This is the last of the optional stages, and can either immediately follow the hero’s success, a refusal of the return, a magic flight, or all three. At this point the hero needs to be rescued because he is either trapped, exhausted, or both, and cannot make it out alive without direct intervention from someone or something else. Much like the previous stage, what allows this segment to stand alone as its own stage and not just as a repeated “supernatural aid” is the timing, appearing only after the hero has achieved the “Ultimate Boon”. Most often this rescue is performed by an ally, but sometimes this happens due to some other circumstances such as environmental factors. Even in ancient times, this mechanism wasn’t used very often, probably because in real life, such grand, last-minute rescues rarely happen, but they DO happen, so it can’t be discounted completely. Just like with the previous stage, “Magic Flight” if you live in a stable part of the world, you will most likely never require a literal rescue from an existential threat shortly after you achieve a major victory, and should this stage manifest in your life, I sincerely hope that it will only be metaphorical.
Part of the “problem” with this stage is that some writers can be tempted to use what’s called “deus ex machina”, which is roughly translated as “god in the machine”. It means that the writer paints the hero into a corner, and then pulls him out of an inescapable scenario with a ridiculous and unbelievable mechanism that wreaks of desperation, and does more to annoy the audience than entertain. The ending of Jurassic Parkwas one such instance, where Dr. Grant and company were surrounded in Visitor’s Center by the ravenous velociraptors when, out of nowhere, the tyrannosaurus rex SOMEHOW bursts onto the scene and grabs the first raptor that was about to pounce, and makes short work of the others while the humans take the opportunity to escape. No one knows how the massive t-rex get INSIDE the building without ANYONE hearing it or why it attacked the raptors, or why Steven Spielberg thought this was okay. However, an example in cinema of when a rescue was done properly, and to great effect, was in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, when Gandalf the White rode the giant eagles to Mount Doom to rescue the exhausted hobbits who were trapped on the mountainside 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 was not a ridiculous mechanism and fit into the story quite well.
Now, if a hero is rescued by a non-anthropomorphized element, it’s typically represented as an aspect of nature, like falling debris crushing a villain before he strikes the hero down, but in the film, AVATAR, the rescue came from something that fell somewhere in between those motifs. During the pitched battle between the Na’vi, led by Jake Sully, and the Earth forces, led by Colonel Quaritch, the natives and their human allies were being beaten back. As the bomber closed in on the sacred site, “The Well of Souls”, it seemed like all would be lost when suddenly, all the animal life of the planet rose up to rout the aliens, which allowed Jake the opportunity he needed to land on the bomber and strike the final blow, bringing it out of the sky before it could do any harm. While it can be believed that Eywa, the goddess of the Na’vi, acted as the “overmind” of the planet and directly guided the animals to aid them in their cause, it has also been theorized that the beasts acted as the antibodies of an of immune system, wiping out the invaders, once and for all. Either way, this is arguably the most brilliant display of “Rescue from Without” in recent story-telling history, and perfectly highlights the point that I’d like to make regarding how this stage may manifest in our lives.
Earlier in the film Neytiri took Jake to what she told him was a sacred site called the “Tree of Voices”, a grove of trees with long, glowing tendrils hanging from their willow-like branches. She showed him how to connect his queue to the tendrils and “hear” the voices of the ancestors. Later in the film, after the mentor of the tale, Dr. Grace Augustine is shot, Jake and his allies bring her damaged human body, and her avatar, to the Na’vi. The natives then take both to the “Tree of Souls”, which is a larger version of the Tree of Voices, which lives right in the heart of the “Well of Souls”, a large depression in the middle of the Floating Mountains. Mo’at, Neytiri’s mother and the tribe’s shaman, explains that they will try to use the tree to permanently transfer Grace’s consciousness from her human body to her avatar. As Grace hangs between life and death, right before she breathes her last, she tells Jake that Eywa is real, and she is with her. Almost immediately after, Jake channels his grief and rouses the tribe for the coming battle to drive the humans from Pandora. He then travels out, gathering other tribes to join them in the fight. Shortly before the battle is set to begin, Jake takes a private moment to connect his queue to the Tree of Souls and, in essence, prays to Eywa, to give her a “heads up”.
He says, “If Grace is with you, look into her memories. See the world we come from. There’s no green there. They killed their mother, and they’re going to do the same here. More Sky People are gonna come. They’re gonna come like a rain that never ends…unless we stop them. Look, you chose me for something. I will stand and fight. You know I will…but I need a little help here.” Neytiri, who overheard his prayer, gently corrects Jake and tells him that “Our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.” He looks up at the silent tree before shrugging and replies, “It was worth a shot.” But it was worth a shot, and in fact, Eywa DID respond to his request, because Jake was focused, not on the battle itself, as Neytiri was, but on WHY the battle was needed.
