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🦋 The journeys we'll go on
Looking beyond the hero's journey
I didn’t hear about Joseph Campbell until sometime in my early forties. My older son was in high school at that time, and one of his classes discussed the concept of the hero’s journey. He talked about it when he came home from school, and something about the description made me look it up online, and then head to the library the same evening to borrow a copy of Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces1.
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You’re probably familiar with the book, but in case you are not: Campbell proposes a monomyth, a universal story arc called the hero’s journey found in myths and stories from cultures around the world. The hero sets forth on an adventure (departure), faces obstacles and trials (initiation), is victorious over them, and returns with boons and gifts to share with the rest of the world (return). The hero’s journey can be one of external adventure though it also involves an inner, transformative journey. When the hero returns from his journey, he has changed in some important way. You might’ve read several books or watched movies that use this arc (the popular example is Star Wars, but you can see it in any number of movies and books). In your own life, you might look for parallels where you overcame your fears or others’ discouragement and took steps towards a goal. Maybe you had to learn new skills, take on rivals, and do things that pulled you out of your comfort zone, and regardless of the outcome, engaging with this process changed you forever.
There are many issues with the hero’s journey arc (more on that below), but when I read the book for the first time, I was really excited. Many of the steps/stages of the journey resonated with me. I felt like I had experienced them in incidents in my own life. If the journey was real, the book, and the hero’s journey, could function as a map. My excitement grew. Not just any map, but one that might help me make meaning of my life. Maybe I could figure out the starts, stops, and false restarts- as though my life was a problem, and I just needed to solve it. But there was even more to this. Underneath the relief of potential meaning-making, I experienced a slight releasing from an almost primal terror that had started to wind around me, a little tighter with every passing year. If these or other transformative journeys were at work like undercurrents pulling us this way and that, could it mean there was nothing wrong with me? Oof.
Is that what the idea of journeys does for us? Liberate us in some way? Help us make meaning? Are we solving for better outcomes? Help find a community of fellow travelers?
The more I write, the more questions that come up. I’d love to know what you think and what your experiences have been.
People go on different journeys, or they may choose not to. There is no prescription. Their journey might look like the hero’s journey or it might not. The universality of Campbell’s hero’s journey has been disputed by folklore scholars because it is reductive and doesn’t take local cultural contexts into consideration2. There are parallels to hero’s journeys in other cultures3, but there are also many examples of other narrative arcs45. Because the hero’s journey doesn't address the differences in women’s journeys, Maureen Murdock proposed the heroine’s journey6. Other examples of journeys include the popular adaptation of the hero’s journey for writers, Christoper Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure For Writers, and Steven Pressfield has written The Artist’s Journey. I’m sure there are more that I haven’t yet come across. There is no one size that fits all. But perhaps we might agree that most, if not all, journeys are about hope.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
The Heroine's Journey: Woman's Quest for Wholeness by Maureen Murdock