The Hero's Journey - And Beyond

The Hero’s Journey – And Beyond

The Hero’s Journey


The Hero’s journey is a pattern of narrative identified by Joseph Campbell in his groundbreaking work ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. In this work, Campbell identified certain streams of ideas that recur in major world mythologies and point toward the same story, retold over and over again. Campbell used the word, ‘monomyth’ to describe this universal mythology, a phrase borrowed incidentally from James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.

Campbell defines the function of a mythology as the provision of a cultural framework for a society or people to educate their young, and to provide them with a means of coping with their passage through the different stages of life from birth to death. In a general sense myths include religion as well and the development of religion is an intrinsic part of a society’s culture. A mythology is inevitably bound to the society and time in which it occurs and cannot be divorced from this culture and environment. This is true even though Western society previously learnt from, and was informed by, the mythology of other cultures by including the study of Greek and Roman writings as part of its heritage.

The Power of Myth – Wikipedia

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was influenced greatly by Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, and often said that this idea was the inspiration for Star Wars. Lucas claimed that Star Wars is a story that has existed for thousands of years.

In turn, Campbell’s ideas are indebted to the great twentieth century psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. Jung recognised the importance of myth, and came up with the idea of recurring archetypes, along with the notion of the shared or collective unconscious. As a psychologist, Jung noted the recurring symbols and images that show up in people’s dreams.  Jung said, ‘When you observe yourself within, you see a world of images, generally known as ‘fantasies’. Jung claimed not only that we are ‘born into a pattern’ but that ‘we are a pattern, a structure that is pre-established’.  Jung said that we are only unware of our innate patterning because we live ‘outside of ourselves’, and that once you look within yourself, you will discover your human patterning. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Jung writes ‘…there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life.  For Jung, accessing this inner mythology was not only a universal phenomenon, it was an essential aspect of what it is to be human. Jung said, ‘Man has always lived in the myth, and we think we are able to be born today and live in no myth, and without a history. That is a mutilation of the human being.’

The Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp born, 1895, also identified the basic plot components of Russian folk tales and analysed their narrative elements. Propp reduced all storytelling to seven basic – if you like – story memes.  Propp listed the seven story strands as follows;

Cinderella – the story of unrecognised virtue

Achilles – the hero with a fatal flaw

Faust – the debt that must be repaid (The Godfather?)

Tristan and Isolde – the love triangle

Circe – the Greek myth of the enchanted Odysseus (Fatal Attraction?)

Romeo and Juliet – Tragic love story (West Side Story?)

Orpheus – The gift that is taken away

Propp broke the tales down into 31 sections, calling them ‘narratemes’ or ‘narrative functions’.

These narratemes are ‘events’ that drive the story forward and although they do not always occur in every story, they do always occur in the same order.  Propp identified these narrative functions as being spread between the main characters, the main characters being for example the ‘villian’, the ‘doner or helper’, the ‘princess’ the ‘hero’, the ‘anti-hero’ and so on.

Similarly, in his analysis of world myths, Campbell discovered the same story pattern, retold with infinite variation. Like Jung, Campbell recognised a range of ‘archetypes’ that live in these stories recurring in different forms throughout.  So for instance, you have the shadows, mentors, shape-shifters, tricksters, allies and so forth, and of course, every narrator (or protagonist) is the hero (or in some cases the antihero) of his or her own story.

The Writer’s Journey


Building on Campbell’s ideas, in 1985 Chris Vogler began writing ‘The Writer’s Journey’, originally a seven-page memo composed while Vogler was working as a story consultant for Walt Disney Pictures. The memo was entitled ‘A Practical Guide to The Hero with A Thousand Faces’. In it, Vogler identified the mythic patterns in Star Wars that made the film such a major success. Vogler’s intention was to set down the creative principles contained in Campbell’s ideas, and construct a set of building blocks, or a template into which story ideas could be moulded, and which would help replicate the success of George Lucas’s movie.

So, for example, a simplified construction of The Wizard of Oz might run as follows;

Ordinary world

Dorothy is at home in Kansas

Call to Adventure

A tornado comes and whisks Dorothy away to Oz


Dorothy is lost in the land of Oz – she tries to find a way home


Glinda the good witch of the North appears and gives Dorothy a pair of ruby slippers

Cross the Threshold

Dorothy  starts along the yellow brick road.


Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. She also bumps into the Wicked Witch of the West.


Dorothy and friends enter the haunted forest


Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch of the West. Her friends attempt to rescue her and are in turn captured.  Dorothy saves the day by throwing water over the Wicked Witch and destroying her.


Dorothy and her pals reach the Wizard of Oz to begin negotiating their passage back home.  The three receive allies receive gifts from the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy gets her passage home in a balloon. She also learns of the fraudulent nature of the Wizard of Oz.

Road back

Dorothy is forced to abandon the balloon and rely on herself for her trip back home (with the help of the ruby slippers given to her by Glinda)


Dorothy gains a new found confidence in her ability to get back home

Return with elixir

Dorothy is back in Kansas with the knowledge of her life’s journey and a solid belief in herself.

