Updated: Jun 19, 2019
It’s here! The big-budget action movie you’ve been waiting six-months to see has finally premiered andyou managed to take a Saturday off from your adult responsibilities to go see it. You shell out your $30 plus (per person) for tickets and snacks, silence your cell phone, and settle in for about two hours of CGI-driven fun. In the end, cities may lay in ruins, but the good guys defeated the bad guys, and the world has been saved from (insert specific brand of evil here). Finally, the post-credit scene concludes and your appetite is whet for the sequel. As you waddle off to the restroom, a strange thought lingers in the back of your mind, “I’ve seen this movie before.” Is that simply because Hollywood is too scared to dare produce anything original? Yes, but that’s only part of the reason. The real reason that so many MOVIES feel the same is because most STORIES are the same, and that has nothing to do with profit margins; it’s actually because of something much more profound.
In 1949, a mythologist named Joseph Campbell published a book called “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. In it, he revealed his discovery that all important tales are really a singular story of the Self. He proved that every great story, from tribal creation myths to The Matrix, have all followed a consistent pattern which he called “The Hero’s Journey”, or “Monomyth”. This story permeates, not only our culture, but our entire species, and possibly even the very fabric of reality itself (more about that in a future blog). Campbell discovered a consistency to the structure of these stories that deviated little between languages, beliefs, cultures, and even time periods, and we’ve been telling the same story for a reason.
Our ancient ancestors were smart, much smarter than we often give them credit for. They knew how to code important messages in symbology, and express profound meaning through story. In our modern era, we continue to tell on the silver screen, the same tales told around ancient campfires, because they offer us a window into the shadowy depths of our own subconscious minds. Big-budget-blockbusters aren’t just a fantastical escape from our boring or unhappy lives, they’re teachers whispering to us that our lives don’t have to be boring or unhappy. They tell us that a farm boy, a computer programmer, or anyone who thinks that they are unremarkable, can foray into a wider world and do amazing things. We believe this when we’re little kids, and we model ourselves after these heroes, but at some point, we stop believing in our own capacity for heroism and life’s capacity for magic…then we wonder why rates of depression, drug addiction, and suicide continue to rise.
In his analysis, Campbell broke the monomyth down into seventeen stages, which were then grouped into three acts which he labeled as “Separation, Initiation, and Return”. The following is an overview of the seventeen stages as was covered in the first episode of the Hero’s Breath podcast which I recorded with my partner, Tom Jasinski, on Tuesday October 9th, 2018. It’s important to note that we frame our discussion from a male perspective because we’re both male, and also because the nature of the drive of human consciousness is energetically male, or yang, whereas the nature of existence is energetically female, or yin. For more on that subject, Tom and I both highly recommend the book, The Way of the Superior Manby David Deida.
Stage 0: The Familiar World.
This is where the hero begins their journey. This is Luke Skywalker on his uncle’s farm, or the hobbits in the Shire. This is where the world that the hero lives in is set up for the audience, and where the problems that the hero must solve become apparent.
This is you, going to work, coming home, eating, sleeping, and repeating.
Stage 1: The Call to Adventure.
At this point the hero is given cause to leave their familiar world. Sometimes this the result of an internal drive pulling the hero from smaller to bigger things, as was the case of Santiago from The Alchemist, or sometimes the need to leave comes and finds the hero, as happened to Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. As is often the case, the external force compelling the hero to go on the adventure merely supplements his own internal longing to leave, much like the case of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope.
In our own lives, we all get this call, but we don’t always answer right away.
Stage 2: The Refusal of the Call.
This stage is optional, and is merely a matter of hesitation on the hero’s part than an actual refusal. It also helps raise the stakes, and it enriches both the character and his world to the audience. Bilbo Baggins tried to refuse the call in The Hobbit, but ultimately went on the journey, whereas his nephew Frodo never said no.
In literature and film, this only happens if the call is an external one, but in our own lives, more often than not, we feel an internal pull toward greater things, but we keep “hitting the snooze button” as it were, for one reason or another.
Stage 3: Supernatural Aid or Meeting the Mentor.
When analyzing The Lord of the Ringstrilogy, it’s often taken for granted that Gandalf the Grey is the mentor to young Frodo, but people forget that his uncle Bilbo was a mentor to him as well, and he had also gifted him with a special tool at the start of his journey which was Sting, the magical elf dagger that could detect nearby orcs. Special aid may come to the protagonist in the form of a physical object, or a person, or even a piece of advice. In the case of Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, a small decorative pin she picked up at the start of the tale connected her to the people who would aid her on her journey.
This is the most dynamic stage of the monomyth, for while it’s often essential to helping the hero begin their quest, aid in the form of objects and people continue to be presented to the hero throughout their journey. This is one of the aspects of the monomyth that most closely maps to our real lives, and is so closely tied to ephemeral forces that many associate it with principles behind the book, The Secret.
