Do you think of yourself as a hero? The term might feel overused today, but the narrative of a hero provides a useful framework for understanding the world, and even the path your own life is taking you on. Below, we’ll dive into an understanding of the Hero’s Journey to see how its lessons resonate both in popular culture and your personal life.
What is the Hero’s Journey?
The hero's journey is based upon famed psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung's research and personal experiments in to the human psyche. Watch the short video (2:25) below for an introduction into the Hero's Journey and Carl Jung.
The concept of the Hero’s Journey was given more light in 1949 with a book by Joseph Campbell’s titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler adapted the central framework into twelve stages. You can understand it as a literary structure that provides a character arc for stories that have a hero figure.
The Hero’s Journey offers a circular structure where the story begins where it ends, but takes the hero from a known world to an unknown one (literally or figuratively), introduces them to powers or skills they never knew they had and forces them to lay everything on the line to achieve personal success or help their communities. While the hero is where they began at the end of the story, their experience forever changes them.
Despite the focus on battles between forces like good or evil, the key theme of any Hero’s Journey is the transformation of the central character. The hero will come to terms with her shortcoming, and the final climax often focuses more on facing her weakness than defeating a villain character. The hero’s nature and opinions develop over the journey, causing them her to question previous views and become a better individual
The Twelve Stages of the Hero’s Journey
In standard form, the Hero’s Journey encompasses twelve steps. While some steps might be omitted or merged in individual stories, the overlying circular structure remains unchanged.
1. Start in the Ordinary World
The journey begins with the hero safe in their home or community, going through the routines of ordinary life and oblivious to any changes ahead. This anchors the hero’s emotions and experiences as human and makes her easier for us to relate to once the journey begins.
2. A Call to Adventure
The hero receives a call to action. It can be a direct threat to her safety or the greater community. Whatever form this call takes, it disrupts the security of the hero’s world and presents a challenge that needs to be overcome to restore it.
3. Initial Refusal of The Call
The hero might understand that something needs to be done, but fear or deep personal doubt will prevent them from taking action. The hero will initially refuse the call and suffer as a consequence. This makes the hero more relatable to use, as most people would prefer to choose the comfort of home over taking a potentially dangerous journey.
4. Meeting a Mentor
Aimless and in need of guidance, the hero next meets a mentor figure that provides insight, training, or an object of importance to help the hero improve her self-confidence. The mentor figure plays a crucial role in helping the hero overcome her doubts and gain the courage to accept the journey.
5. Crossing the Threshold
Now, the hero is ready to accept the call to begin her journey, whether it is physical or emotional. She will cross the threshold from her familiar world to an unfamiliar one. This signifies the hero’s commitment to seeing the journey through despite fears of the unknown.
6. Encountering Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Now out of her comfort zone, the hero must confront a series of obstacles in her path that could thwart her progress. Each challenge must be overcome to continue moving towards the ultimate goal, and the hero needs to learn who can and can’t be trusted along the way. She might gain allies or enemies that will prepare her for the future ordeals, and every obstacle will help us gain insight into her character.
7. Entering the Inmost Cave
The ‘innermost cave’ can represent anything from a physical location to a personal conflict the hero has avoided to this point. The hero must rely on much of her experiences or training to succeed in this cave. Entering the cave will cause the hero to again face her doubts and fears that she needed to overcome to begin the journey, and she might reflect on the journey she has undertaken thus far. This helps the viewer understand the magnitude of what’s at stake and further identify with the hero’s struggles thus far.
8. The Ordeal or Crisis
At this point of the journey, the hero will undergo a challenge, usually something physically dangerous or an inner crisis that must be faced for the hero to restore their life to how it was before. The insight from the mentor and the experiences from the other side of the threshold must all be drawn on to overcome this challenge.
This stage requires the hero to face a “death” of some form that leads to a metaphorical resurrection with her gaining power and insight to complete the journey. Overcoming the ordeal is the high point of the saga, and everything she values will be put on the line.
Once the challenge is overcome, the hero is transformed and comes away from the experience with a reward. It might be a powerful object, a secret, personal strength or insight, or even reconciliation with loved ones. This reward is essential for the trip back to their normal world, so the hero repairs for the final step of the journey.
10. The Road Back
Having conquered the challenge, the hero must now cross the threshold to return home with the earned reward. Sometimes, she must decide in this final stage to choose between personal gain and a higher cause of helping the community.
Returning home, the hero now faces the last dangerous encounter at the climax of the journey. The stakes are higher than just the hero’s life, and the outcome will have far-reaching consequences for the world she is returning to. The hero will succeed by destroying the threat and emerging cleansed from the conflict
12. Returning with Insight
For the final stage, the hero returns to the ordinary world as a changed woman who has grown and learned from the ordeal. The return often brings hope, a new perspective, or even a direct solution to those left behind. Upon completing the journey, the hero will receive a final reward (either literal or metaphorical). The hero will be back where she started, but life will never be the same.
