As the end of the year approaches, so does the conclusion of my series on the Hero’s Journey. This post is dedicated to the very reason why all journeys start: to end.
We are now at the real conclusion of our story. Anything that could have happened, has happened. Forge new friendships and test them, check. Encounter enemies and defeat them, check. Get the treasure and experience, check. Now it’s time to go back to where it all started.
Each character approaches the end of their story arc. Facing their respective challenges, they underwent the personal transformations that will define their individual Journeys.
At this point the characters have become fully conscious of their role as “heroes”, of all its implications, as well as of the true nature of their journeys.
During the Road of Trials, in the Dark Cave or during the climactic (from climax, not in the sense of the weather conditions) Death and Rebirth phase, the protagonists have understood what was the deeper meaning of their Call to Adventure.
At the beginning they might have thought to go on a quest for personal gain, success, wealth or glory; but now, after the Rewards have been claimed, it’s the time when the Hero(es) realise that their quest must be dedicated to a purpose higher than their own personal fulfillment.
There are several ways in which this can happen. Whether it be to go back to their community with the treasure, found a new city, start a family, or simply to become a better person – it remains to be seen. But a few elements must be there. Let’s have a look at them.
In the best storyelling, for a Journey to be complete, three “heroic” dimensions have to be met:
– the personal, material world, in which the Heroes realise their limits (first of all, physical: for example through acknowledging their own’s mortality), develop new abilities, and understand in which direction they have to focus their efforts to reach their goals. This is to become aware of each own’s potential and explore the sense of Self. It can be compared to the transition from childhood to adolescence. For the first time, the individual forms a sense of its own separate and specific identity. This also means having to make a few choices that separate us from our original roots;
– the social, collective sphere: which focuses on issues like belonging, legacy, family, community; and in which the Heroes have to answer questions like “to whom do you belong?”, “where do you come from?” and “who is your tribe?”. Here, in other words, Heroes become aware of their place in a world that is larger then their Selves. It can be compared to stepping into adulthood: understanding that we are social animals, and no-one can live a really fulfilling life without developing social connections. This stage can be challenging, especially for people coming from dysfunctional backgrounds: and that’s exactly the reason why a new awareness in this area can be a powerful therapeutic tool. What if I don’t have a tribe (or community, or family, or country…) to go back to? Then you can always create your own – and maybe that’s the reason why you left on your Journey;
– the spiritual, transcendent world. This is to become aware that life is much more than we can see and touch. It’s the dimension that gives purpose and direction to all the rest, “that binds the Galaxy together“. It’s the place of Self-less-ness, where the Ego is abandoned and dissolves: so that complete inspiration, enlightenment and release can be experienced. This process can be compared to the new awareness that comes at the end of each major life cycle (maybe call it “mid-age crisis” in our society), and with every major awareness step we may take in our life.
These three dimensions can be interpreted in different ways: in a sense, it’s a journey into the Personal – Collective – Transcendent awareness. In another, it’s the transition between Adolescence – Adulthood – Elderhood. Or, again, symbolised Body – Mind – Soul. This tryad element is common in every human culture since prehistoric times: maybe a sign that it’s deeply embedded in us.
In conclusion, The Resolution in the Hero’s Journey is the accomplishment of all parables of personal development and growth. It’s the moment when all the plot lines come together, and no question is left unanswered.
Only at the end of all this process the Journey can be considered complete.
In most stories, this happens in a relatively compact space and time, with well defined phases of beginning, development and resolution. This depends also on the medium, the way the story is told: “the narrative arc” needs some tension to work well.
In other cases, the classical structure is modified – like in the examples offered by the Odyssey or in The Lord of the Rings, which we have already discussed in this other post.
A similar pattern can also be found in the Major Arcana of the Tarots tradition, as Tarot divination is mainly storytelling. The similarities between the models are amazing, and certainly not a simple coincidence: the journey starts with a situation of un-awareness, naivity (The Fool, number zero)
and, after a long journey in which we get to meet several archetypal characters, human qualities and natural elements, the journey ends in the total harmony and global understanding that is represented by The World (number 21).
In other words – for a story to have a good, satisfying ending, it’s not necessary that everything ends well. The “Happy ending” is a concept introduced by Hollywood “golden age” storytellers, who were more concerned to give their American audience a reassuring experience, to encourage them to come back to cinema and to spread optimism. The “and they lived happily thereafter” doesn’t really belong to the European tradition, from the Classic stories of the Celtic, Norse and Greek-Roman myths, up until the medieval and later fairy tales. And the same is true if we look at folk lore and legends from all around the world.
Sure, a surprise plot twist help, because it’s exciting and leaves a long lasting impression on us. But in general, we don’t need to be reassured or consoled, in order to enjoy a story. We need to learn from it: we need to feel that we joined an universal experience, and that all plot lines were serving a purpose, and have reached it. This is the “resolution” (from the latin “resolvo“, loosen, or reducing things into simpler forms), and is possible only if a storyteller is capable (and brave) enough to dive deep in all of the three mentioned dimensions, and do some digging.
