Or, nobody is born a hero. This chapter is dedicated to all the efforts necessary to get out of a limited conditions, and achieve greatness.
It was 1939. Social and economic tensions in Europe and Asia were soon to bring the whole world in a catastrophic conflict. Life had to seem rather grim to our predecessors of that time. So we can probably imagine what was the reaction of audiences, first in the U.S. and then worldwide, when for the first time they could see colours on a movie screen. Their amazement was probably not very different from Dorothy’s once she realises she is not in Kansas anymore:
By the way, the reference “Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore” is ranked number 4 in the American Film Institute top 100 movie quotes. This sentence from the movie has become an icon of popular culture. And it introduces us perfectly to the next stage of the Hero’s Journey: the “Road of Trials”.
Our character has crossed the threshold, probably facing the first challenge in the process, but what waits now is the real thing. Everything is different in the Extra-Ordinary world: rules, people, sometimes even the natural laws. Stories differ a lot in their details but they all make sure to invest a good deal of time and information in letting us perceive how different the world feels on the other side.
Alice has to learn that in the Wonderland things are not always what they seem, and she will have to test the boundaries of her own curiosity and abilities while experimenting with different food and meeting various characters.
“Shogun“, the 1975 novel by James Clavell that inspired the tv series with Richard Chamberlain (and later Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai“, 2003 ) describes in great detail the long and painful process of cultural shock and adaptation that the main character (John Blackthorne) has to go through, once he finds himself shipwrecked in feudal Japan.
In Avatar (2010), Colonel Quaritch makes it very clear that the new environment will be wonderful, but terrible. Pandora is a planet where:
You’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re on Pandora. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might want to go there for some R & R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.
We have an indigenous population of humanoids called the Na’vi. They’re fond of arrows dipped in a neurotoxin that will stop your heart in one minute — and they have bones reinforced with naturally occurring carbon fiber. They are very hard to kill.
As head of security, it is my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed. Not with all of you. If you wish to survive, you need to cultivate a strong, mental attitude. You got to obey the rules: Pandora rules!
Ok, I admit it’s a bit over-emphatic, but it’s effective as a description of what lies before the marines, just arrived to the new planet. Unimaginably rich rewards will come (to the investors’ pockets of course), but very hard, deadly challenges must be overcome first (by the working class marines. Mmm… do I detect a hint of exposure of social injustice here?).
This concept is so popular and familiar that comes almost natural to us, right?
When we enter a new environment, we have to work hard to learn how to play by its rules. This new world can be a physical place, a new geographical area, like in “Wizard of Oz“, “Alice in Wonderland“, or so many stories that include travel and the adaptation that comes after:
or a new social setting, like a new group or a job environment that presents itself as particularly hostile until we adapt and learn how to navigate in it,
or, often, a combination of both: a different space where also uses and customs are different and demand a good deal of effort from us before we can consider part of it.
As an alternative, the change can be from a life stage, to another. In this case, too, we will have to face completely new challenges that will test our limits. At first it will seem impossible to overcome them (“I will never pass this exam”, or “I will never be able to sleep anymore”), but with enough training, effort, discipline, we will eventually make it.
Or, the story can use elaborate metaphores to “transfer” a meaning from another domain. For example, to describe a spiritual change, we refer to a “magical”, sci-fi or fantasy world where even the laws of nature as we know them can be bent, if we only learn how.
Very strong analogies can of course be found in the mythologies. In the Greek myth, Hercules has to sustain 12 labours before he could atone his horrible sins – he killed his wife and sons – and achieve immortality. Some of them were “heroic” as we intend it, some were meant to teach him other virtues, such as humility.
The fifth labour was to clean the stables of King Augeas. The livestock there were divinely healthy (and immortal) and therefore produced an enormous quantity of poo. The Augean Stables had not been cleaned in over 30 years, and over 1,000 cattle lived there.
Moving to another culture, the Irish Celtic hero Cuchulain fell in love with Emer and asked her to marry him. She insisted that he must first prove his valor by undergoing a series of trials and sent him to the war goddess Scatha to be trained in warfare. On his journey to Scatha, Cuchulain had to pass through the plain of Ill Luck, where sharp grasses cut travelers’ feet, and through the Perilous Glen, where dangerous animals roamed (that’s still pretty common if you go on a hike in Ireland, see for example). Then Cuchulain had to cross the Bridge of the Cliff, which raised itself vertically when someone tried to cross it.
Then, Cuchulain fought Aife, the strongest woman in the world. He defeated Aife, made peace with her, and she bore him a son, Cornila (the peace agreement must have been really intense). While returning home to claim his bride, Cuchulain rescued a princess and visited the underworld.
That’s a “road of trials” indeed. Cuchulain is a central character in the Celtic myth, which has mostly been transmitted orally and never been written down until modern times. That’s why many different sources of the same story can exist and really contradict each other.
