The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey

Laurence Coupe

The English Review 10, 3 (February 2000), pp. 14-16


People have always been fascinated by the similarities between different stories. From The Fairie Queene to The Pilgrim’s Progress, from Jane Eyre to Star Wars, Laurence Coupe explores the idea that there is one central story which keeps being retold.


On board the Death Star, a battle station of the evil Empire, Luke Skywalker is attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader. Pursued by imperial troops, he and his companions plunge into a garbage compactor, where they find themselves floundering in a foul swamp inhabited by monstrous creatures. Suddenly, Luke is dragged down into the depths. For what seems like an eternity he disappears, while his companions look on helplessly, fearing that he might have died. Then, just as suddenly, he reappears: he is alive and well, and is ready to resume the struggle against evil.

Does this sound familiar? Even if you have not seen the original Star Wars film (1977), you will probably have watched other cinematic scenes like this. It is so familiar that we might want to identify it as a motif, or recurrent symbol. We might call it the ‘supreme ordeal’, or perhaps even the ‘victory over death’. It is the kind of scene we come across not only in film but also in literary narrative. For example, Book I of Spenser’s verse romance The Fairie Queene (1590), tells the story of the Red Cross Knight and his quest to save a kingdom from an evil dragon. In the penultimate episode, the knight does battle with the dragon, and at one point he seems to have been overcome. The force of the monster’s fiery breath causes him to stumble and almost sink in the mire nearby a large tree. However, this is the tree of life, and as he rests in its roots he is restored to health by the stream of balm which flows from it. Thereafter, he has the strength to defeat the dragon and redeem the land.

Was George Lucas, the director of the film, imitating Edmund Spenser? This need not be the case if we accept the idea that ‘the hero’s journey’ is a universal narrative structure, with incidents and images which keep reappearing. Thus, what looks like a matter of specific influence turns out to have a deeper and wider perspective: a collective, unconscious expectation which a shrewd film director will not disappoint.

The monomyth

In 1949, a relatively unknown college lecturer, Joseph Campbell, wrote a book which is still hugely influential. The thesis of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is that there is one central story which has haunted the human imagination, even though it has many versions — and there is only one hero, even though he has ‘a thousand faces’. Campbell calls this story the ‘monomyth’. It makes itself known in a variety of ways from age to age and from place to place. Its roots lie in the most archaic human experiences.

In his book, Campbell expresses interest in the rite of passage of the earliest, hunter-gathering cultures. In its broadest sense, this involved a young male being initiated into the mysteries of the tribe by being made to undertake a challenging task in isolation, which would signify his transition from boyhood to manhood. In a more specialised sense, it involved the ‘shaman’ or ‘holy man’ of the community going off into the forest in order to experience a sacred vision, whose benefits he would convey to the community as a whole. In both cases, the pattern it bequeathed to storytelling was threefold: departure, struggle and return – or, to use Campell’s terms, ‘call to adventure’, ‘crossing the threshold of adventure’ and ‘return with elixir’, or ‘bringing back the boon’.

Luke learns to trust the Force

The Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired George Lucas to write and direct Star Wars. He set out to make a film that did not so much imitate particular versions of the monomyth as follow the fundamental pattern as strictly as possible. We can see how deliberately this exercise was undertaken if we apply some of the subdivisions of the scheme set out by Campbell to the film itself. For example, within the ‘call to adventure’, we are told, there are usually the following secondary stages: first, we have the hero in his ‘ordinary world’; secondly, the call itself; thirdly, his initial ‘refusal of the call’; fourthly, after his ‘meeting with the mentor’, his commitment to undertake the journey.

In Star Wars we see Luke Skywalker, bored with life on the farm where he lives with his uncle and aunt. Then he finds Princess Leia’s message, stored in the droid R2-D2 and addressed to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was once a celebrated Jedi Knight within the old Republic. Not immediately prepared to do very much about this, Luke nevertheless seeks out Obi-Wan who, having persuaded him to take up the challenge of helping the princess and supporting the rebellion against the Empire, instructs him in the ways of the Force.

We could go on, mapping every main incident in the film to an episode already described, situated and explained by Campbell. We have already noted the crucial moment of ‘the supreme ordeal’ (the garbage compactor), which usually comes after the crossing of the threshold. We might also note the important presence of allies along the way: here they are Han Solo, and the droids C-3P0 and R2-D2. Let us take just one more example. Late on in the journey, we have the moment Campbell calls ‘resurrection’ – the religious language indicating that the heroic quest is not for material gain. Just as Spenser’s Red Cross Knight can only restore a ravaged land to life by virtue of being spiritually renewed himself, so Luke Skywalker can only overcome the evil Empire by trusting to a higher power. Launching his final assault on the Death Star, he is inspired by the spirit of Obi- Wan Kenobi to let go of his old self and to trust the Force. Luke’s earlier, specifically physical near-death experience has anticipated the final moment of victory, when he knows the ‘boon’ to be inner as well as outer. Evidently, earlier audiences cheered at the moment when Luke succeeds in destroying the Death Star; according to Campbell’s theory, they were unconsciously responding to the archaic power of the completed ‘rite of passage’.

‘Eternal Life!’

For another celebrated ‘rite of passage’, let us turn again to a literary source. Part I of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progess (1679) is regarded by many critics as one of the earliest English novels, but it is perhaps better appreciated in our context as a traditional prose romance, taking the form of a quest. It illustrates Campbell’s pattern perfectly, but with an interesting variation. The hero, Christian, is dissatisfied with the sinful world in which he lives and, reading his Bible, decides to leave it for ever and find the Celestial City, or heavenly kingdom. As he sets off he cries, ‘Life! Life! Eternal life!’ Here, then, there is no ‘refusal of the call’ as such; but what we do have is an attempt by several false friends (Mr Worldly Wiseman, Pliable and others) to dissuade the hero from his quest. This variation is especially effective in a Christian story which emphasises the need to hold on to one’s faith.

