Joseph Campbell, the chronicler of The Hero’s Journey in his landmark book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, was one of the most prolific writers in archetypal or myth criticism. Campbell’s fundamental belief that spirituality is perceived by humans through the use of metaphor is the foundation for his exploration of mythology in comparative religion and literature. These metaphors – the cosmologies, myths, stories, and objects that are venerated in the world’s myriad religions and mythologies – all express the unknown force from which everything in the universe came, within which everything in the universe exists, and into which everything in the universe will return. According to Campbell, humankind must express this unknown force through metaphor because this unknown force existed before language and is therefore, unknowable and inexpressible through the medium of language.
In his landmark book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell argues that all of the world’s religions are culturally specific representations or “masks” of the same transcendent truth. In the Introduction to The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell writes “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.” His life’s work focused on his fascination with what Campbell believed to be “transcendent truths” expressed through different manifestations across different cultures. If one were to try and classify Campbell’s religious affiliation, I would think that we could call Campbell a Deist. For more information on Deism, see “Deism: A Natural Religion.”
In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined the archetypal patterns of heroic stories from classical mythology. For Campbell, heroes were important, not because of their cultural specificity, but because the patterns that the stories followed conveyed universal truths that one could think about metacognitively in order to help facilitate one’s own transformation, one’s role in society, and the relationship between the individual and society. In the following diagram, one of the structures that Campbell identified – the hero’s journey – will be illustrated.
The Hero’s Departure:
• The Call to Adventure: In the call to adventure, the main character or protagonist of the narrative is first told of the hero’s quest. George Lucas’s film, Star Wars, is a great example of Campbell’s structure. Think about the first Star Wars film when Ben Kenobi first tells Luke Skywalker that he must go with him to fight against The Empire. This is the call to adventure.
• The Refusal of the Call: More often than not, in these narratives, the hero refuses the call. The hero often gives some reason why he or she cannot answer the call and hold on to the hero’s current circumstances. Again, think about Star Wars – remember when Luke Skywalker went back to his Uncle Owens only to find them dead? Had this event not occurred, would Luke have stayed on the farm?
• Supernatural Aid: Once committing to the quest, the hero receives some supernatural aid to help him or her with the quest. Isn’t Ben Kenobi a kind of magical guide? Isn’t the force a supernatural aid?
• Crossing the First Threshold: Once the hero has committed to the quest, he or she enters the field of adventure and leaves the limits of their own world and ventures into the unknown. Doesn’t the scene where Luke Skywalker leaves with Ben Kenobi and Han Solo in the Millenium Falcon fit this criteria?
• The Belly of the Whale: When the hero enters the belly of the beast, he or she is at his or her lowest point in the narrative. The term “belly of the whale” likely comes from the story of Jonah in The Old Testament and represents the time and place where the final separation from the hero’s known world occurs and the hero begins his or her transformation from the old to the new.
The Hero’s Initiation:
• The Hero’s Trials: This usually involves a series of ordeals that the hero undergoes during the hero’s transformation. It is likely that the hero will fail one or more of the tests as the hero has not yet transformed completely. Think about Star Wars and Luke’s botched attempt to rescue Princess Leia.
• The Meeting with the Goddess: Originally, this step in the hero’s journey was symbolized by a meeting with an actual goddess, however, this process of self-unification and the feeling of unconditional love doesn’t necessarily have to involve an actual goddess or even be represented by a woman. This step represents the point in time when the hero becomes intimately aware of the significance and power of a kind of unconditional love that one most often associates with the love of a mother. Again, think about Star Wars. Isn’t this what is happening at the end of the first film when Luke begins to understand the power of the force?
• The Woman as Temptress: Like the previous step, The Meeting with the Goddess, the Woman as Temptress doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman. Students of literature can see this step as being the hero’s diversion – the point in the narrative where the hero appears to abandon the quest. Think about the time that Luke Skywalker spent with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Isn’t being with Yoda a kind of diversion?
• Atonement with the Father: During the hero’s journey, the hero must confront whatever it is that holds the ultimate power in the hero’s life. In many myths of the Classical Era, the father is most often associated with that kind of power. When the hero confronts this ultimate power, the hero’s journey is usually at its midway point. Everything in the narrative moves the hero toward this place and, after the atonement with the father, everything in the narrative moves out from it. For the hero’s transformation to take place, the hero must be killed (metaphorically) so that the transformed her o can come into being. Think about the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Isn’t Luke confronting the ultimate power during that light saber battle with Darth Vader?
• Apotheosis: This essentially means “to deify.” This is the point in the hero’s journey where the hero moves into a state of divine knowledge and love. Essentially, the hero is in a god-like state of rest, peace and, fulfillment. This also creates a pause in the narrative just before the hero begins his or her journey back to where the hero started. Think about the beginning of Return of the Jedi. Specifically, think about the time Luke Skywalker spends on Endor? Couldn’t we think of this as a state of rest before Luke decides to go confront Darth Vader?
• Fulfilling the Quest: All of the previous steps that the hero undertakes in the journey lead to this moment. In many myths, the fulfillment of the quest involves something transcendent or an object that provides immortality, or the Holy Grail. If we were discussing the elements of fiction and were talking specifically about plot, we might call this the climax of the story. When Luke Skywalker stands up to the Emperor and gets his father, Darth Vader, to turn away from the Dark Side of the Force, he has fulfilled the hero’s quest.
The Hero Returns:
• The Hero’s Refusal: If the hero attains everything that he sought when he began the quest, then why go back to the way things were? If we use Star Wars as our example, we can call the scene where Luke talks to his father, Darth Vader, and wants him to leave the Death Star and return to Endor with him “The Hero’s Refusal.”
• The Magical Flight: Sometimes it can be just as dangerous or adventurous returning from the journey as it was leading up to the fulfillment of the quest. In addition, often these quests involve objects (like The Holy Grail) that the hero must take with him or her on the journey back home. Again, think about Star Wars. Couldn’t we call the scene where Luke escapes from the Death Star just as it explodes a “magical flight?”
• The Rescue from Without: Just as the hero often needs supernatural aid to being the hero’s journey, the hero often needs that same kind of supernatural aid to help bring him or her back to ordinary life. Think about the scene on Endor near the end of Return of the Jedi where the spirits of Yoda, Ben Kenobi, and Anakin Skywalker appear to Luke Skywalker. Isn’t this a kind of “rescue from without?”
• Crossing the Return Threshold: Just as the hero must cross the first threshold as he or she begins the hero’s journey, the hero must also cross a threshold to return near the end of the journey. In this return, the hero is able to retain the wisdom that he or she gained on the quest, is able to integrate that wisdom into human understanding, and is able to figure out how that wisdom can be shared with the rest of the world. Again, think about the end of Return of the Jedi.
• The Hero is the Master of Two Worlds: The hero has become competent and comfortable with both the internal and external conflicts experienced during the hero’s journey and has achieved balance between the material and the spiritual. Again, think of the end of The Return of the Jedi.
• The Freedom to Live: The undertaking of the hero’s journey and mastery of the quest leads the hero to freedom from the fear of death, thus giving the hero the freedom to live in such a way that the hero is neither anticipating the future nor reliving the past.
Source: The Hero WIth A Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell. First published in 1949.