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The Hero's Journey
Transcript of The Hero's Journey
The Ordinary World
The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
Most stories ultimately take us to a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you’re going to tell a story about a fish out of his customary element, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world.
The Call to Adventure
Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
The hero is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure. Maybe the land is dying, as in the King Arthur stories about the search for the Grail. In STAR WARS, it’s Princess Leia’s holographic message to Obi Wan Kenobi, who then asks Luke to join the quest. In detective stories, it’s the hero being offered a new case. In romantic comedies it could be the first sight of that special but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing/sparring with.
Refusal of the Call
The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
Often at this point the hero balks at the threshold of adventure. After all, he or she is facing the greatest of all fears – fear of the unknown. At this point Luke refuses Obi Wan’s call to adventure, and returns to his aunt and uncle’s farmhouse, only to find they have been barbecued by the Emperor’s stormtroopers. Suddenly Luke is no longer reluctant, and is eager to undertake the adventure. He is motivated.
Meeting with the Mentor
The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
By this time many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like character who is the hero’s mentor. The mentor gives advice and sometimes magical weapons. This is Obi Wan giving Luke his father’s light saber.
The mentor can go so far with the hero. Eventually the hero must face the unknown by himself. Sometimes the Wise Old Man/Woman is required to give the hero a swift kick to get the adventure going.
The Known World
The Unknown World
The Threshold of Adventure
Crossing the Threshold
At the end of act one, the hero commits to leaving the ordinary world and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
The hero fully enters the special world of the story for the first time. This is the moment at which the story takes off and the adventure gets going. The balloon goes up, the romance begins, the spaceship blasts off, the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is now committed to his/her journey and there’s no turning back.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
The hero is forced to make allies and enemies in the special world, and to pass certain tests and challenges that are part of his/her training. In STAR WARS the cantina is the setting for the forging of an important alliance with Han Solo and the start of an important enmity with Jabba the Hutt. In CASABLANCA Rick’s Café is the setting for the “alliances and enmities” phase and in many Westerns it’s the saloon where these relationships are tested.
The hero and new found allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of the quest is hidden. In the Arthurian stories the Chapel Perilous is the dangerous chamber where the seeker finds the Grail. In many myths the hero has to descend into hell to retrieve a loved one, or into a cave to fight a dragon and gain a treasure. In STAR WARS it’s Luke and company being sucked into the Death Star where they will rescue Princess Leia. Sometimes it’s just the hero going into his/her own dream world to confront fears and overcome them
Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He/she faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it’s a black moment. In STAR WARS, it’s the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the sewage and is held down so long that the audience begins to wonder if he’s dead.
This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and be born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero’s return from death.
The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
Having survived death, beaten the dragon, the hero now takes possession of the treasure he’s come seeking. Sometimes it’s a special weapon like a magic sword or it may be a token like the Grail or some elixir which can heal the wounded land.
The hero may settle a conflict with his father or with his shadowy nemesis. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both, as he discovers that the dying Darth Vader is his father, and not such a bad guy after all.
The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Often she is the treasure he’s come to win or rescue, and there is often a love scene or sacred marriage at this point.
About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the special world to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
The hero’s not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure. This is the chase as Luke and friends are escaping from the Death Star, with Princess Leia and the plans that will bring down Darth Vader.
If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile with his father or the gods, they may come raging after him at this point. This is the moonlight bicycle flight of Elliott and E. T. as they escape from “Keys” (Peter Coyote), a force representing governmental authority. By the end of the movie Keys and Elliott have been reconciled and it even looks like Keys will end up as Elliott’s step-father.
The Road Back
At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his/her experience. There is often a replay here of the mock death-and-rebirth of Stage 8, as the hero once again faces death and survives. The Star Wars movies play with this theme constantly – all three of the films to date feature a final battle scene in which Luke is almost killed, appears to be dead for a moment, and then miraculously survives. He is transformed into a new being by his experience.
The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
The hero comes back to the ordinary world, but the adventure would be meaningless unless he/she brought back the elixir, treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with the elixir or some boon to mankind, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. Many comedies use this ending, as a foolish character refuses to learn his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place.
Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. Sometimes it’s just coming home with a good story to tell.
Return with the Elixir