Joseph Campbell: The Journey of a Hero
What makes a hero, and do the heroes of history, real or imagined, have any similarities?
That’s a question legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell spent his career trying to answer. It’s a question that may not seem of much relevance, but there is a lot that hides behind it.
Much of human culture is built upon myths and stories. Throughout history, these myths and stories have played the role of creating ideologies, bringing masses of people together to nurture a sense of belonging, and providing moral and practical lessons of conduct.
Today, the word “myth” itself evokes little reaction. We associate it with old folklores and imagined tales. We don’t much consider its role in influencing our lives or society at large.
That’s not the whole picture. While we may not necessarily have as many stories of gods and magic as the ancient Greeks did, we do have our own myths. They just happen to be expressed through the comics we read, the movies we watch, and the books we get lost in.
The career of Joseph Campbell led him to study these myths and the heroes that were portrayed through them. His work took him from early ancient cultures to diverse religions to modern works of fiction. To his surprise, he saw the same story play out, again and again.
He termed this the monomyth. It’s the tale of a path that all heroes of history have walked.
A Call to Adventure
Campbell outlined 17 stages of the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, as it’s also called.
That said, not all stories highlight each stage. Together, they just happen to fit into the overall narrative. Nonetheless, there are certain commonalities that appear in almost every story.
One of the most prominent stages is the call to adventure. This is where the Hero goes from being an ordinary person, living an ordinary existence, in an ordinary world to facing an unknown calling, challenge, or invitation. This is usually where the journey starts.
In the Buddhist tradition, for example, the story of Buddha begins when a young Prince named Siddhartha is exposed to the outside walls of the castle that has sheltered him from the normal world. It’s where he first encounters the sickness, pain, and death that plagues the world, and it’s where he first decides to embark on a quest to free himself from suffering.
A modern example is the story of Harry Potter. In the series, we get introduced to Harry as a child living a normal, though challenging, life with his aunt and uncle. That’s of course until his 11th birthday when Hagrid comes to deliver the news of his acceptance to Hogwarts.
Each story has a different process through which the Hero moves from an ordinary world to a special world. The special world differs, too, but the call to adventure is always there.
For some, this call to adventure presents itself in the form of a mission or a passion. For others, it starts with a realization that something isn’t working as it should or maybe could.
Either way, the adventure demands a kind of courage to leap into the unknown.
The Road of Trials
Another major commonality in all stories is a road of trials. That’s where the Hero is tested.
One of the indications of a real adventure is that, in some way, it’s just out of reach. It involves uncertainty, and it’s quite often not obvious whether success is possible or not.
In fact, in most stories, a while after the Hero enters the special world after leaving behind their ordinary existence, things start to go downhill. Their inexperience, unfamiliarity, or lack of mastery means that they’re in over their head, and at some point, failure awaits.
Through the help of others, however, the Hero persists momentarily, but eventually, they’re faced with their biggest trial. In the majority of stories, this leads to the Hero’s darkest hour. They’re faced with a big fear or are broken in some way, and in a few stories, they even die.
If we continue with the example of the Harry Potter series, we see this play out. Harry, with the help of his friends and mentors, goes through years of trials in different forms. In the last book, he is finally faced with Voldemort, once and for all, at Hogwarts. He’s temporarily disarmed, and he even dies, before being resurrected, after which he claims his final victory.
After overcoming their greatest challenge, the Hero gains a reward. In some stories, this is peace or the end of an evil force, while in others, it’s mastery, conquest, or a prize.
Nonetheless, whatever the reward, the process of having pursued it permanently changes the Hero who eventually leaves the special world and returns to their ordinary world.
They’re older and wiser, and they use their conquest to positively change the ordinary world the way that the process changed them, whether it be through example or mentorships.
All You Need to Know
Joseph Campbell shared this monomyth with the world in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Since then, the Hero’s Journey has captured the imagination of everyone from academics who seek to deeper understand the history of culture and our place in the world to creatives who have sought to retell the journey through their own characters and fictional stories.
In many ways, however, this central myth has gone even further. It’s given generations of men and women a way to better derive meaning out of their own personal life narratives.
While most of us may not have to fight off monsters or solve riddles, we all have our own calls to adventure and our own road of trials. They just take a different form. A creative or an entrepreneurial career. Marriage and commitment. Travel or a permanent relocation.
Similarly, although each of the days in our own stories may not be as climatic as the days in the lives of Buddha or Harry Potter or any other mythical tale, we each encounter situations that demand heroic behavior, and we’re each shaped by how we respond to such situations.
The definition of courage and bravery and heroism tends to focus on narrow stereotypes. Yet, the situations in which those qualities truly show themselves are often very ordinary.
The degree to which you want to see your life as a monomyth is up to you, but the way that stories are told and lives are lived, there is no reason why yours can’t be its own Hero’s Journey.