Stage 4: Crossing the First Threshold.
This is when the hero leaves the domain he knows and crosses into what Campbell calls the “Special World”. From this point on the hero cannot turn back. This is when Neo takes the red pill and when Luke boards the Millennium Falcon. Sometimes, though not always, there are guardians which the hero must circumvent or defeat before he can make it across.
In real life, this is mostly commonly displayed when an entrepreneur quits their secure job to start their own business venture, or when someone hands their spouse divorce papers. There’s fear as the unknown looms ahead, but it sets things in motion that cannot be undone.
Stage 5: Belly of the Whale
Now the hero is fully in the special world and is examining his new surroundings, and tries to get acclimated. This is where the hero is initiated through some sort of ordeal, but is not fully tried to their limits. It typically takes place in three mini-stages of Envelopment, Initiation, and Rebirth; such as when Neo is enveloped by the mirror, he breaks out of his pod and is nearly choked to death by the machine before being flushed down the drain, and is finally reborn as the Nebuchadnezzar.
We see this in our world as sitting down at our work station at a new job, or trying online dating after an official separation from our spouse, and encountering all the strange, wild creatures of this new domain.
Stage 6: Road of Trials.
This is when the hero really pushed to his limits and has his character tested. Often times he will fail, and fail big. However, it’s also when they will meet some of the best, most notable and valuable companions on their journey, as it was Aragorn who here saved the group of adventuring hobbits. This stage can be stretched out for much of the story, or can repeat over and over again, such as is seen in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
All successful entrepreneurs in the real world know this stage very well, as round after round of failures are the inescapable prerequisite for victory.
Stage 7: Meeting with the Goddess.
In discussing the goddess here, Campbell is really talking about the polarization of energetic forces in terms of how the female ASPECT of nature behaves in this stage of the monomyth. This is the period immediately following the first trial where the recently tested hero finds rest, and as is often necessary, healing. Typically, this is depicted as a woman, but even the grizzled old cowboy with a bottle of whiskey and rusty tool for extracting bullets can fulfill the role.
Understanding that, allows us to reassess who has fulfilled that role for us in our own lives.
Stage 8: Woman as Temptress.
This stage is often depicted as one of a sexual nature, but when Jake Sully was about to become a full-fledged member of the Omaticaya tribe in the film, Avatar, Colonel Quaritch offered to not only pull him out of the mission, but to send him home to have his spine fixed, Jake had to face down the temptation to pass on the rest of the difficulties ahead.
It’s so easy, in our own lives, to take shortcuts to get what we think we want, but we must remember that the enjoyment of the ill-gotten fruits we attain are often short-lived.
Stage 9: Atonement with the Father.
Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with his father, Darth Vader is probably the most iconic example of this stage, but in Campbell’s analysis the father is the representation of authority, just as the goddess is the representation of nature. To Campbell this has as much to do with defeating tyranny from without, as it does the tyranny within. The YouTubers “Like Stories of Old” and “Siim Land” both made reference to the Venom Black Suit in Spider Man 3 as being another aspect of the shadow self, which George Lucas also expressed in the greatly misunderstood scene of Luke in the cave on Dagobah.
In this assessment, the word “atonement” is quite perfect, for it’s not a matter of defeating authority, as we might intend to do as bratty teenagers, but bringing authority figures into balance in our lives. Simultaneously, it’s about accepting our own shortcomings, knowing that we will someday assume that position, just as a person may have to accept that an overly religious or slightly racist parent isn’t going to change, and we just need to find a way of dealing with them in love.
Stage 10: Apotheosis.
This word comes from the ancient Greek work, “apotheoun” which means “to make divine” but in the case of Campbell’s analysis, this stage is about maturity. In literature, this is often represented as a literal death and rebirth, like that of Jesus on the cross, or Neo in the hallway. To Dr. Jordan Peterson, Christian belief is one that exemplifies how one’s old way of thinking dies as the new person, the new Christian, is reborn (specifically in the ritual of baptism).
In our lives, it’s only after we accept that we are not children anymore, and we assume the mantle of authority that is to be bestowed upon us, that we are able to step into not only who we are, but who can become. The idea of our potential greatness becomes one of higher resolution, and we become more adept at aiming our lives toward something more meaningful and fulfilling.
Stage 11: Ultimate Boon.
This is Luke using the Force instead of the targeting computer to blow up the Death Star. It’s Frodo tossing the ring into Mount Doom and Aragorn assuming the throne. It’s the culmination of the journey in the completion of the task. At this point the hero has come into maturity and fulfills their destiny, using the skills and power that they acquired throughout their journey, and they do so nobly. In this stage, the hero enjoys not only a sense of satisfaction, but a sense of clarity.
