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The Hero's Journey

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Simplified Journey Illustration by Reg Harris

"Wallace, when my journey began, I was living in an ordinary world. Ramona skated through my dreams, and it was like a call to adventure, a call I considered refusing, but my mentor, that's you, told me if I want something bad enough, I have to fight for it! So I did, there were tests, allies, enemies. I approached a deep cave and went through a crazy ordeal, during which I totally seized the sword! Sadly I died, then I resurrected! Now I realize what I should've been fighting for all along, but before I do, I have to ask one final favor of you... could you put a robe on and hand me the phone?"

The Hero's Journey is an archetypal story pattern, common in ancient myths as well as modern day adventures.

The concept of the Hero's Journey was described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and refined by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey.

It can be boiled down to three stages:

  • Departure: the Hero leaves the familiar world behind.
  • Initiation: the Hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure.
  • Return: the Hero returns to the familiar world.

More elaborate taxonomies usually include the following stages, not all of which need be present:

The pattern of the Hero's Journey can be found in shows ranging from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. George Lucas claims to have used it as a guide when writing Star Wars. Traditionally, the Hero's Journey was cyclic; a female Hero's Journey is more likely to be cyclic than a male's. Buffy The Vampire Slayer fits this to a tee; the movie is the first cycle, and each season roughly corresponds to one additional cycle. The game Journey intentionally fits this model exactly, even referring specific steps in the soundtrack's titles. This sequence is so ubiquitous that even The Spongebob Squarepants Movie can be shown to follow it.

The Harry Potter books can also be seen to be cyclic in this fashion, although the journey was followed more closely in the earlier installments. The sixth and seventh books are arguably one cycle divided into two parts. With the final book having been split into two films, the last three films kind of form their own mini-trilogy, with each installment covering a step in the departure-initiation-return model. An interesting element is the fact that in the first five books/films, the Muggle world is the ordinary world and Hogwarts is the world of adventure, but in the Prince/Hallows duology/trilogy, Hogwarts has become the ordinary world and now it is the world beyond Hogwarts which is the world of adventure.

This approach is not without critics, however. Some critics argue that Campbell's theory has become a formula on how to make hit stories and thus discourages originality since it is unsuitable for every type of story. Others (most notably Greg Egan) feel that the pattern is too vague and general to be a notable pattern among both classical and modern stories. Still others feel that the approach focuses far too much on what good stories do when how they get there and the problems they must solve are more important. Even when looking at the theory as a description of what already exists, folklorists complain that the pattern isn't really universal, because archetypes are culture-specific, and finding the Hero's Journey as a universal in stories from other cultures is only shoehorning them into familiar patterns.

Compare Campbell's description of the journey with Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, especially the plots of Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, and Voyage and Return. Like Campbell, Booker invests a lot of symbolism in the various elements, to the point where messing up the symbolism kills the story for him (for example, he calls Star Wars flawed because they rescued the princess way before they killed the Big Bad, when ideally those should happen at the same time, since the death of the Monster causes the release of the Anima).

Compare The Quest. See also Propp's Functions of Folktales. If you experience a Heel Realization mid-Journey and realize your efforts so far have been for the wrong side or wrong reasons, please take the detour to your Redemption Quest.

A Sister Trope to Came Back with a Vengeance, which follows many of the same story beats, but concerns an Anti-Hero's journey through the Cycle of Revenge.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Monomyth, Tolkiens Cycle, Heros Journey, The Hero Cycle


Minewitcher2 Rio Blu's Story

The YouTuber Minewitcher2 explains this trope while reviewing the movie Rio and how the film mostly follows this path while also explaining how it took a important divergence from this trope.

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Main / TheHerosJourney

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