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Understanding the Three Stages of a Hero’s Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Posted: March 10, 2020
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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.

Conclusion


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.

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