In literature, there are many types of stories. One type of story is known as the Hero’s Journey. The stories may change from culture to culture, but they all share one common goal: to tell the story of the hero from beginning to end.
A hero’s journey usually begins with a backstory to give the audience a better understanding of what has led up to this moment in the protagonist’s life. Once the foundation is laid, the Hero’s Journey begins.
What is the Definition of a Hero’s Journey?
In 1871, anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor began studying literature, legends, and myths that told the story of a protagonist who had to leave home in order to learn a lesson and ultimately become a better person because of it. He noticed that these stories shared the same theme, structure, and patterns. As time progressed, others continued the work that Edward Burnett Tylor started.
In 1949, the hero myth pattern was given the term Hero’s Journey by academic scholar and professor of literature Joseph Campbell. He noticed in these stories that the hero always had to leave home, overcome a struggle, and return home; thus, the Hero’s Journey was born. If the story did not contain these three elements, then it was not considered a Hero’s Journey.
The Three Stages of a Hero’s Journey
To be classified as a Hero’s Journey, the story must contain these three stages: the departure, the initiation, and the return. If one of these three stages are missing from the story, it is not a Hero’s Journey. It may tell the story of a hero, but it is not defined as a Hero’s Journey.
Let’s take a look at what these three stages entail so we know what to look for in a story to determine if it is a Hero’s Journey.
Stage 1: The Departure
There is a foundation that is laid to tell the audience that the hero is going to be leaving his home. The reason will change from story to story. In some stories, the hero must leave home to face an enemy and protect his family, while other stories may have the hero running away from home in order to escape his problems.
When the hero leaves home is known as the departure. The departure may be an easy decision for the hero to make, or it may be a difficult one. Alternatively, the departure may not be a choice for the hero to make at all. The hero may be forced to depart from his home to begin a journey he will unknowingly be taking.
The departure will consist of various elements throughout this stage. The hero may decide to leave his home voluntarily, or he may be forced to leave. While leaving his home, the hero is likely to encounter a mentor who will help him along the way. This part of the story is leading up to the climax. The climax is the point in the story where the action is the highest. Without the departure, there would be no building up to the climax.
Stage 2: The Initiation
It is in this stage when the hero must face his calling. Depending on the story, this may be an enemy that he has prepared to face, or this may be a lesson he was trying to run from when escaping his problems. This part of the story is when the hero may face a crisis in which he is unsure if he will survive.
Like departure, the initiation stage also encompasses additional elements. There will likely be a set of tests that the hero will have to overcome. During these tests, the hero will learn there are allies he can trust who will help him defeat the enemy. The initiation stage will likely have several different tests, battles, or obstacles that the hero must overcome.
The last part of the initiation stage is the reward. The reward is when the story has reached its climax, and everything the hero has worked for has finally paid off. The tension has finally lifted, and you can finally exhale. The reward is the point in the story when the hero attains what he has set out to do.
Contrarily, the reward may be the point when the hero realizes why he had to overcome all of the obstacles he had to endure. In this scenario, the hero never set out to achieve a certain goal when he embarked on the journey; he just knew he had to leave.
Stage 3: The Return
This stage of the Hero’s Journey begins after the hero has defeated the enemy, learned his lesson, or overcome his obstacles. Once the task is complete, the hero must head home.
The return can often be the most thrilling stage of the story because you are ready for the hero’s hometown to find out what he has overcome and what lesson he has learned along the way. You want the hero to get the praise, recognition, and celebration that he deserves, so you want him to return as quickly as possible.
Oftentimes, there is one last test the hero must pass to make it home. This last test is sometimes referred to as the resurrection. If the story includes a resurrection, this may be considered the actual climax of the story.
During the climax, the hero will have to overcome one final hurdle. He may have to battle an enemy, or he may have to battle himself. Sometimes the biggest roadblock a hero faces is himself. Regardless of the who, the what remains the same; with a resurrection, there is one final test the hero must pass to make it home.
When the hero finally makes it home, he receives the welcome that he deserves. The hero is different, and sometimes his family and friends from his hometown recognize the change. The hero usually has something to show for his journey, either figuratively or literally.
If the hero’s journey was to obtain an object and return home with it, this might be what he literally has to show for his journey. If the hero’s journey was personal growth and maturity, this would be what he figuratively has to show for his journey.
Recognizing a Hero’s Journey (with Examples)
At this point, you can probably think of some stories you have read or some movies you have watched that depict a Hero’s Journey. Remember, to be a Hero’s Journey, the story or movie must have these three parts: the departure, the initiation, and the return.
● The Wizard of Oz
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is the hero who is unexpectedly forced out of her comfortable Kansas home and has to try to find her way back. She enters a new world, which is a common theme in a Hero’s Journey, where she has to learn who she can trust and who she cannot.
While on her journey, she has to overcome many obstacles, such as flying monkeys, poisonous flowers, and a wicked witch. Just when she is seemingly on her return home, there is one last hurdle that keeps her from returning. Finally, she returns home a changed person and realizes just how important her family and her home is to her.
● The Lion King
This Disney favorite depicts a young lion cub named Simba, who is forced to leave his kingdom after his father is killed. Simba encounters two mentors who help him overcome the grief of losing his father.
Just as things seem to be going well for Simba, his childhood friend shows up and tells him that his kingdom is dying. Simba is now faced with the decision to return home and defeat the enemy or stay where he is and let his kingdom perish.
Simba makes the difficult decision to return to his kingdom to fight for it in honor of his late father. Simba realizes that running from your problems is never the answer and that when you have friends and family to support you, you can make it through anything.
● The Odyssey
In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, Odysseus is a Greek hero who left on a conquest to defeat the Trojans in the Trojan War and is now returning home. During his return, Odysseus faces many struggles and learns many lessons. He has to outsmart enemies, resist temptation, and navigate deadly seas.
As he successfully makes his way home, he has to overcome one final test: reunite with his wife. This is the last test he must pass before he can receive the homecoming he deserves.
The Hero’s Journey is a theme that is found in both literature and film. It’s a tale as old as time but one that we may have never known the name of – until now. Next time you read a book or watch a movie where a hero leaves his home, overcomes obstacles and then returns home, you now know that you have just experienced a Hero’s Journey.