Is every story the same? Hero’s Journey

In 1949 Joseph Campbell published a book titled The Hero’s Journey. In the book, Campbell describes a parallel structure found in all myths that transcends time and culture. While this portion of the book is helpful as a story tool, the book is heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud.

In the 1980s Christopher Vogler, a script consultant working for Walt Disney Pictures, published a memo in which he described the various structural elements of the the hero’s journey, but without the psychoanalytic elements. Vogler later expanded the memo into The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

The concept of the hero’s journey is that every hero – the protagonist or main character of the story – goes through a variety of stages in a journey, starting with leaving home and concluding with returning home as a changed individual.

3 Epic Stories

Three popular epic stories within the last hundred years are Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. How to these stories compare?

Harry Potter

A boy, living with relatives who keep the truth from him, discovers he is the child of wizards. By attending wizard school, he acquires the skills he needs to control supernatural powers and defeat evil in the world as personified in his archenemy.

Star Wars

A teen, living with relatives who keep the truth from him, discovers he is the child of a Jedi wizard. By training with a Jedi master, he acquires the skills he needs to control supernatural powers and defeat evil in the universe as personified in his archenemy.

Lord of the Rings

A hobbit, living with his relative who keeps a secret from him, inherits a ring created by the personification of evil. With intervention and mentoring from a wizard who uses supernatural powers to overcome the spirit world, the hobbit defeats evil in the world.

The steps of the journey

  • Ordinary world – the main character in the world as it was before the ensuing adventure began.
  • Call to adventure – The main character is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure.
  • Refusing the call – The protagonist is reluctant to accept the call to adventure. People are naturally averse to change, and the character must decide to remain in the ordinary world or begin a journey of adventure.
  • Meeting with the mentor – Someone in the main character’s life is older and wiser. This mentor advises the character in the decision to leave the ordinary world, and often offers tools, wisdom, and strategies to the character.
  • Crossing the threshold – The main character fully enters the special world of the story. This is usually the beginning of action in a story. In a movie, crossing the threshold typically occurs after 30 minutes. Once the main character crosses into the special world, he cannot return easily to the ordinary word.
  • Tests, allies, and enemies – The main character encounters a series of tests in preparation for future battles and to build stamina – whether physical or emotional. The hero also meet allies who will assist as the story proceeds, but the hero also encounters a variety of enemies who assist the antagonist of the story.
  • Approach the inmost cave – The protagonist and allies enter what appears potentially to be the end of the story. It is a place of danger.
  • Central ordeal – This is the low point of the story, and it appears that all may be lost. Yet, the main character returns to life, physically or symbolically, and reinvigorates the hero.
  • Reward – Also referred to as “seizing the sword,” the hero now claims the reward he fought for in the previous steps. Often, a tool or strategy of some importance is obtained which will contribute to a success conclusion of the story.
  • Road back – Most antagonists do not want the protagonist to keep the reward and take action to thwart the success of the main character. The most dramatic and intense scenes of a story occur in this step.
  • Resurrection – All of the action during the road back culminate in a final scene of life or death. Either the protagonist will defeat the antagonist, or the opposite will occur.
  • Return with elixir – Having survived the final battle, the main character can now return to the ordinary world, but now with new experience, reward, or love interest.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

As noted in previous posts, the Tale of Peter Rabbit is a simple story that clearly illustrates the various steps of story structure. For this post, Peter’s tale is organized according to the elements of the hero’s journey.

  • Ordinary world – Peter and his siblings lived with their mother in a sandbank underneath the root of a very big fir tree.
  • Call to adventure – Mrs. Rabbit said, “Run along and don’t get into any mischief.” In this situation, Peter call to adventure is the mischief of which his mother admonished her rabbits to avoid.
  • Refusal of the call – Peter’s siblings obeyed, but Peter was “naughty.”
  • Meeting with the mentor – Mrs. Rabbit further warned the warren: “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden; your father had an accident there and was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” In this story, Mrs. Rabbit serves as the role of mentor by providing a specific and meaningful consequence of visiting the garden.
  • Crossing the threshold – Peter went directly to the garden.
  • Test, Allies, and Enemies – Peter encountered Mr. McGregory – his archenemy. Peter ran away, but couldn’t find the way out. In the course of his adventure he was encouraged by the sparrows.
  • Approach the inmost cave – Peter was closer to getting caught as he ran away from Mr. McGregor.
  • Central Ordeal – Peter was even closer to getting caught with seemingly no way out and hid in a watering can. He drew attention to himself by sneezing.
  • Reward – Peter slipped through the window, narrowly escaping.
  • Road Back – While still wandering around in the garden, Peter finally spotted the gate, although the path was obstructed by Mr. McGregor.
  • Resurrection – Peter ran for his life towards the gate. He squeezed under it and was out of danger.
  • Return with Elixir – Peter made it safely home. The elixir was knowledge gained from his experience. In a later story Peter’s cousin Benjamin Bunny wanted to visit the garden, but Peter was very resistant.

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