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ServiceScape Incorporated
2019

The Hero's Journey: Step-By-Step Definitions Plus Examples

Humanity has a common story that is as old as time—one that we've been telling again and again, while only the details change. It's the story of a hero who leaves the ordinary world to go on an adventure full of peril. On it, the hero will gain both adversaries and allies, and will face a great evil. The hero will also face his shadow self, which is perhaps the most frightening antagonist of all.

Joseph Campbell, an American researcher who wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, called this story the monomyth. Through his years of research, he discovered that across cultures, the story of the hero's quest contains a common journey and stages. While other researchers have used Campbell's writing as a basis and renamed the stages, the foundation of the journey and the order of the steps is the same.

Across cultures, the story of the hero's quest contains a common journey and stages
Across cultures, the story of the hero's quest contains a common journey and stages. Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash.

Throughout our exploration of the hero's journey, I'll use The Matrix, a film written and directed by the Wachowskis, to provide an example of each stage. Keep in mind, however, that the hero's quest occurs across media, including oral storytelling, literature, movies, or stage.

The Call to Adventure

Every hero's story begins with the ordinary world. Without this introduction to hero's life before the adventure begins, there would be no character arc that shows how the hero has changed by the end. Campbell puts it like this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The unknown world to which the hero is called is, according to Campbell:

…a fateful region of both treasure and danger…a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state…a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo, the protagonist of The Matrix, is a hacker living and ordinary—yet unfulfilling—life. Someone hacks into his computer and tells him if he wants to learn about "The Matrix," he must "follow the white rabbit." With that, the call to adventure begins.

Refusal of the Call

This is the stage in which fear or self-doubt prevents the hero from starting the journey. According to Campbell:

Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire or renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

We can see this as first important progression in the hero's character arc, as he or she first faces doubt but then pushes past it in order to begin the process of growth and change.

The Matrix

While being chased by Agents, Neo refuses to climb out of the window, as Morpheus instructs. Rather, he surrenders to them.

Supernatural Aid

On this next step of the hero's journey, the help that arrives doesn't have to be supernatural or magical. It can be anything that is unexpected, or assistance that appears that is beyond what is naturally expected. In many cases, it comes in the form of a teacher. It becomes a matter of blind faith on behalf of the hero, or as Campbell explains, One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear.

Usually, this help from an unexpected source will offer some talisman or artifact to help the assist the hero on his quest. In may stories, this "talisman" could simply be important advice given from someone who has been to the unknown and understands what the hero is up against.

Here's how Campbell explains this step:

For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance—promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost; that it supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever present within or just behind the unfamiliar features of the world.

One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear. Having responded to his own call, and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task. And in so far as the hero's act coincides with that for which his society is ready, he seems to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

When Neo awakens after his ordeal with the Agents, Trinity extracts the "bug" that they planted in him and he sees for the first time the technology he never knew existed. Following this, Morpheus gives him a pill that will allow him to see the Matrix for the first time.

Crossing the First Threshold

This is the point at which the hero decides to embark on the adventure and cross over into the unknown, leaving his or her ordinary world behind. This is also the point in which allies and adversaries play an important role in the hero's journey. Campbell writes:

With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the 'threshold guardian' at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in four directions—also up and down—standing for the limits of the hero's present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the members of the tribe.

The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored. The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

When Neo accepts the red pill, he is shown the true nature of the Matrix.

Belly of the Whale

At this point on the hero's journey, he has left all semblance of the ordinary world behind. Campbell writes:

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple—where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal.

The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

When neo takes the red pill, he is thrown into a fearful experience in which he is reborn out of the Matrix and into "real life."

The belly of the whale is a metaphorical place of death and rebirth from the Earth's womb.
The "belly of the whale" is a metaphorical place of death and rebirth from the Earth's womb. Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash.

The Road of Trials

This stage of the hero's journey begins the initiation portion of the storyline, and in a three-act structure, begins the second act. The Road of Trials is a series of tests the hero must face to begin the transformation, and often, these are presented in groups of three. In the process, the hero will fail many of these tests. Campbell writes:

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.

The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unsustainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo begins his training with Morpheus, who shows him how to fight within the Matrix.

Meeting with the Goddess/Love

This stage doesn't have to have a goddess, per se, but rather a significant power that gives unconditional love and strength to the hero. The goddess archetype can be more figurative than literal, although writers often present her as a literal, spiritually advanced female entity. Campbell says:

The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart.

The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity. And when the adventurer, in this context, is not a youth but a maid, she is the one who, by her qualities, her beauty, or her yearning, is fit to become the consort of an immortal. Then the heavenly husband descends to her and conducts her to his bed—whether she will or not. And if she has shunned him, the scales fall from her eyes; if she has sought him, her desire finds its peace.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo meets with the Oracle.