To testify the character’s greatness however, he even made it to the Marvel comic universe, appearing in one side story of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series.
Back to the shores of the Mediterranean.
One thousand years before Christ, the Greek free cities were suffering the domination of Crete, back then the strongest power in the region, which was ruled by the all-ambitious king Minos. As a sign of their dominant position, Crete was periodically asking a heavy human sacrifice to Athens: that the seven most valiant boys, and the seven most beautiful girls, were shipped to Crete, never to be seen again.
The horrible truth was that these young people were given to the Minotaur, a monstrous creature half man-half bull that Minos kept imprisoned in the centre of a Labyrinth, and who needed to feed on human flesh.
The Minotaur was actually part of Minos’ not-so-traditional family, being the son of his queen Pasifae, who had been cursed in turn by the God Poseidon as a consequence of Minos’ excessive ambition. But this is, once again, another story, and shall be told another time.
Anyway, after three rounds of such sacrifices, Athens decided it was enough, and sent its prince Theseus disguised as a prisoner to Crete. Theseus was really full of resources. He first found some local ally who provided him with valuable know-how, entered the Labyrinth, got to the centre and faced the Minotaur, slaying him. To get out, he used the famous “red thread” he got from Ariadne before the mission.
This is a very long and elaborate story, that we summarised really in short. There can be no more powerful myth than this tale, which contains all the classic elements of a story and of course of the Hero’s Journey. The Labyrinth symbolises at the same time a big material challenge, to be faced using intellect and other resources (see again the iconic “red thread” he receives from Ariadne: she acts as Mentor but at the same time also as romantic interest).
To enter a Labyrinth also means proceeding turn after turn into the “center” of something. It can be seen as a descending journey into own’s awareness, a spiral of growth or revelation that necessarily will lead to a “crisis” (= the centre), and then to change.
And in the essence this is what happens in “The road of trials”. After the initial shock and for the first time confronted with original problems, situations or characters, the main character will realise that:
- he or she is not anymore in their comfort zone, and that new rules have to be learned;
- challenges and even dangers are there and are real, and they can only be overcome by using skills or developing new ones;
- learning, development and self-trust are really the only key to success.
In social sciences, this finds an accurate mirror in what happens in phenomena like “cultural shock” and “cultural adaptation”.
We know how strong our reaction can be when we face a new environment: new languages, codes, people, behaviour, weather, laws, currency, customs… so much new information to manage! Our brain, evolved through thousands of years when we were living in much more homogeneous, closed and stable societies, knows well how to process rather large bricks of information at one single time. This is why we developed the mechanisms of stereotypes, to take fast and hard decisions with a safe margin of error. We can learn how to “thin slice“, and actually become very good at it, but it’s not our first automatic response when we are facing a new problem.
Confronted with the original challenge of having to read the small letters, for example of intercultural understanding, we can actually black out and freeze. We perceive “different” as “challenging”, “dangerous”, and we react as a consequence.
This explains why culture shock can even produce physical (exhaustion, illnesses, allergic reactions), or psychological consequences (such as phobias, tics, neurotic traits or behaviours, burn out). We react to it as we normally would to a big threat.
But no worries: as we have seen, this is absolutely normal, and it actually can be expected! Modern science reassures us by providing the hard evidence our intellectual mind craves for; but ancient wisdom has always been there, and even in contemporary storytelling we keep telling exactly the same story.
If Harry Potter had to work so hard to pass his first year, why shouldn’t I?
Is it really that strange, this new culture I am getting to know? Or is it only my natural reaction to it, and with time I will learn to deal with it?
So, just as the heroes of legends develop new skills to overcome the challenges that at first seemed too hard to beat – or master some inner, forgotten potential they didn’t even suspect to have before; so do we, everytime we face a test of some kind. We react just like them, first with shock or fear
we collect our resources and develop new skills
and we finally get the hang of it!
So what is the universal, healing lesson that we can take from this part of the Journey?
Even if at first the odds seem so much greater than us, there is nothing we can’t possibly achieve. We can learn to be part of another social group, solve a particular problem that bothers us, defeat the illness that has just been diagnosed to a close person, or master the challenges of the new life stage we are facing.
No matter how big the challenge seems: by working hard, we can make it. And even if we don’t – how to deal constructively with failure? These is a deep wisdom to be learned about this too, that will be covered in future parts of the Journey.
Another important element of this process is that the Hero(ine) discovers that he/she cannot do it alone. The people we meet along our Journey make all difference for us between defeat or success. And so is for us. But this is another story, and we will tell it another time… in the next post, “Friends, Foes and All Those in Between“.
Good luck with your challenges! Welcome them as opportunities to learn new skills and expand your horizons. Celebrate achievement, and failure… celebrate that, too! Because there is no other way if we want to get to see what is on the other side. Dare to enter.