What is the Hero’s Journey? An introduction with examples

So you’ve heard about the Hero’s Journey, but it’s kind of complicated right? This article will introduce you to the basics, with plenty of examples, and walk you through an introduction to Joseph Campbell and Christoper Vogler’s work!

One title I’ll address is ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler.

The title ‘The Writer’s Journey’ echo’s Joseph Campbell’s work ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion.

Campbell’s best-known work is his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero shared by world mythologies, termed the monomyth.

The idea is that there is a particular kind of hero, on a particular kind of journey, which recurs many times throughout story telling cultures all across the world. Campbell’s work had a big impact on many screenwriters, like George Lucas who wrote Star Wars. 

The Writer’s Journey by Vogler is a practical how-to guide based on largely on Campbell’s theories. Vogler himself is a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood companies, influencing stories such as The Lion King, and Fight Club, and Thin Red Line. 

In this post I’ll be introducing you to some of the key concepts contained in the book, and hopefully something useful to you might stand out, or might whet your appetite for further reading. 

So what I’m going to do now is copy out the Hero’s Journey as described in Vogler’s text, and I’d like you to think about whether it applies to any of your favourite stories or films. Some projects to keep in mind are Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. 

Heroes are introduced in the Ordinary world, where they receive the Call to adventure. They are reluctant at first or refuse the call, but are encouraged by a mentor to cross the first threshold and enter the special world, where they encounter tests, allies, and enemies.

They approach the inmost cave, crossing a second threshold where they endure the ordeal. They take possession of their reward and are pursued on The Road Back to the Ordinary world. They cross the third threshold, experience a resurrection and are transformed by the experience. They return with the elixir, a boon or treasure to benefit the ordinary world. 

Did that apply to any of your favourite tales? Let’s dig down briefly into a few of the terms.

First of all, the Ordinary World – what is that? 

Vogler writes: Most stories take the hero out of the ordinary mundane world and into a special world, new and alien. This is the familiar fish out of water idea which has spawned countless films and TV shows. If you’re going to show a fish out of this customary element you first have to show him in the ordinary world to create a vivid contrast with a strange new world they are about to enter. 

I’ve also found that showing a character in their ordinary world can help us to identify with them.

Then we have the call to adventure – note that the world is adventure – and all the excitement and fear that are contained in that concept. 

Vogler says: The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once presented with a call to adventure she can no longer remain indefinitely in the comfort of the ordinary world.

So this is when Gandalf shows up with the Ring, or when Hagrid says Harry – yer a Wizard.

Next we have the refusal of the call. Why should the character refuse the call to adventure? Vogler writes:

This one is about fear. Often at this point the hero books at the threshold of adventure, or expressing reluctance.  After all, she is facing the greatest of all fears, terror of the unknown. Hero has not yet fully committed to the journey and may still be thinking of turning back. Some other influence, a change in circumstances, a further offence against the natural order of things, or the encouragement of the mentor is required to get her past is turning point of fear.

So when a character refuses the call, we also identify with them in this moment, and it helps us to realise that they are like us. Would we want to take the cursed evil ring into the heart of the enemies territory and destroy it? Not really. Could we eventually be convinced to – perhaps! 

Next comes the mentor – who is this mentor exactly? Glinda the good witch, Gandalf, and Dumbledore, all fit the bill. 

Vogler writes: By this time stories will have introduced a Merlin like character who is the heroes mentor. The relationship between hero and mentor is one of the most common themes in mythology and one of the richest in it’s symbolic value. It stands for the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, God and man.

This is the person who encourages you to go on the frightening journey we all embark on in life, and lets you know that there are many reasons to undertake this journey. 

Next Vogler talks about crossing the first threshold. What does this mean exactly? He writes

Now the hero finally commits to the adventure and fully enters the special world of the story for the first time by crossing the first threshold. He agrees to face the consequences of dealing with the problem or challenge posed in the call to adventure. This is the moment when the story takes off and the adventure really gets going.

So in Lord of the Rings this is the moment when Frodo sets out on the road. 

Next Vogler describes Tests, Allies, and Enemies. Another way of saying tests might be obstacles – these are the things that get in the way of the adventurer – and test them to see what they are truly made of. Character is revealed in the way the character overcomes these tests.

Vogler speaks of allies, which refers to the friends that the character makes along the way. Another great theme in stories, along with the importance of overcoming fear and conquering fear of the unknown, is the importance of friendship, or fellowship as it is often referred to in Lord of the Rings.