The rest of the tale conforms more clearly to the pattern. We have a mentor in the shape of Evangelist, who shows Christian how to understand God’s message and how to avoid the temptations of sin and error on the way. Moreover, as might be expected, Christian has allies, such as Faithful, and he has enemies, such as Giant Despair. Again, he must make his way through many dreadful places, such as the Slough of Despond, a deep bog in which he nearly drowns, and a demonic market place called Vanity Fair, in which he and his ally are put on trial by followers of the Devil, who execute Faithful. Finally, he and his new companion, Hopeful, swim across the River of Death and reach their heavenly destination.

It is worth mentioning that, though Bunyan’s religious allegory focuses on Christian, who seems to have deserted his wife and family in his quest for salvation, Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1684) recounts the successful attempt of his wife Christiana and their children to follow in his footsteps. The devotion of a whole narrative to Christian’s wife reminds us that, when we are looking for literary variations on the monomyth, we need not expect the protagonist to be male. Indeed, as the novel developed as a literary form, it increasingly related the inner aspect of the hero’s journey to the desire of women to establish an identity in what seemed to be a man’s world. They wanted, as it were, to tell their own story. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) is illuminating here: while deeply rooted in traditional, male-centred narrative, it is strongly informed by a sense of female needs and rights.

A woman’s quest

Jane Eyre is perhaps a more complicated example than The Pilgrim’s Progress, particularly as it is set in the ‘real world’ and it seems to lack a mythic dimension. However, bearing in mind the thesis of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we should expect it (like all stories) to draw much of its power from the ‘monomyth’, no matter how realistic this first-person account of Jane’s life might seem to be.

For instance, the novel is narrated in the form of a journey, and it is worthwhile considering the main stages of Jane’s travels, as suggested by the symbolic names of her dwelling places. The orphaned Jane has to pass through the ‘gate’s head’ (Gateshead Hall, home of her uncle) in order to undertake her adventure. In the course of her struggle, she feels herself overwhelmed by the darkness of a ‘low wood’ (Lowood Orphans Asylum). Indeed, her misery must further deepen, as she encounters hostility in a ‘field of thorns’ (Thornfield Hall, owned by Mr Rochester, where Jane is employed as a governess). However the ‘field of thorns’ becomes in time a ‘dene’, or vale, of ‘ferns’ (Ferndean, the house where Jane and Rochester finally live as man and wife), a pleasant valley full of beautiful plants. Thus, she has travelled a path as symbolically important as Christian’s. She has made her way through the waste land of despair to her own kind of paradise.

Now, If we have read the whole novel, we may look back over it and see the plot includes an initial ‘call to adventure’ (the ghostly apparition in the red room), a ‘refusal of the call’ (Jane’s self-doubts and awareness of her own plain appearance), a mentor (Mr Reed, possibly, or Miss Temple), various allies (Helen, Mary, Diana), enemies (Mrs Reed, Mr Brocklehurst, Mrs Rochester), a ‘resurrection’ (Jane’s death to her old doubts and her new sense of identity in love) and a ‘return with the elixir’ (Rochester’s restoration of sight through the healing power of Jane’s love).

More than a formula?

I have set out to show that different stories may share a common structure, whether we come across them in classic literature or popular film. But in a sense, that is only the beginning of the discussion. For, once we have detected a hidden pattern, we still have to decide how we evaluate the various versions that we come across. For example, though The Pilgrim’s Progress seems to have been written to justify a distinctly individualistic version of Christianity, what lingers in the mind is the rich depiction of a social world. This is seen to be full of divisions and injustices, as represented by the patronising Worldly Wiseman and by the cruel judge and jury of Vanity Fair. But it is also a place where the poor and oppressed continually find opportunities to help one another, as seen in the relationship of Christian with Faithful and with Hopeful. This latter interest takes us beyond the simple formulaic expectation that the ‘monomyth’ will include allies as well as enemies: it is an extremely moving element in the experience of reading the text. Again, Jane Eyre is a radical adaptation of the traditional quest romance. Bronte not only substitutes a female hero for a male, but also uses her story to explore the struggle a woman has to engage in if she is to affirm and assert her rights in a society organised for the benefit of men. Indeed, perhaps the ‘boon’ which Jane brings back is, ultimately, the example she sets to her female readers of the possibility of finding respect and responsibility.

What, then, of George Lucas’s films? Are they restricted to the bare bones of a formula? I think it would be unfair to conclude so. One point of interest is that the first of the Star Wars films does not reveal that the evil Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father; this information is held back until the third film, Return of the Jedi (1983). The early trilogy thereby gains in tension and psychological subtlety; moreover, it encourages us to reflect on the relationship between good and evil, between the light and dark sides of the Force. The recently released ‘prequel’, The Phantom Menace (1999), delves further into such matters by tracing the early years of Luke’s father, Anakin, as he undergoes his own rite of passage. On the other hand, I would not want to encourage the notion that a film deserves celebration simply because it keeps reworking one variation of what has become a formula. One should, perhaps, pause to regret Lucas’s increasing interest in special effects at the expense of extending narrative possibilities, and the increasing ability of Hollywood to turn everything, including the ‘monomyth’, into a commercial enterprise. But that, as they say, is another story.

Laurence Coupe


Further reading:
Laurence Coupe, Myth , 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)