In the real world, this is the martial artist winning the tournament, and the salesman landing his first big contract. It’s a well-earned payoff for all of the hard work and training.
Stage 12: Refusal of the Return.
This is another optional stage; at this point the catharsis of success combines with the sheer exhaustion to compel the hero to stop their journey there and not cross the threshold back to their ordinary world. There is often an understanding that nothing the hero could do at home that will again compare the amazing experience they’ve just had. Sometimes, it’s a matter of having found a purpose in the task, and to go home would be to allow that sense of fulfillment to slip away forever.
This is something that often plagues our servicemen and women who return home from overseas, as was so accurately portrayed in the film, The Hurt Locker.
Stage 13: Magic Flight.
This is also an optional phase and simply displays the need for the hero to make a fast exit before the decision to stay (and die) is made for them. It’s excellently represented by Jack the Giant Slayer escaping with the special treasure from the giant’s house as he climbs down the beanstalk after him.
Stage 14: Rescue from Without.
The final optional component in the monomyth is one that can sometimes come under fire from audiences, as less savvy writers can often be tempted to use what’s called “Deus ex machina”, that is, to pull their characters out of an inescapable scenario with a ridiculous mechanism. The original Batman television series was notorious for this, to the point where it made fun of itself for it. A more eloquent example would be when Gandalf the White rode the giant eagles to Mount Doom to rescue the exhausted hobbits who were surrounded by streams of molten lava. It was a powerful summon that Gandalf had at his disposal, but could only be used selectively, in the direst of circumstances, so it fit into the story.
Even in ancient times, this mechanism wasn’t used very often, probably because in real life, such grand, last-minute, saving gestures rarely happen. This is the man who suddenly wins the lottery the week before the bank was to seize his family’s house. It’s not that things like that never happen, it’s just rare, and since great stories reflect reality, it’s not seen that often on the hero’s journey, or not in any serious way.
Stage 15: Crossing the Return Threshold.
This is when the hero finally returns to their once familiar world. Sometimes they encounter a threshold guardian in this stage too, as when Odysseus had to fend off his wife’s suitors with the aid of his sons. In the Lord of the Ringstrilogy, the hobbits who went back to the shire encountered only the deafening silence of a world that did not, or could not, even acknowledge the great deeds that they had accomplished in saving the friends and family that ignored them.
This is the snap back to reality, and to all of the drudgery that that entails. It’s going on a life-changing trip to a foreign land and coming back to your work station to find a laundry list of tasks that went unfinished in your absence.
Stage 16: Master of Both Worlds.
Here we see the hero in a state where they have realized their inner divinity and made atonement with their shadow self. They have learned to control tyranny both inner and outer, and they bring the lessons learned back to the familiar world. For the Buddha, it was after he received enlightenment and enjoyed perfect bliss that he came back and began to teach others. For Neo in The Matrix, this stage was stretched out in the two sequels as it was revealed his mastery over the digital realm was only part of the journey, and he eventually attained an ability to control the machines in the real world.
In our lives, this is the most difficult step to maintain. This is when we are walking the fine line between order and chaos that Dr. Jordan Peterson talks about. This can be seen as the recovering addict just trying to hold down a job and keep a stable relationship.
Stage 17: Freedom to Live.
This is the freedom to live without fear. More than simply mastering power, the hero lives secure in the awareness that what he was able to do once he would be able to do again, and would most likely need to. His naiveté is shattered, his soul is fully mature, he exists not apart or above new trials, but comfortable enough in their shadow so as to no longer fear the unknown. At the conclusion of The Matrixtrilogy, Neo is connected to and overtaken by Smith, but he then uses that connection to cleanse Smith from the system.
Entrepreneurs know all too-well the value of personal freedom, that’s why we want to venture out into the unknown to go run our own businesses. For us, the struggle for success is not about fancy houses and extra cars, it’s about escaping the nightmare of wake-work-eat-sleep-repeat. It’s about knowing that a life unlived is worse than dying. Coming to full maturity and overcoming the fear of death is the result of the hero’s journey. This is best summarized by the famed author Mark Twain who said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
You have no choice when it comes to your mortality, but you do have a choice when it comes to whether or not you will live, and that’s what the Hero’s Journey is really all about. Most people are so afraid of dying that they never live. In analyzing the human story, it is my hope that you will make the choice to truly live; to live fully, and to live boldly. The content in this blog, on the podcast, as well as on social media, is intended to help you to do just that, so feel free to comment and let me know how I’m doing, and if there’s anything more that I can do for you. The next blog entry, and the ones to follow, will contain more detailed analysis of each stage, including some very personal accounts from my own story, as another means for you to reflect off of, and I look forward to engaging with you.
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