The Hero Journey

The concept of the Hero Journey (or ‘monomyth’) exists all over the world in folklore, myth, and religion. Joseph Campbell has shown us the experience of the hero-journey itself is purely psychological and based on the need for the Self to explore the truth of the inner self or unconscious in its constant quest for identity, meaning, and spiritual wisdom.

Joseph Campbell’s critical book on comparative mythology and the hero-journey, The Hero With A Thousand Faces , has been the inspiration for hundreds if not thousands of movies and books the past 40 years. Filmmakers such as George Miller of the Mad Max film Road Warrior and George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars were both directly inspired by his work. That’s why those films were so successful and still inspire us. Their creators turned to Mythology and the understanding of the psychology in storytelling.

My own books, Phantammeron, have used Campbell’s work as a resource of understanding in turning away from traditional fantasy and trying to find a more spiritual basis for storytelling beyond modern tropes.

You will often hear author’s describe heroes and hero journey motifs as if they are tools for story arcs. But the hero journey is in truth a very religious experience, the relic of ancient cycles of mythology used to indoctrinate young initiates into the tribe. Such stories and journeys were often used to help young people gain access to the secrets of the cultural wisdom, access the powers of the shaman, or gain wisdom about existence and one’s place in the cosmos itself. Whether this spiritual transformation was part of early Man’s survival as a species, we may never know. But like all myth, it served a cultural purpose that connected people together through story.

These hero journey stories survive only in fairy tales and myths in cryptic forms we often fail to translate or understand. When Modern entertainment uses these myths in movie scripts and television to portray protagonists, they often misrepresent their original spiritual archetypes and images. They then have no affect on the culture emotionally or spiritually. Using hero journey stories in books where protagonists gain wealth, fame, or romance belittles and diminishes the hero journey down to Modern day personal desires and needs. The hero journey then becomes a soulless shell of what it once was to our ancient ancestors.

But we can free ourselves from the debasement of myth by making stories about more spiritual journeys again in our books. If we see that the goal of the hero is simply to embrace the “tragic hero” of Greek culture, we can regain its magic. In such myths the hero often dies in order to fulfill some promise to his people. In such a death part of ourselves dies and then is reborn into something new through the story and it’s pathos. We thus achieve a new Self, transformed by story into something greater than our former ourselves. Life then becomes richer. That is what is now possible in fiction today.

The “hero journey story” in modern story is then elevated to its older, more original form where it truly achieves what it was meant to achieve – destroy the old self and beckon the beginning of a new self. For the hero journey once allowed the initiate or listener to embrace life with a new acceptance of happiness and suffering equally in a more powerful and more spiritual way. It taught us something about ourselves and thus transcended the original meaning of the story itself. That is the result we once expected from such stories, and which most modern fiction completely ignores today. I challenge authors to re-imagine such tales again and enliven their work and their readers with the magic of the hero journey again.

The Hero Journey

In essence the modern protagonist in fantasy fiction is a shallow form of the more apocryphal form of the ancient “tragic hero” of Greek myth – the hero that goes from winning warrior to dying hero that is transformed spiritually in the listener. What we find in movies and books that turn away from the shallow hero form that wins crowns and thrones, money and marriage – one that instead defeats evil and dies, the spiritual hero of the hero-journey – is a prototype that shakes free of “protagonist fiction” and embraces ancient mythology.

What Campbell and other mythologists then help us do better is create movies that move us and stories that stir us emotionally when the hero fights then wins the spiritual cause, not the monetary or love or fame cause. The former is the hero that fights the primeval father, the Gods, evil, or himself and wins the war of values, or sacrifice, or perishing so he or the land can be reborn. The latter is only reflection of our personal needs and desires in this world and the society we live in. But that form has no spiritual value.

It’s the fighting of oneself in the Shadow Self as Campbell describes it that is what we so desperately need in storytelling today. Because the hero-journey tale is one giant psychological battle of the journey to one’s secret center and the returning of the secret of life to the conscious self…..which is that there is no secret but that joy and suffering are the same and that we are all reborn when the hero dies for his cause. It’s the same redemptive theme of the soul needing wisdom and love and rebirth as is found in Buddhism, Christianity, etc.

We are therefore always moved more by books and movies that shake free of the violence and sex and embrace the last relics of ancient story telling found in Mythology to stir us to new heights through the hero-journey that constantly goes on inside of us beyond our struggles in this world for monetary gain and love. Because the spirit needs more…..and it’s that need that drives the success of entertainment today and the billions of dollars people spend seeking the mythological and spiritual themes they so desperately need but cannot find in the Modern world.

For more in-depth debate on the hero journey, check out my lecture on Tolkien’s work and how his work captured the spirit of that journey in fiction:

Tolkien’s Silmarillion and its Hidden Mysteries

– the Author

Created Dec 11, 2016, 4:45 PM



Leave a Reply