The Hero's Journey: A Theme in any Story Worth Telling
I'll never forget the first time I sat down and watched "Star Wars." For years I had dodged the endeavor because I thought the film series sounded downright cheesy. 'An epic tale that takes place in galaxy far away? No thanks.'
As a devout English major, the best epic tales I had ever read were confined to the pages of literature and mythology, and, in all honesty, Odysseus and Achilles sounded far more interesting to me than Anakin or Luke Skywalker. Yet when I finally did see Star Wars, my view of great storytelling and epic tales all changed. In fact, my teachings and understandings of literature and mythology came full circle into one clear realization: The hero's journey was the universal theme present in any story worth telling.
It's important to say that it would be impossible to discuss the hero's journey without mentioning Joseph Campbell, author of "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," which gives a more in-depth discussion and analysis of the hero's journey. Campbell analyzed how throughout the history of literature and great storytelling there remained a number of universal themes that take places in the monomyth – more popularly known as the hero's journey. Some common themes within the main three steps – the departure, the initiation, and the return – include the call to adventure, refusal of the call, supernatural aid, woman as temptress, refusal of the return, the crossing of the threshold, and many others.
I've had numerous literary friends seek to disprove my discussion of the hero's journey whenever I bring it up in relation to fantasy writing. "By saying something like that you strip away the unique voice and eccentricities of writers out there," my passionate friend once said to me. And yet, I have to disagree. Writers are continually drawing upon what they know, and much of what we know about literature has already taken place many times over. Therefore, many epic fantasy tales' themes and storylines will inevitably crossover each other. Don't believe me? For argument sake, I've taken two cultural phenomenons – Harry Potter and Star Wars –and compared some of their many connections to the hero's journey.
Departure: The Call to Adventure
Who could forget the moment Harry Potter uncovers his invitation to Hogwarts. The moment in which Harry rips open the sealed envelope is more than just a few lines in a book. It is Harry's call to adventure. In this moment, we are introduced to a boy who is to become a wizard. Neither Harry nor the audience knows all the adventure that is to come, but all we can know for sure is that he had the choice to reject the call, but like all great adventures, Harry does no such thing. In Star Wars, we see Luke Skywalker do the same thing. When Obi-Wan Kenobi asks Luke to come along with him to train and become a jedi, Luke quickly turns him down. Here, Luke has taken the approach of rejecting the call, but, as we all know, the story doesn't end there. When Luke comes home to find his aunt and uncle murdered and himself an orphan, he knows he has no choice but to accept the call to adventure and join Obi-Wan in training.
Initiation: Atonement with the Father
As we enter our second stage – initiation – we start to see one of the most common themes in literature: the father. For one reason or another, fathers have become one of the most popular recurring themes throughout literature, ranging from Zeus' escape from being devoured by his father, Cronus, Luke Skywalker's quest to defy the same destiny as his father, Darth Vader, Oedipus unintentionally fulfilled prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother, and numerous others. Harry has atonement with his father when he finally confronts Voldemort. I know what you must be thinking, 'Voldemort isn't Harry's father,' but as stated by the rule, "in this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life." Voldemort holds the key to Harry's life, in that he and Harry are bound together. One without the other would mean certain death for both. Everybody who has seen Star Wars knows the ultimate confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader – in which the evil lord reveals he is Luke's father – is the very definition of atonement with the father. So you see, these two unique tales actually involve a common theme in the hero's journey.
Return: Refusal of the Return
There comes a time at the end of every hero's journey in which the hero refuses to return home to the normalcies they once knew. The life they led before becomes foreign to them. Perhaps they've seen too much or experienced too much to be able to go back to the naïve existence they knew before. We see this characteristic in both Harry and Luke. At one point, Harry refuses to return back to Hogwarts in the knowledge that he has caused too much trouble for everybody. He understands that his connection to Voldemort has put everyone he cares about at risk, and he refuses to allow himself to return to the life he once knew. We also see this characteristic in Luke. Luke has every opportunity to return home to Tattooine after Obi-Wan is killed, but Luke refuses. He commits himself to the rebel force and continues fighting. The famous jedi can't imagine returning home to an ordinary life after experiencing all the strife and despair he has seen around the galaxy.
I could honestly go on for days about the Hero's Journey. It's a common theme you'll see in your favorite books, movies, and maybe in the lives of those around you. If you care to explore the concept deeper, read Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or for a more simplified version of The Hero's Journey, see this list.