Art Imitates Life with The Hero’s Journey
Once understood, you can spot evidence of The Hero’s Journey throughout popular culture. Movies like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Batman, and the Matrix provide clear depictions of the struggles of good people suffering through evil, a reluctant hero that rises to the challenge, and the final conflict that puts everything in the balance between success or failure.
As an example, Star Wars protagonist Luke Skywalker is pulled from his ordinary life when he receives a message from R2-D2 that calls him to save Princess Leia. Despite his initial reluctance, Luke accepts the journey. He is mentored under Obi-Wan Kenobi to harness his powers over the force and then crosses the threshold by leaving home and overcoming a series of tests and obstacles that challenge his resolve but makes him a better man. He faces resurrection with the climactic battle over the Death Star and undergoes a metaphorical rebirth by taking steps towards becoming a Jedi. His return at the end of the film signifies to friends that the Rebels will survive for future fights and that Luke has accepted his calling to defend the larger universe. He is back where he began, but the experience forever changes both him and his community.
Forrest Gump and The Hero’s Journey
The steps of The Hero’s Journey can also be found in less obvious forms. For instance, the movie Forrest Gump opens with Forrest sitting on a park bench discussing an ordinary life, despite his low intelligence (stage 1). However, his athletic abilities lead him to be recruited for the University of Alabama football team, and this success opens doors to great things (stage 2). Despite his athletic abilities, Forrest refuses the call for further sports success by enlisting in the army instead (stage 3). In the military, Forrest is mentored by Lt. Dan who fulfills the role of a father figure (stage 4). However, Forrest eventually disobeys his orders and falls back on the mentorship of his mother.
After getting wounded in Vietnam and discharged from the army, Forrest crosses the threshold into the unknown (stage 5) by buying a shrimping boat to fulfill a promise to an old friend. Along the way, he encounters many setbacks, earns financial rewards, and reconnects with Lt. Dan (stage 6). Forrest enters his innermost cave (stage 7) when his mother dies, and Jenny, the girl he wants to marry, disappears on him. This puts Forrest through an ordeal (stage 8) where he copes by running across America for three years.
When Forrest finally stops running, he gets a letter from Jenny asking him to come visit her- the first time she has ever asked for him. This is an enormous reward for Forrest (stage 9). Forrest hurries to meet Jenny (stage 10), and the two soon get married. Unfortunately, Jenny dies of AIDs and Forrest concentrates on raising their son together, Forrest Jr (stage 11). The film ends with Forrest taking his son to school for the first time, and it parallels the beginning of the movie. Forrest Jr. can redeem the narrative of both of his parents by harnessing the wealth, intelligence, and love his parents never had together (stage 12).
Undergoing Your Own Hero’s Journey
Fictional characters aren’t the only ones that travel through the Hero’s Journey. Art often imitates life, and we are all learning, growing, and encountering challenges on a regular basis that help us continue the growth process. We all must continually cycle through these stages to become our best selves and achieve our full potential.
The journey from the known to the unknown looks different for everyone. Maybe it’s quitting your job to sail the world, signing up for that half marathon, or committing to cutting processed foods from your diet. Others might try to prevent you from starting your journey, whether from fear you will fail, or fear you might succeed. You need to overcome their expectations and limitations to continue progressing.
The call for adventure looks difficult, daunting, and uncomfortable, and it will bring out your insecurity and fears in striking ways. Even so, it’s worse to never begin on the journey at all. Campbell argues that it’s impossible to feel at peace with yourself if you continually pass on the call to start The Hero’s Journey. Failing to seek growth opportunities only builds up resentment in the understanding of missed opportunities. Instead, the only way to live life at peace with yourself is to test the limits of what you are capable of.
How to Apply the Hero’s Journey to Your Life
Once you understand the steps of the Hero’s Journey, you can apply its principles to your own life. The structure might not be as clean cut in your life as it is in a blockbuster movie, but with careful attention, you might notice that signs that you are amid a self-discovery process.
At the end of your Hero’s Journey, you must return to your original world and share what you have experienced. The Journey can help you become more forgiving of your past and the weaknesses you suffer from, as well as increase your ability to grow in empathy for others. You will gain an understanding that we are all on journeys, and it’s impossible to know the full story behind anyone else’s journey (or even your own).
So, what’s the takeaway? Follow your intuition, and it will lead you on a saga that is defined by the unknown. Let go of the life you planned, and instead be willing to learn and grow on the path that The Hero’s Journey takes you on instead.
Would you like to learn more? Watch the The Timeless Tale of the Hero's Journey: Full Film, below: