Hello again! I want to make a more detailed analysis of the different stages of the Hero’s Journey. This is the first of 12 articles I want to write, each dedicated to one phase of the Journey. I will use the version by Christopher Vogler – see below – and for each stage I will include examples from movies and other sources, to better illustrate the possible variations from the canon and in how many ways the “Monomyth”, or single story, has been told through the ages.
The journey in 12 stages is well represented here
and it looks like a straight line, although is probably best to imagine it as an arc (“narrative arc“, or “story arc”, more on it in some future posts… maybe), or a circle.
Well, enough. Ready for number 1? Let’s go!
The call to what?
We have all been there. Just imagine your everyday life routine, waking up with the alarm, getting out of bed, the usual breakfast. We are in our comfort zone. Everything is familiar there, things, places, people… nothing is threatening, no new experiences to challenge us. All is – or seems to be! – under control.
Now, just a moment: being in our comfort zone is important. It’s the place where we recharge our batteries, elaborate our feelings and thoughts, where we can reflect on the adventures we make. In fact, it’s the space where we transform what happens to us, into our experience (our wisdom). It’s the place for storytelling, where learning emerges and is shared. It’s very important to have such a place: the risk of being always away, always on, is high (getting lost in each of the two worlds of the Journey is dangerous. We can also refer to it as “burn out”. More on the risks of getting lost, in some later post).
That’s why every adventure starts from this special place: we need to have a place to call “home”, and it doesn’t matter if it is a cozy, welcoming space like this
a rather challenging environment like this
or a dark, hard to get hideout
what is really important is that such a place exists. Remember: familiar environment and people, no challenges ahead, rest. Maybe some dark clouds are gathering at the horizon… but at this point of the story we might not be aware of it yet.
Then what happens?
A message comes. Change is imminent, action is required. This may be a welcome fact, or not. Natural or catastrophic (“catastrophe” as a word comes from Greek and doesn’t necessarily mean something bad: it is simply a turning point in a story). Expected, or not. What is important is this: something important is going to happen.
Let’s stay on this fact for a while. Our natural instinct seems to be driving us to change and to explore. Look at how hungry babies are for new experiences: they seem unstoppable, reach out, touch, eat, crawl, walk, and enjoy every single moment of it while in fact they are discovering their new world. They can actually put themselves in physical danger in their quest for new experiences. And yet, so few of these “accidents” have consequences!
Think about it for a second: how did we, as a species, manage to evolve and survive despite our tendency to put ourselves into trouble? And here is the thing. We have not evolved despite our thirst for exploration: on the contrary, we owe our success to it, to the pleasure we have in a new discovery, in a new challenge.
(here is a nice TED talk on what are the effects of dopamine on our brain, and how can we get that kind of kick in perfectly harmless and legal ways)
Does it sound familiar? I bet it does. But then why is it that we, as babies, are so enthusiastic about games, challenges and new experiences and then as adults, we grow out of it? The answer is that we never lose that instinct; we simply, for a number of different reasons (culture, education, social position, our fears and insecurities…), forget about it. But it’s still there. And that’s why the “call to adventure” is so important.
And also important is how the message is delivered, or by whom. Is it a natural sign, an animal, an event? Or is it a person? And by what means, technology, tool?
One of the reasons why the Hero’s Journey is so powerful, is that its possibilities are endless. A visionary and clever storyteller is always able to introduce new elements to revitalize his story, or to play with the classic archetypes to create an original and appealing mix. This applies of course also in the “Call to Adventure”, a preliminary but very important stage of the adventure. The message, and the way it is delivered, help to set the story and the way it will be unfolding.
If it’s brought by an animal, or a natural event (a storm, wind, rain) – then maybe our character will face challenges related to his/her “wild”, physical nature. To learn its place in the natural order of things, maybe? To accept the inevitable truth of life cycles? Or the importance of a natural quality of which he or she is not fully aware yet. Or to learn how to follow, sometimes, instinct over reason. Only to name a few examples.
Is the message delivered by a person? Then probably the challenges of the hero will be more related to the social sphere, to the way he/she lives in relation to other people, love and relationship, family, friends; or more universal values like friendship, selflessness, compassion, parenthood…
And what if the “message” is a supernatural or mysterious event, such as a gate opening all of a sudden in a wardrobe, or a comet passing in the sky? Then we are setting the scene for a story related with the invisible, spiritual world, with something transcendent or immaterial that he will need to learn; or with the ability to overcome the human nature and develop new heroic abilities.
You see? It works! Let’s see now a few famous examples that can help us to analyze and to better illustrate the points we just made.