The Woman as Temptress

This is the stage in which the hero faces temptation that will distract from ultimate quest. Although Campbell used the siren archetype to describe this stage of the hero's journey, the temptation doesn't have to come in the form of a woman. It can be anything material that distracts the hero from what he has set out to accomplish. Here's how Campbell explains it:

The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally, we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant someone else. But when it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul. The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Since The Matrix is a more modern story, there is a slight twist allowing this element of the hero's journey to occur for the anti-hero, Cypher, who is tempted by an easy life in the Matrix if he betrays his friends.

Atonement with the Hero's Father

As with the metaphor of being tempted by a woman, this step also represents of a metaphor of facing the one who holds power over the hero. In some stories, this could be a father (as with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader), but in many cases, the person who holds the most power over the hero is the hero himself. Thus, this stage could also be known as the abyss, or the dark night of the soul. Campbell explains it like this:

Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster—the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult…The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father [or the self], understands—and the two are atoned.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Agent Smith ambushes and kills Neo. At the same time, in the real world, Sentinels attack the Nebuchadnezzar.

Apostasis

When the Hero reaches this point in her journey, she comes to a realization of her role and purpose, thus achieving a kind of peace. Campbell writes:

Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lies in them, but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Trinity tells Neo that he can't be dead, because the Oracle told her she would fall in love with "The One" and she loves him. He reawakens with an internalized understanding that he is indeed "The One."

Apostasis occurs when the hero finally accepts his or her purpose and is at peace with it.
Apostasis occurs when the hero finally accepts his or her purpose and is at peace with it. Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash.

The Ultimate Boon

This is stage of the Hero's journey in which he achieves the goal. Everything that happened prior to this was to test and purify the Hero to get him to this place. It is as if the Hero found the elixir of life or the holy grail. Campbell writes:

The gods and goddesses then are to be understood as embodiments and custodians of the elixir of Imperishable Being but not themselves the Ultimate in its primary state. What the hero seeks through his intercourse with them is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. This miraculous energy-substance and this alone is the Imperishable.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo defeats Smith and the other Agents, then leaves the Matrix.

Refusal of the Return

Having been enlightened to her true purpose and the power she holds within, the hero might be reluctant to return to return to the ordinary world or to the way things were. Campbell writes:

When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds. But the responsibility has been frequently refused.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo can never return to pretending the Matrix doesn't exist and live an ordinary life.

Magic Flight

In some hero stories, the hero has to escape with the boon. Campbell writes:

If the hero in his triumph wins the blessing of the goddess or the god and is then explicitly commissioned to return to the world with some elixir for the restoration of society, the final stage of his adventure is supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron. On the other hand, if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the hero's wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons, then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit. This flight may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasion.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo "jacks in" to the Matrix.

Rescue from Without

While this stage of the hero's journey doesn't always happen in this exact position, in most stories, the hero must be rescued by someone other than himself to fulfill his ultimate mission. Campbell writes:

The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him. For the bliss of the deep abode is not lightly abandoned in favor of the self-scattering of the wakened state. 'Who having cast off the world,' we read, 'would desire to return again? He would be only there.' And yet, in so far as one is alive, life will call. Society is jealous of those who remain away from it, and will come knocking at the door. If the hero... is unwilling, the disturber suffers an ugly shock; but on the other hand, if the summoned one is only delayed—sealed in by the beatitude of the state of perfect being (which resembles death)—an apparent rescue is affected and the adventurer returns.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Although the step occurred out of Campbell's sequence in The Matrix, it can be seen in the movie when Trinity revives Neo.

Return

Once the hero understands his purpose, it is necessary to return to the ordinary world to share the wisdom gained. According to Campbell:

The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world. Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes…The hero returns to the world of common day and must accept it as real.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo decides to rescue as many people from the Matrix as he can and thus fulfil his role in the prophecy.

Master of Two Worlds

In this stage of the hero's journey, she achieves balance between the material and spiritual world, or the inner and outer world. Here's how Campbell puts it:

Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

Neo's declares victory over machines in final phone call, then flies away, defying all natural laws.

Freedom to Live

This is the final stage of the journey in which the hero's character arc is complete and he can exist between both worlds. Campbell writes:

The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is… He does not mistake apparent changelessness in time for the permanence of Being, nor is he fearful of the next moment (or of the 'other thing'), as destroying the permanent with its change. 'Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms. Be sure that nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.' Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Matrix

The humans are victorious over the machines, as Neo sets out to destroy the Matrix.

A template for the hero's journey

Here's an easy-to-follow template that shows the steps of the hero's journey, according to Joseph Campbell. Keep in mind that in modern storytelling, the steps might fall out of order, but are often still present in the plot line.

A template showing the hero's journey, according to Joseph Campbell
This template shows the stages of the hero's journey, according to Joseph Campbell.
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