What do Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Cinderella all have in common? While the plots vastly differ from one another, they are structured similarly through the framework commonly known as “The Hero’s Journey.” This storytelling narrative was coined by Joseph Campbell and has become the blueprint for many fairytales and Hollywood films alike. The Hero’s Journey narrative has modern implications as well. Throughout this pandemic, many of us likely wanted to think of stories where the hero/heroine overcomes their fears, slays the dragons, and comes out stronger on the other side. Read on to learn more about the hero’s journey narrative and how it intertwines with our collective pandemic experiences.
The Hero’s Journey Narrative: Transformation
While we desperately cling on to the victorious endings of stories, we often overlook the stages of the journey that transform the protagonist. Understanding the journey of the hero(ine) can often help us understand our own battles. Looking at your own life through the lense of the hero’s journey narrative can help you understand it.
The Hero’s Journey Narrative Background
The Hero’s journey was first noted in the renowned book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. Campbell studied comparative mythology and religion, and was fascinated by the stories and myths characterized through various religions. In efforts to standardize these myths, Campbell used the concept of a “monomyth,” which refers to a composite theory to understand all myths—spanning across space and time—as variations of a single story.
The work of many notable figures, including Carl Jung and his field of analytical psychology, influenced Campbell. Analytical psychology employed the use of archetypes to better understand universal meanings found in religion, art, literature, and dreams. The “Hero,” is one such Jungian archetype, and the primary motif of the hero archetype is the desire to answer a call to adventure, overcome obstacles, to confront the dragon that is guarding the treasure, and return to the “ordinary world” with “elixir” to help and inspire others.
The Hero’s journey narrative is far more profound than a storytelling schema used in fairytales and world cinema—it’s a narratology that can be applied to the daily life of the individual, as well as a collective event like the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Hero’s Journey Narrative Structure
Campbell breaks down the blueprint of the narratology into three acts. You can read more about the significance of each stage in detail here.
Act I: The Separation
The Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, the Refusal, Meeting the Mentor
Act II: Initiation
Crossing the Threshold, Tests, Allies & Enemies, Innermost Cave, Supreme Ordeal
Act III: Return
The Road Back, Resurrection, Return with the Elixir
Separation from the Ordinary World
The Hero’s journey narrative always begins in the “ordinary world,” which refers to the everyday, pedestrian life of the individual. This stage is predictable and safe, and the hero is largely oblivious of the adventure that he will soon undertake.
Think about March 2020 — that was the month that the entire world collectively departed from the ordinary world. The pandemic pulled the rugs of predictability and safety out from beneath our feet.
Crossing the Threshold into the Fray
Soon after, we needed to respond to the call to adventure. In the case of the pandemic, the “call to adventure,” wasn’t a call we had much of a choice with — we had to respond to the call because not answering it would result in a direct threat to our safety. And while in Marvel movies and fairytales the step of “crossing the threshold” occurs after the initial stage of leaving the ordinary world, in the case of the pandemic, we simultaneously “crossed the threshold” along with responding to the “call to adventure”.
However, we all internally fought with accepting our entrance into the “special world,” in the “refusal of the call” stage. Some were in denial, some were skeptical, and some were fearful—fear of losing one’s livelihood from lockdowns.
Allies and Enemies
To lockdown or not lockdown? To mask or not to mask? We looked to our collective mentors for answers to these questions. For practical purposes, the mentors in the pandemic were public health officials and doctors, the folks that were actively engaged in understanding the virus. They guided us through the wildfire, shared information in the light of new data, and helped counties, cities, and governments delineate their public health protocols.
But as time passed, and we developed a kind of sangfroid halfway through the pandemic, many people began to meet their friends in socially distanced manners. In determining who was safe to meet, a lot of us wondered, who can we trust right now? Who are our “allies and enemies,” in the pandemic’s hero’s journey?
Maybe your perception of a close coworker, friend, or acquaintance changed when they acted in ways that contrasted with your definition of acceptable behavior during the pandemic. For me, there were a few instances when I asked myself, “Gosh, just how do I tell my friend that I don’t want to see her because I don’t trust that she is being ‘safe’, or worse, point out that her reckless behavior can compromise the health of others?” That one simple question unpacked so much about friendship, trust, and respect.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
In the Hero’s Journey, the “Approach to the Inmost Cave,” represents the gradual movement towards the precipice of the danger where the “object of the quest” is hidden. The object of our collective quest were the vaccines, which sadly became another contested debate.