1) in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) Dorothy is a young girl living in Kansas (her Ordinary World). Her farm seems so small and limiting and she just can’t wait to go and explore the big wide world! But is this really how the things are? Can happiness really be found only leaving home and travelling to distant places? Frank Baum, who wrote the novel in 1900, and Victor Fleming, who directed the movie some 40 years later, seem to have a different opinion on the matter.
so the “message” is the evil Miss Gulch (who later in the story will impersonate the Evil Witch) delivering a legal notice: Toto, the dog, must be taken away. But what happens soon after? The smart puppy escapes!
It may seem an easy, almost childish story element. But it delivers a very sophisticated narrative mechanism: we are presented with a sharp contrast between the human, rational world, made by laws, regulations, prohibitions – and the wild natural world, represented by Toto. And why shouldn’t a little dog be free to explore the environment? To play and be free?
And the outcome is clear. No matter how hard we try to put our natural instincts in a box, the natural order of things always prevails (= the little dog escapes). And how happy are we, as audience, seeing the sweet Toto restored to his freedom? It’s obvious that the story works: we subconsciously identify our desire for freedom and nature with the destiny of the little dog. And by the way, Toto will again and again solve Dorothy’s problems during the rest of the journey. He is really one of the story’s “engines”.
2) “The Matrix” (1999). The movie really is a concentrated encyclopedia on all things related to the “Hero’s Journey”. All the elements are there, and in the right place (maybe this helps to explain the huge impact it had on popular culture?). Thomas Anderson lives a double life. In the first, he is just a regular computer programmer “who pays his taxes and helps his landlady take out the garbage”. That’s Ordinary World, with capital letters. But there is more: he is also an extraordinary hacker, known by the name of Neo. He is good, just doesn’t know how good at the moment we first meet him. It’s clear that he is not happy at the moment with his life: sleepless nights, no motivation, there must be something more important out there… and then, this:
Very interesting, no?
In fact we have all three possible ways to deliver a message: the “supernatural”, here in the form of a mysterious, advanced form of technology (remembering the law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) that is speaking to him directly. How is that possible? What is “The Matrix”?
And then, the sentence: “Follow the white rabbit”. Not only it’s a clear reference and a homage to “Alice in Wonderland“: it’s the element of nature! A white rabbit? From a computer screen? And how should we follow it?
Finally, the tri-fecta: a bunch of strange but somehow attractive (aren’t they?) people comes knocking at the door, inviting our hero to go out and have some fun. And look! The white rabbit is there. This cannot be a coincidence…
So here we are, all forces in the universe (nature, supernatural and human beings) converge here to invite our character out of his comfortable but dull life, to a quest that promises to be really interesting. That’s why, by now, we are already sitting on the edge of our seat, totally captivated by the story.
3) Odysseus in the Iliad. A great war is coming. Menelaus and his ambitious brother, Agamemnon, are gathering all the kings of Greece to wage war against Troy. Odysseus (Ulysses, as it’s his more contemporary name) is aware of it, but no way he is going to leave. He knows war, and smart as he is he knows it’s not at all that exciting. He is in love with his wife Penelope, and has a newborn son, Telemachus. No way they are going to take him overseas (Ordinary World).
So what to do? He puts together his horse and his ox, and starts ploughing back and forth the beach sand, plowing salt. He pretends to be mad! They will not take him now!
(there will be more on the “Refusal of the call”, in a future post on this blog)
But the messenger is not one to be cheated with so easily: the Greek kings chose to send Palamedes, also known for his wits (in fact he will somehow become the antagonist of Odysseus in the whole Trojan War, and although he will be never again mentioned again by Homer, his accounts will be described in detail by Ovid and Virgil). Palamedes knows that something is not quite right there, and puts the baby Telemachus on the sand, in front of Odysseus’ path. If the King of Ithaca was really mad, he reasoned, he would not mind, trampling over the baby with his horse and ox.
Of course Odysseus deviates at the last moment from his course, saving his beloved son but giving sure proof of his mental sanity. There is no escape: he will have to leave for the war!
The messenger in this case is a man, because Odysseus’ story will be human, so deeply human. He will go to war, spend 10 years fighting against Troy using his best qualities (intellect, rather than brute strenght), managing to have a key role in the events with the brilliant invention of the Trojan Horse. By the way, he will also have his chance to take revenge against Palamedes – but that’s another story.
And yet – his destiny as we know will not be fulfilled yet. He will have to travel for another 10 years trying to come back home, to reach his beloved Ithaca. Another long journey (an actual “Odyssey“!) that will be his real Hero’s Journey, and will be necessary to complete his story, to really make him a Hero.
All clear? You see now how it works?
The endless possibilities that this simple (simple?) story element contains. How fascinating!
And if you are ready for some homework, try this. What do you see in this other, very famous, Call to Adventure?