Vogler’s story structure is not confined to film. It can equally be applied to long form narrative structures, such as novels, essays, (arguably) or poetry. It is a prescription for story invention, a set of tools for the formulation of story, plot, character and framework, and a valuable means of fleshing out an original idea and bringing that idea from its inception to its fullest realisation.

It is also a journey of exploration into the underlying mythic structures of our minds, if we accept that such structures exist. We may not accept this.  Campbell’s and Vogler’s theories are useful insofar as they help to examine those patterns that may exist, either consciously, or unconsciously in story telling, whether informed by culture, or innately as part of the human psyche.


Ferdinand Saussure, was the founding father of semiotics, the study of signs.  Saussure argued that language itself came about as a way to help people to understand things, not just name them. Saussure’s aim was to identify the components of language itself, the basis of the wider structure of storyline, plot, character arc etc. So, by putting together signs, like dog, tree, person, etc., we create meaning. In the same way that a formalist (Propp, Vogler and others) talks about the component parts of a book or a myth or legend, Saussure talks about the components of language. He begins by saying that language is made up of signs. Saussure claimed that signs are made up of two parts, signifier and signified. So, we have the concept, tree, that which is made up of leaves and branches, and its signifier the word ‘tree’.  So, the signifier is the word, that is to say psychological impression that the sound of the word makes on our senses. And, as mentioned, the signified is the pre-existing concept towards which the sign is pointing.  This signified is not then an actual object but rather the essence of something, Plato’s ‘highest form’. So, the signified and signifier work together to create meaning.

For structuralists then, language consists of binary oppositions, positive and negative, presence and absence. A tree for example is a tree (signified by the word ‘tree’), because it is not a rock, (signified by the word ‘rock’). Saussure said that the signifiers, for instance the word sound image ‘tree’, are arbitrary, and gain their currency through long established use, and cultural consent.

When we apply this binary system to myth, we find that archetypes are awarded significance by virtue of being different to one another.  So, a hero is a hero by virtue of not being a villain, a mentor is a mentor by virtue of not being a trickster, or any other story function. This is not to say that story characters don’t occasionally shift allegiances and inherit a different archetype, but the archetypal function is remains unchanged, whether inhabited by one character or another.  Although Darth Vader in Star Wars may shift from antagonist or villain to mentor, these two archetypes remain intact.

So, in the Hero’s Journey, (as in Monomyth) there is an underlying presumption of meaning, a collective agreement to the use of such archetypes. We all agree on what a mentor is, or a hero, or a villain, etc. Likewise, we all agree on the stages of the journey, and what needs to happen for the story to reach a conclusion.  In his treatise, Poetics, Aristotle defined Greek Tragedy in terms of six elements; plot, character, language, thought, visual and music. According to Aristotle, plot was the most important element of tragedy. He described it as being ‘the organisation of events that makes a tragedy whole, complete and substantial’. There must be a beginning, middle and end, and the plot ought to reveal a good man going from happiness to unhappiness.  Additionally, the hero should suffer from a fatal flaw, or as Aristotle puts it, hamartia. In Poetics, a hero should be of high moral character, whose ethics and disposition bring about his downfall.

In the Hero’s Journey template, (which is not necessarily a menu for happy endings), the hero’s character, or disposition informs his or her choices and brings about a sequence of events leading to a successful or unsuccessful outcome of his or her quest. Though, as we all know, Hollywood producers generally favour successful outcomes.

Beyond Structuralism 

Jacques Derrida, born 1930 in Algeria, was a French, poststructuralist philosopher whose work set out to deconstruct structuralism, or the system of differences described above. Derrida argued that language, written or spoken (also known as ‘text’) is devoid of intention or definite meaning.  Words merely follow one another, one signifier to the next, in a long string of deferred meaning. For instance, one word’s so-called meaning depending for its existence upon the next word, and so on, in an infinite string of signifiers. Words are self-referential. In seeking word meaning in a dictionary, for example, we find a variety of definitions that eventually point to the original word.

Derrida held that there is no objective reality, in other words there is no significant ‘thing’ that is signified in text, only our perception of reality; reality being a tenuous concept created through the use of language itself. Derrida famously said, ‘there is nothing outside the text’. So, in principle there is little to differentiate between describing so-called ‘reality’ and describing a system of signs, or language itself.

Essentially, Postmodernism holds that language can reveal or impose structure, but can say nothing about what it’s the structure of.  Deconstruction  therefore casts some doubt upon the structuralist theories of Vogler, Campbell and others. In Postmodernist literature, often language is not considered a trustworthy method of communication, as in the work of postmodernist writer Samuel Beckett, who playfully parodies the notion of the quest in Waiting for Godot.

In this play, there are no meaningful answers to the questions; who is Godot? Why are the characters waiting? Where do they come from and what kind of world do they live in? The characters merely talk to each other to pass the time.

Beckett eschews the notion of intentional narrative, and toys with the question of existence. He also questions form in narration.

What I am does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos, and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.

To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist

Samuel Beckett


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