Easy? Certainly not. Scary? Of course yes. And maybe that’s why this can be a crucial self development experience. It is connected to some of the most basic questions we all face during the course of our lives.
Does it make sense? Let’s test it through the philter of a famous blockbuster movie.
However imperfect the plot might be (I am not denying this), let’s use Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar“ (2014) to test what we are saying.
WARNING: spoilers about the movie below the line!
The main character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), leaves on his quest to save the Earth or at least Humankind. When he leaves, he leaves behind him unsettled conflicts with his family, especially his wife who died prematurely, and his daughter Murph.
He joins a desperate, emergency mission set up by what is left of NASA to save the Earth. All his personal and family issues of course leave with him. Are they solved before the end of the story? When is the moment for their “resolutions”?
The first crisis happens on the water planet, where waves are so massive to appear like mountains in the distance. Here the crew meets for the first time the harsh reality of their mission, the possibility of failure, physical harm and death. It’s also the moment to test the loyalty or frailties of friends. This is translated into storytelling terms with the solution of letting one of the crew members die.
Coop also gains a renewed trust in his own skills at this stage. Before leaving in fact, he couldn’t cope with the sense of failure left from the last space mission he took part to. This time, his decisions and ability save the day. In the first challenge, he gains new awareness on himself and his crew mates.
What next? The unsolved conflict with his daugther stays unsolved, and of course it doesn’t help that interstellar communication can only happen through an intergalactic distance, and one-way only.
Cooper is forced to face the consequences his life choice have on other people around him. The people he loves, and possibly also others: if his mission fails, the whole human species will face suffering and extinction. This dimension reaches its peak on the frozen planet discovered by Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon). The situation and dialogues here are all centred on the macro-topic of the social dimension of the protagonist. Is one individual able to distinguish between his own personal interest, his family’s, and the broader good of our species?
Dr. Mann: Your father had to find another way to save the human race from extinction. Plan B. A colony.
Brand: But why not tell people? Why keep building those damn stations?
Dr. Mann: Because he knew how hard it would be to get people to work together to save the species instead of themselves.
Dr. Mann: You never would have come here unless you believed you were going to save them. Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier. We can care deeply – selflessly – about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.
Brand: But the lie… that monstrous lie…
Dr. Mann: Unforgivable. And he knew that. He was prepared to destroy his own humanity in order to save the species. He made an incredible sacrifice…
Cooper: No. No, the incredible sacrifice is being made by the people on Earth who are gonna die! Because in his fucking arrogance he declared their case hopeless.
Dr. Mann: I’m sorry Cooper. Their case… is hopeless.
Cooper: No… no.
Dr. Mann: We are the future.
[after Mann breaks Cooper’s helmet and leaves him for dead]
Dr. Mann: I’m sorry. I can’t watch you go through this. I’m sorry. I thought I could, but I can’t. I’m here. I’m here for you. Just listen to my voice, Cooper. I’m right here. You’re not alone.
Dr. Mann: [looking back] Do you see your children? It’s okay, they’re right there with you.
Only after successfully facing these challenges, and having found his personal answers, Cooper will be able to move forward in his quest. Into the next dimension: the Transcendent.
When he faces the Black Hole – what better symbol for what we don’t understand? Literally, we don’t know what is on the other side. We don’t even know if there is another side! – he is ready for his final sacrifice. His individual missions accomplished, and he is ready to do whatever it takes, in order to give humankind a chance of survival.
It’s a moment of powerful, cathartic release: “Netwton’s third law: we gonna leave something behind”, he says, while he prepares himself to jump into the Big Unknown.
I will not discuss the movie ending here (in my opinion, the only disappointing part of this otherwise magnificent movie). But I believe that “Interstellar” serves our case nicely: with its different challenges, which take place on different planets, it presents a very clear representation and helps illustrate the three dimensions of Cooper’s Hero’s Journey.
The personal sphere is entered when Coop faces the first, water planet. Hard decision have to be taken, with hard and irrevocable consequences;
The social / collective side of the quest is explored on the frozen-cold planet where he meets the stranded Doctor Mann (who also symbolises very effectively some parts of the collective consciousness of humankind: selfishness, survival instinct, manipulation) and faces questions related to his family and even the destiny of the human species;
The final mystery, represented by the encounter with the Black Hole. It’s a final moment of truth, but having now reached the end of his story, Cooper is ready to sacrifice everything he has, even his life, to give Humankind a hope of survival.
THE END… or not?
And so this is also my own Resolution. The decision I took, six months ago, to write an ambitious series of posts describing in the detail each stage of the Hero’s Journey, is now complete. It’s also very fitting that it happens now, at the end of the year (I started writing in June 2015 and it is now December 26th), and I believe many aspects of this incredibly complex topic have been, at least marginally, touched.
I will write more on the topic and on its several spin offs, but in the meantime I will just say this: I you have been able to follow me until now, here is my biggest THANK YOU.
And if you haven’t… well, maybe you will!