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The Hero's Journey: Campbell's Archetype

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Ever thought that a lot of the world's myths and literary classics start to sound the same after a while? Joseph Campbell sure did, and you can learn more in this lesson about his theory on how all these stories converge into a single 'Hero's Journey!

One Story to Rule Them All: Campbell's 'Monomyth'

What do Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and the Buddha all have in common? You might not think very much at first glance, but if we look closer we see that they are all heroes of their own epic adventures. Looking even closer, we see that these adventures seem to follow a common pattern.

The individual exhibiting these broadly recurring patterns of superhuman or otherwise extraordinary exploits is known as the hero archetype. Joseph Campbell - one of the world's leading authorities on comparative mythology - recognized this archetype in stories from around the world and throughout time. In 1949, he published his theory on these patterns in his landmark book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell described what he called the 'monomyth' ('one story'), the cross-cultural story formula for a hero's journey.

Whether it's the Buddha on the path to Enlightenment or Odysseus on the way home, Campbell argued that their stories were actually made up of mostly the same components. Keep reading to learn more about Campbell's theory of the monomyth as we follow the 'Hero' on his universal journey.

The Hero's Journey

While outlining and describing the Hero's Journey, Campbell identified three main phases in the monomyth: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each of these consist of several smaller stages, and we'll talk about some of the more crucial ones as we explore these amazing adventures.

Departure

As Lao-Tzu's said: 'The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.' And so, the departure is critical to the Hero's Journey if he's to have one at all. The initial stage in this phase of the trek is the call to adventure, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi asking Luke Skywalker to help him save Princess Leia. However, like Luke, many heroes often refuse the call at first, using any excuse they can to not leave home.

As he gazes over the charred remains of his home and family, Luke finally understands that he has nothing holding him back from his own call to adventure.
Movie still of Luke Skywalker surveying his wrecked home on Tatooine

This is important to note, because the whole point of the departure phase is to get him out of his comfort zone and away from the familiar. Though they're regarded as extraordinary individuals, heroes are also just like us: confronting the unknown can frighten them, too. These fears are made real when circumstances eventually force him to take his first step into a larger world - one that almost immediately overwhelms him in a stage Campbell called 'The Belly of the Whale.'

This could mean he's literally swallowed, as in the biblical story of Jonah (where Campbell got the name), or completely surrounded by enemies, like in Frodo's first encounter with the Nazgûl after leaving the Shire. This stage is typically full of womb imagery, indicating that the Hero's coming initiation is actually a form of rebirth.

Swallowed into the misty world of the Ring, Frodo learns its power and the voracity of those who pursue it while confronting the Nazgûl at Weathertop.
Movie still depicting Frodo with the Nazgul

Initiation

The initiation phase of the Hero's Journey is the test that will prove whether or not he is worthy of being called a 'Hero'. Upon beginning his initiation, he must traverse a 'Road of Trials,' which Campbell noted as a favorite stage in the journey for storytellers and listeners alike.

Like the legendary 12 Labors of Hercules, these trials test the Hero's physical, mental, and moral fortitude, as well as provide some of the most riveting tales for audiences. These tests are crucial in transforming the once ordinary homebody into a victorious, globetrotting adventurer.

Now that he's been effectively reborn, the Hero can finally claim what Campbell called 'The Ultimate Boon' - the object of his search or his quest's goal. This could be Jason's Golden Fleece, Gilgamesh's immortality, or even the destruction of the Ring of Power. Claiming this ultimate victory is the final stage in the Hero's initiation, proving that he has achieved superhuman status. His former self would never have been able to accomplish such daring feats.

The Golden Fleece retrieved by the ancient Greek hero Jason and his Argonauts is still one of the most famous boons in mythology.
Greek pottery depicting Jason with the Golden Fleece

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