The Na’vi, who only killed out of necessity, had never seen or even conceived of genocide, or the incidental slaughter that an unchecked flood of human settlers would bring. Jake, on the other hand, was familiar with the scale of destruction that the humans were capable of. Jake knew that such destruction was only ever conceived in the minds of a select few, carried out by a willing minority, and permitted by a silent majority. Jake had proved, at numerous points throughout the film, that he was willing to act upon his moral conviction to never be a passive participant in the face of injustice. Despite the fact that Jake had spent his life fighting, he never did it for the sake of violence, he was, in his own words, just looking for “something worth fighting for.” On Pandora, he discovered something to be a part of that was greater than himself, and he fought for it, so when the animals appeared and turned the tide of the battle, it wasn’t to merely preserve the hero, it was to protect all life, which is what Jake was working to do in the first place. This meant that Jake was not actually a savior, as some might see him, but as a component in a much larger system, and a much grander story than he could have ever imagined. In that sense, Jake became more than just a man, he became an ideal – a symbol – just like Captain America.
Before the serum turned him into a super-soldier, Steve Rogers tried repeatedly to enlist in the US Army, even though he knew he would die because of his poor health. In the MCU film, Captain America: The First Avenger, when Dr. Erskine, the head of the super-soldier program, asked if he wanted to become a soldier so that he could “kill Nazis” Steve replied, “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from.” Once he got into the program, he willingly threw himself on top of what he thought was a live grenade to protect his fellow soldiers. Then, after the experiment had turned him into a super-human, and Dr. Erskine was assassinated, Steve was discarded as a weapon in the war because there was “only one” of him, so he threw himself into playing a dancing fool peddling war bonds, because he thought that it would do the most good in helping the war effort. Eventually, he would sacrifice even that pitiful role and risk a court-marshal to rescue his friend’s captured Army unit. While Steve was not looking to be a martyr, the outcome of the fight never mattered to him, because the value of the fight was to be found in the very act of confronting evil, no matter the cost. As he put it, “If you start running away they never let you stop.” And indeed, Steve never did get to stop.
At the climax of the film, Steve achieves the Ultimate Boon when he defeats the Red Skull, but in order to protect the world from that psychopath’s tyranny he had to crash the Hydra bomber into the icy water where he was flash frozen, only to be found and revived by the government organization, SHIELD nearly seventy years later. Steve then finds himself in a New York so foreign to him that he was, essentially, taken to a whole new world. Cast out of time, like a leaf caught in a wind that can’t find its way to the ground, he never got to go home to complete his journey. He skipped acts Three and One of his cycle, and was thrust again into Act Two: Initiation – Crossing the First Threshold, where his journey would start again, and again, and again, and again. Steve sacrificed himself, not just for the clichéd “greater good” but for the very idea of what a good man SHOULD be, and for that he was rewarded (or maybe cursed) with the means to continue to serve that role for all humanity. Similarly, it would be ill-advised for you to expect rescue in your life if you fail to do any less.
As discussed in the previous blog, too many people go at life with their expectations of what, how, when, and why things “should” be. I’m loathe to tell you what to do, or what to want, but at this point on your journey you need to be focused, not on your victory, but on your growth – on your development. That isn’t my advice for you, it’s the essence of the monomyth, which is the story of life itself. Now, I can’t say that I’ve never hoped for a measure of divine intervention in my own life. I too have dreamed about winning the lottery, or finding that one perfect woman that would “fix me”, but I’ve learned that such things are fantasies that no one should spend too much time or energy on. More importantly, though, I believe the reason that myths and stories only occasionally include this stage, and why when it is seen it’s often executed in such a ridiculous fashion, is to teach us one hard lesson: Yes, sometimes you get extra help in life, but don’t count on it; put in the work, be prepared to lose, and be prepared to learn. This is the reasoning behind our company’s new slogan: Expect nothing. Earn everything.
Rescue from Without is as much a direct result of your apotheosis as is the ultimate boon. Once you accept your role as the symbolic ideal of what all people can achieve by putting in the time to work on themselves, the Universe/Life/Divinity/etc itself can rescue you, if necessary, so that you may continue to carry out that role. Intervention is only possible as long as you are ready, willing, and able to sacrifice your selfish desires and prove that you truly understand that your life is not about you. Sometimes that “rescue” can appear as a literal helping hand, financial assistance, or a personal breakthrough. In turn, that breakthrough can occur as a result of the advice you get from another person, a book or podcast (please subscribe), or sometimes, as my partner Tom keeps advocating for, taking the time to sit and meditate. It may not be grand, but it’s real, and it’s what will get you through to the end, as you make your triumphant return to your ordinary world.
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