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Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey

What is the Hero's Journey?

The Hero’s Journey is a story structure created by Professor Joseph Campbell, who studied comparative mythology and comparative religion. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces explored certain specific points which are common throughout all ancient and new stories in mythology, religion, and fiction. A hero, he found, was one that began in the known world and wow called into adventure in some way. While they may refuse the call at first, they soon meet one who will guide them on the journey after they cross the threshold. Through many trials they will soon reach a Goddess (or a wizard, archetypally), who teaches them new skills.

The hero grows to new heights until something horrible happens—often called the “death” of the story, as Campbell states. The hero dies in some way—though not always physically—and must be rebirthed into something else. The rebirth is where the hero experiences the most internal change, of which he overcomes his fatal flaw. This births the hero into something new, as the hero will overcome his obstacle in the atonement stage and repair himself and the world around him. The hero is not often rewarded in today’s stories, but the deep mythologies also have a period of reward. After this reward comes, the hero returns home, finally changed, finally completing the circle until another one seeds into the earth…

What is an example of this structure?

Star Wars is one of the most wildly known examples of a hero’s journey. George Lucas, as the creator, read a lot of Joseph Campbell in his research for the story. Luke Skywalker, for example, lived on Tatooine his entire life. He is called into adventure by the two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, on a mission to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. Once Obi-Wan is found, he becomes the so called “Goddess” of the story who teaches Luke the ways of the force (at least in A New Hope).

After rescuing Princess Leia Organa, Obi-Wan is killed by the sinister Darth Vader. This would be the death of the story in which the characters are at their lowest and must be rebirthed. Luke has lost his master, and, as such, is unable to learn the force—and to learn the true history of his family. The rebirth and the atonement come as Luke hears Obi-Wan tell him to “use the force” to blow up the death star. Luke’s return, after the battle, is not so much to a physical place but with his newfound friends. His journey from a lonely, hapless farm boy to a brave, sociable hero is completed…for the first film, that is. There is more to the story, as there are with all heroes.

Why is the Hero's Journey important?

The hero’s journey is not just a basic outline for the characters we watch on screen or read about in our deep, ancient mythologies—it is a basic structure rooted into our complex minds. A baby’s first-time walking is bringing them into an unknown world. Their parents (the Goddess of the story) teach them the ways of which they know, often from their own experience with failure. Even they, once, had to take their first steps before gaining knowledge. They watch as the child walks and climbs to worlds unknown, both in the physical world and in the strange labyrinth of the mind. The child learns and is sent into unknown places, such as college, or high school, or to the terrifying task of raising their own children and loses a part of themselves and transforms into something else.

If they were once a child, they become an adult. Once a son or daughter, they become a parent. Once an apprentice, now a master. While one part of them may die, in their childhood, another grows, in their adulthood. As such, the Hero’s Journey is not so much one of physical characters overcoming themselves through courage and change, but of someone growing to become something else. It is the basic idea of adolescence maturing into adulthood. So, ask yourself: where are you in your own journey? And, if these fictional characters can grow by learning from their trials, why would it be any different for you? Make sure to remind yourself, when taking your first steps of something new, to not fear the unknown: it is to help you grow, after all.

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