And we now encounter enemies, these are the people who embody the opposite of the protagonist’s objective. They usually stand to benefit if the hero’s objectives are not met, and they may stand for the values that the protagonist detests. In Harry Potter Voldemort and his death eaters represent evil, and death, and racism, and everything that Harry detests. 

Volger describes the approach to the inmost cave. This is perhaps where things begin to sound a little less familiar, and little less intuitive. So far we might have been describing any human endeavor. Vogler writes

The hero comes at last to the edge of the dangerous place, sometimes Deep Underground, where the object of the quest is hidden. Often it’s the headquarters of the hero’s greatest enemy, the most dangerous spot in the special world, the innermost cave. When the hero enters that fearful place he will cross the second major threshold. Heroes often pause at the gate to prepare, plan, and out with the villains guards. This is the phase of approach.

So there are many inner caves we can probably name off the top of our heads. Perhaps Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. It’s important to note that this phase is all about approach to the inmost, most dangerous place. It involves all the preparations that happen prior to the big battle. 

Next Vogler discusses the ordeal: 

Here the fortunes of a hero hit bottom in a direct confrontation with their greatest fear. They face the possibility of death and are brought to the brink in a battle with a hostile force. The ordeal is a black moment for the audience, as we are held in suspense and tension, not knowing if he will live or die. 

Here is the final battle. When Harry and Voldemort have their final duel, when Luke and Emperor face off, when Frodo comes to the edge of Mount Doom. We all know this one. This is where you pay off all the tension that has been building between your protagonist and antagonist. 

Next we have reward. Vogler writes

Having survived death, beaten the dragon, or slain the Minotaur, hero and audience have cause to celebrate. The hero now takes possession of the treasure she has come seeking, her reward. It might be a special weapon like a magic sword, or a token like the grail or some elixir which can heal the wounded land. Sometimes the sword is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces. 

So there’s a clue at the end there that all the symbols can be altered for a more naturalistic setting. The reward at the end might actually be a peace treaty with the enemy, it might be winning a restraining order against a violent partner, or it might be destroying the one ring to rule them all in the crack of doom in the land of Mordor.

Next we have ‘The Road Back’. The idea explored here is that the journey is not over once the final destination is reached. We must all return home after our ordeals, and as any fans of The Odyssey will tell you, sometimes returning home is not as easy as it sounds. Vogler writes:

We are crossing into act 3 now as the hero begins to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces of the ordeal. If she has not yet managed to reconcile with the parent, the Gods, or the hostile forces, it may come raging after her. Some of the best chase scenes spring up at this point, as the hero is pursued on the road back by the vengeful forces she has disturbed by seizing the sword, the elixir, or the treasure.

Vogler also describes resurrection. For instance we might think of the moment Luke nearly dies at the hands of the emperor at the end of Star Wars. Vogler writes

In some cultures, hunters and Warriors had to be purified before they returned to their communities, because they had blood on their hands. The hero who has been to the realm of the dead must be reborn and cleansed in one last ordeal of death and resurrection before returning to the ordinary world of the living.

This can be thought of as a round two of the ordeal, a final test in which the protagonist must truly demonstrate that they have learned the lessons of the journey one final time in order to survive. 

Finally, we have the return with the elixir. Vogler writes: 

The hero returns to be ordinary world, but the journey is meaningless unless she brings back some elixir, treasure, or lesson from the special world. The elixir is a magic potion with the power to heal. It may be a great treasure like the grail that magically heals the wounded land, or simply might be knowledge or experience that could be useful for the community someday.

The clearest example I can think of is the knowledge and skills the Hobbits bring back to Hobbiton with them in the Book of Lord of the Rings, where they discover that Sauruman has taken up residence in the Shire, and they drive him off with their special skills.

Ultimately, in addition to acquiring skills and self knowledge, the item that the hero returns with is one of the points of the entire tale. The elixir may simply be peace itself, as is often the case. The Hobbits have secured peace in Middle Earth, Luke has helped end the evil reign of the Sith Lords, Harry has defeated Lord Voldemort and his death eaters. 

So that’s where I’ll leave Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. But I encourage you to especially look at the section on character archetypes, in which he goes into great depths about the types of characters the hero encounters on his or her journey. 

This structure is positioned as applying particularly on a grand scale, and is referred to as mythic, but it also applies to smaller scale domestic stories too. 

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