And in privileged communities where people had access to multiple vaccines, suddenly people started playing the Snow-White mirror game. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, which vaccine is the best of them all?” People in most countries did not have that luxury.
In the hero’s journey, the hero earns a reward after surviving the challenge. The reward can show up in many ways — knowledge, accolade, appreciation, a magical sword, an elixir, etc. For many of us, the reward was receiving our vaccines. Aas a result, lockdowns gradually ended in many parts of the world, and many hard-hit businesses slowly began to recover. While most of us in the U.S. have been fortunate to receive it, most countries are still suspended in this process. The pandemic isn’t over until the entire world joins us on the “road back.”
Reflection: The Dichotomy of Vigilance
While we all collectively struggled during the pandemic, there were various ordeals that were unique to our individual stories, and these ordeals often included confronting some of our biggest fears.
Personally, I feared fear itself. I didn’t want to live in constant vigilance. Even when I let my guard down, I had this free-floating anxiety that something bad was going to happen. That is the thing about vigilance—it’s a closed posture, a state of contraction. You can’t enjoy life in a contracted state. Not really. You have to slowly release, unclench, and signal the cavalry to retreat in order to feel joy.
While we are lucky in the U.S. where the pandemic is mostly under control, the question of a “relapse” is still on everyone’s mind. With the delta variant becoming the dominant strain, people are becoming a little more vigilant again.
Those of us who have family living in countries where the pandemic’s “supreme ordeal” is still in play, we are not out of the woods. The thorns of worry, fear, and anticipation linger around our minds.
In those moments where I feel I am losing myself to fear, I try to detach and find some perspective. I try to remember Campbell’s quote, “your sacred space is where you find yourself over and over again.” Removing the thorns of trepidation and finding yourself in that maze is a feat in and of itself.
The Road Back
Today, many of us are on the hero’s journey’s stage of “The Road Back.” The road back from the listless mode of being to feeling the childish joy of life in our bones again.
However, the “road back” isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. Similar to “crossing the threshold” into the “special world,” the road back signifies “re-crossing” the threshold into the “ordinary world.” In this stage, the Hero might not know how to return back to the ordinary world, after the way he’s been morphed and changed in the special world.
A ringing theme in the Hero’s journey is that the hero suffers a metaphorical death in the special world but is resurrected before he re-enters the ordinary world. Think about which parts of your inner world/metaphorical self had to die a little bit this past year because you were hyper-focused on survival.
While some parts of us died, other parts of ourselves became repressed. How could they have not? There is no room for desire when your primary need—survival—is threatened. I think we can all relate to Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, when she said, “It’s not that I need easy, I just can’t have it so hard.” I hope we won’t have it so hard anymore. I hope we can awaken and heal some of those repressed parts of ourselves.
Return with the Elixir
The last leg of the Hero’s Journey is the “return with the elixir.” When the hero re-crosses the threshold to enter back into the “ordinary world,” he enters as a changed and different person, with the spells, swords, and battle wounds he acquired from the “special world.”
He returns to the “ordinary world” with the Elixir to share with others, which can come in the form of knowledge, support, love, and wisdom. Many individuals who fought and survived Covid provided the entire medical community with the “elixir” of data about the virus.
In Margot Gage Witvleit’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, she explains her journey through Covid-19. But through her will to fight, she recovered and returned from her supreme ordeal with the “elixir,” in the form of knowledge about COVID-19, its relation to chronic medical conditions, and physician ethics. Margot’s flight through this ordeal is resemblant of many steps of the Hero(ine’s) journey.
Reflection: The Significance of the Monomyth
While world cinema, literature, and fairy tales depict various versions of the hero’s journey, it is ultimately a narration about the human experience. The hero’s journey is not an ancient myth that is lost in space and time. The hero’s journey is here and now. It is woven into the fabric of our heart, and into our everyday lives. Whether we know it or not, we are going through the motions of some stage or the other.
While we are all have unique stories, the hero’s journey reminds us that the “monomyth” is the story of the everyman. We can find some comfort in that.
We’ve collectively made it this far in the hero’s journey. Let’s keep it together on our “road back” into the “ordinary world” and await the celebratory moment, when the director calls, “And scene.”