateways
The transit from stage to stage is depicted in a variety of ways but it is often not an easy transit. When there is no river to navigate and no mountain to climb, there may instead be a gate or doorway to open.
Gatekeepers and Mentors
When the hero arrives at a river, we might find a boat with a pilot capable of helping or stopping the hero on the way across. When the hero arrives at a gateway, we might find a guard, capable of opening the door or keeping it locked. This neutral figure is a gatekeeper. (The specific challenge offered by a gatekeeper often serves to directly indicate the types of skills and insights the protagonist will need to attain on the journey in order to be ultimately successful.) Also, at these crucial moments figures may appear in the narrative to provide secret knowledge such as a password or an object like a key.
This helpful figure is a mentor.
The hero’s journey is often depicted as a quest wherein the hero must find a specific item. Although sometimes this item is a trophy to be won in a contest, there are many, many stories where a more traditional treasure is sought – a ring, a holy grail, an elixir of eternal life. These items are amulets that represent the achievement of growth or maturity and so can be viewed on a metaphorical or metaphysical level. (Not all hero’s journey tales use the amulet to symbolize the hero’s achievement.)
Imagery of the underworld can take many forms, but this most unfamiliar and dangerous place is often associated with darkness, fire or extreme heat, ice or extreme cold, and mysterious supernatural threat. In modern stories, the underworld could conceivably be a smoky nightclub where the hero faces his deepest fears or members of a threatening gang. The underworld is, in this regard, a representation of what we might conventionally refer to as a social underworld – a place of crime and criminals and other ideas generally associated with evil.