Monday, March 16, 2009

Fantasy Fiction and The Hero’s Journey

In an age when bookshelves are packed with fantasy novels, and the previews for almost all the summer blockbusters depict teenagers saving the world from the forces of Dark Wizard So-and-So, you might mistakenly believed there are as many “Chosen Ones” as there are winners of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.

It seems as though the favored fantasy-adventure novels and movies of today—while entertaining—follow the same trite, predictable plot line, with little deviation except for a changes in character names. You ask yourself, “Do the similarities between these books and movies show that modern writers have lost all sense of creativity? Or is there some greater phenomenon at work?”

I’m glad you asked (and even happier that I can read your mind).

It was the belief of American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, that the adventure found in almost all myths, stories, and epics follows a preset, underlying plot structure. Not only can this structure be found in the most cherished adventure classics such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings, but also within many of the newer fantasy classics like Harry Potter. Just as Carl Jung suggested that there are archetypal images within the collective human unconscious, Campbell believed that all fictional journeys followed the same essential path, and heroes walk the same steps on the road of adventure.

Just as little Lucy Pevensie enters the wardrobe, Frodo Baggins leaves The Shire, and Harry Potter drags his luggage to platform 9 ¾, let’s journey into the world of the hero’s adventure.


The Call to Adventure

The story begins with the hero* living an ordinary, mundane life in a place relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Accidentally or deliberately, the hero learns that he must leave his home and venture into the outside, unfamiliar world to complete an important task. The task may be to restore peace to his homeland, prevent a catastrophe from occurring, to recover something (or someone) lost or stolen, or discover some hidden truth.

*To avoid awkward sentence construction, I will refer to the hero as “he”; however, the hero of the work may be a heroine and therefore a “she.” In that instance, the other character forms (Supernatural Aid/Goddess/Father) could be the opposite gender.

The Refusal of the Call

While some heroes readily accept their call to adventure, most initially refuse to leave home. The hero may feel that responsibilities and obligations prevent him from leaving, believe his skills are inadequate to complete the task, or fear the dangers that lie ahead. Eventually, the hero changes his mind or is forced onto the journey by an outside force.

Supernatural Aid

At the onset of the journey, the hero encounters a wise person, usually an elderly individual, who is familiar the outside world and wants to protect the hero. The person offers advice and aid, and it is common for the guide to give the hero a talisman or weapon—something that will provide a greater chance for success in completing the adventure.

Crossing the Threshold

In almost every myth, the hero experiences a moment of awareness in which he perceives that he is crossing the boundary, leaving the familiar world behind and passing into the realm of the unknown. Sometimes, the hero encounters a threshold guardian—a person or creature that stops ordinary individuals from crossing the boundary. The guardian directly opposes the hero and prevents him from making an easy passage, testing the hero’s abilities and ensuring that he has the right amount of skill and determination to survive the journey.

The Belly of the Whale

The hero undergoes a mental and spiritual transformation as he moves between worlds. The hero acknowledges that things will never be the same again, and he will have to learn to adapt and survive in an unfamiliar place.


The Road of Trials

Almost immediately upon entering the new world, the hero is presented with tasks he must complete and obstacles he must overcome. Like the threshold guardian, these tasks test the hero’s skills, and while they do pose a danger to the hero, they are minor conflicts compared to the real battle and climax of the work. Traditionally, the hero must complete three tasks, but this is often not the case.

Meeting with the Goddess

The hero encounters an intelligent woman of great power, and he falls in love with her, either romantically or as a child loves a mother. The goddess graciously gives the hero advice and additional aid that will help him on his journey.

Woman as the Temptress

Whether he is seduced by lust, debauchery, melancholy, or his own fear, the hero is lured into abandoning his quest. The temptress may be an actual woman—even the goddess figure— or a figurative temptress, the hero’s doubt.

Atonement with the Father

At the climactic moment of the story, a battle takes place between the hero and his father or between the hero and the primary antagonist of the story. In order for the hero to reach the end of his journey, the antagonist must be killed, and it will take all of the hero’s cunning, strength, and determination to defeat him.


After “the father” is defeated, the hero integrates all of the talents and knowledge he has gained into himself, becoming purified in the process. He experiences enlightenment and enters into a state of perfect peace and harmony with nature. At this stage, the hero also becomes deified and worshipped.

The Ultimate Boon

After the purification of apotheosis, the hero is deemed worthy to claim the treasure or achieve the goal of his quest. The hero victoriously claims his prize.


Refusal of the Return

With the quest completed, the hero must return home. However, he is reluctant go back to the old, familiar world, knowing that he cannot reintegrate himself into society and resume a life of simplicity and ignorance. Despite this, the hero realizes that what he has received or accomplished can benefit all mankind, and he is under an obligation to return home.

The Magic Flight

After the boon is retrieved or the objective met, the hero is opposed once more, and a person or creature chases him, either as he is leaving the place where the treasure was kept or as he is trying to return to the old world.

Rescue from Without

Like the individual who gives the hero supernatural aid at the onset of his journey, a person, usually from the ordinary world, comes to the hero’s rescue. He or she may help the hero in the chase, convince him that he needs to return home, or heal the hero—spiritually or physically—if he is too exhausted from the journey to return home on his own.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The journey complete, the hero returns to the ordinary world.

Master of the Two Worlds

The hero learns how to rejoin the civilized world and resume living an ordinary life, aware that he knows and has experienced more than his fellow men. His perspective and understanding has been broadened, and he will use his knowledge for the greater good. Usually he is revered as a hero and admired for his accomplishments; however, if the hero goes unappreciated or his wisdom is unheeded, the hero will die or leave the familiar world forever.

Freedom to Live

The hero bestows the gifts (literal or figurative) he has received on his journey to other men, and he lives out the rest of his life in perfect happiness.


For more information on The Hero’s Journey, explore Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces or the 1988 PBS Special The Power of Myth.

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