The Hero’s Journey, Good Stories, and Your Life
By David Bryen
How to read a book
Every good story reminds you of the life you’d like to have, or the life you’d like to avoid. Joseph Campbell coined the phrase “The Hero’s Journey” to describe the journey each man and woman must make in their life. Stories have always been used to provide clues as to how we must live to satisfy the deeper aspects of existence. The tales that work all contain the same elements even though may be arranged in different ways by the author. If these elements are missing or not developed we walk away from the story unsatisfied, feeling that something is just not right.
First, a Herald calls our hero or heroine to step out of the ordinary world to solve an essential problem. A dream, a trauma, a collapsing belief system, a threat, or a love affair all may serve to imbue them with the idea that their participation is required. Because they are still caught in the ordinary world, they must Refuse the call, hiding behind their own unworthiness, unwillingness and inability to do what is required. The resistance is dissolved when the Mentor, in the guise of wise old man or woman, magic animal, or oracle offers to be a guide for what is to come.
Once our main character crosses into the new territory, various Allies, and Friends, come along side to offer immediate companionship and promise help in the future. The bulk of the story takes place here and it is in this section where man and woman come together to highlight the age old tensions of love, differences, and loyalty. A series of tests face our champion, and as each test is encountered, some rendition of a Threshold Guardian stands at the door refusing entrance to the next level if they fail the task. These guardians are not always people, but could be weather, bad luck, foibles, confrontations with inner demons which suffice as complications that intrigue the audience.
Often in a seedy bar s/he meets their Shadow, the evil, the dark, the sociopathic enemy that proves to be invincible. A story is only as good as its villain, and the listeners know that a successful outcome must solve the shadow problem. A life and death battle ensues. These fights are always in the dark, the dangerous, the swamps, the dark parts of the inner city. This is the black moment–filled with suspense and tension. In romantic dramas, this is the end of the relationship. All hope is lost. Something must die. The audience feels the emotional collapse into the dark and death and the apparent victory of evil over good.
Now the stage is set for the Resurrection and victory in the Supreme Ordeal. With the victory over the Shadow, the reconciliation between the masculine and feminine, or the resolution with the father or mother, the Reward is offered. It may be a magic sword, wisdom, an answer to life’s questions, achievement of the Holy Grail, an elixir, or knowledge that will save the world.
But our hero is not done. One last stage remains: The Return. To the degree there are unreconciled elements, the opposing forces will come raging back and what the hero has learned will be tested by fire. Eventually, the hero or heroine returns with a Boon for the community and lives a life of service.
This is also the story of our lives. We are called out of our ordinary world to accomplish the task of finding meaning to our lives, developing the character traits that await us and then, return back to the community to offer what we have learned to the world.