The Phases of the Hero’s Journey

If all you have is a hammer, then every story you see is “The Hero’s Journey”…

Every once in a while I’m blessed to be asked to join Don and Rob in their epic podcast The Department of Nerdly Affairs. If you love all things nerdy and geeky, you really should subscribe. Certainly, some of those discussions we have are hotly debated. Few more so than our discussion about the effectiveness of The Hero’s Journey in the episode The Hero’s Journey Strikes Back.

For those who are unaware, the incredible intellectual, mythologist, educator, author and lecturer Joseph Campbell identifies his insights to what he called “the monomyth” in the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In his writings, Campbell has seventeen stages for the hero’s tale. Hollywood has come up with twelve stages, and Maureen Murdock paired her list down to 10 stages of the Heroine’s Journey.

Faced with these very specific stages, it’s no wonder that people fight back against jamming every story into the Hero’s Journey peg hole. However, as an educator myself, I’ve been able to boil the Hero’s Journey down further.

Jack’s Five Phases of the Hero’s Journey:

1. The Call to Adventure The “Call to Adventure” is simply the beginning of the story of the quest. There’s are only two possible calls.

  • Adventure finds the Hero
  • The Hero seeks adventure

In most hero quests, often the hero is reluctant, and adventure seeks him/her out.

Examples:

In Star Wars: The droids have a message that Luke Skywalker discovers.

In The Hunger Games: Katniss must save her sister from the Games.

In The Matrix: Morpheus finds Neo and tasks him to follow the White Rabbit.

In The Lord of The Rings: Gandalf challenges Frodo to get rid of the Rings

If a hero does not answer The Call to Adventure, they become a victim, waiting to be saved by the next Hero.*

2. The Crossing of the Threshold Once the Call is answered, the Hero must pass beyond everything they know and enter the world of the unseen/magical realm/the Unknown. The “threshold” was traditionally the wooden plank that held the thresh (or straw) in a house from spilling outside. It has become seen as the door frame which represents the difference from “here” to “there”.

Examples:

In Star Wars: Luke enters the Tattoine cantina and almost loses his life.

In The Hunger Games: Katniss boards the train to the Capital.

In The Matrix: Neo takes the Red Pill and goes through “The Looking Glass”.

In The Lord of The Rings: Samwise tells Frodo “If I take one more step, t’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

 If a hero does not Cross the Threshold, they again become a victim, waiting to be saved.*

3. In the Belly of the Beast The Belly of the Beast is where the Hero has entered the darkest part of the story- where they are swallowed up by the darkness. This phase could be external or internal conflicts like doubt, loss, or death of a friend.

Effectively, this is the part of the story where everything has gone wrong and there is no path out.

Examples:

In Star Wars: The Rebels are losing. R2 is shot. Darth Vader is about to kill Luke. The base will be destroyed.

In The Hunger Games: Katniss and Peeta decide the will eat the berries and commit suicide rather kill each other.

In The Matrix: Mr. Smith shoots, Neo and he is dying. The ship is being destroyed by robotic squids.

In The Lord of The Rings: Frodo is completely seduced by the Ring and refuses to destroy it in Mount Doom. Samwise is beside himself with grief over the loss of his friend.

If a hero does not move beyond the Belly of the Beast, they become a victim, waiting to be saved.*

4. The Dragon/ Treasure Representing the height of the conflict and the initial reason for the Quest-  the Dragon can be a physical opponent (like the main villain) or an internal struggle of the Hero’s. Once the Dragon is defeated, the Hero gains the Treasure. The Treasure can be a physical item, or it simply could be knowledge or wisdom. Regardless, the Treasure represents something that transforms the Hero, but also all of Society.

Examples:

In Star Wars: The Death Star is destroyed. The heroes are given medals.

In The Hunger Games: Katniss and Peeta win The Hunger Games. They are given food for themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.

In The Matrix: Neo breaks the bonds of The Matrix and is now able to save anyone in the world with near infinite power.

In The Lord of The Rings: The Ring is immolated in the volcano, and the battle against Sauron’s forces is won bringing peace throughout Middle Earth.

The hero must face the Dragon and obtain the Treasure or be a victim waiting to be saved.*

5. The Return  The Hero must return to where the journey began to share The Treasure with the people and transform society. The key to any great monomyth is that no story is complete without the Hero sharing the knowledge and wisdom and riches with the people to remake a new Golden Age.

Examples:

In Star Wars: The Heroes are given medals and there is celebration amongst the Rebels.

In The Hunger Games: Katniss has become a symbol for resistance.

In The Matrix: Neo speaks to the world and tells everyone that things will change.

In The Lord of The Rings: Frodo and Sam return to The Shire amid a fanfare of joy and celebration.

These five phases of the Hero’s Journey in my mind encapsulates ANY story. Whether it is an epic, a comedy, a modern drama, or a tale of fantasy, horror, or science fiction. I’ve yet to find a single story that doesn’t fit the five phases, and after you think about it- you may just discover after all, you may only NEED a hammer.

* Victims in stories, often end up becoming villains as fear and inaction support the evils of the status quo. The Hero destroys the old ways to create new systems that better support the next generation. Darth Vader is a perfect example of a victim waiting to be saved. His darkest moment was the death of his mother. That traumatic event swallowed up Anakin Skywalker and the iron-fisted (and lunged) Darth Vader remained to force the galaxy to do his bidding.

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