The Hero’s Journey and its Connection to Visionary Fiction

HERO’S JOURNEY

What is the Hero’s Journey, and why do so many visionary writers like George Lucas use it to craft their stories? To answer that question, we need to understand where the Hero’s Journey comes from.

Joseph  Campbell recognized that myths around the world follow a similar template. He referred to this as monomyth. The hero’s path consists of 17 stages.

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As it would be too lengthy to explain all the stages in one post, let’s read how Campbell explains the journey in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

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 returns from the journey transformed from the rigorous challenges he faced along the way. George Lucas used the Hero’s Journey as a template when writing “Star Wars.” If you would like to learn more about the mythology behind the movie, watch George Lucas’s interview with Bill Moyers.

APOTHEOSIS 

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The Hero’s Journey structure has qualities that can make a story visionary. In the Apotheosis stage, the hero faces death and slays the enemy. The ordeal leads to an expansion of consciousness. Sound familiar?  The hero ascends to a god-like status. Transformation can be physical or metaphorical, and there’s often a spiritual element involved.

In “Star Wars,” we see Luke’s apotheosis when he would rather die than surrender to the dark side. Fast forward to “Return of the Jedi.” Darth Vader’s unmasking can be viewed as a joint apotheosis between father and son. This is probably why it’s so memorable to many fans of the series. First, Darth Vader risks his own life to save Luke. He kills the emperor, but he’s also mortally wounded. In a weakened state, Darth Vader asks Luke to unmask him, so he could see his son with his own eyes. From out of the mask emerges Anakin, finally freed from the dark forces that plagued him since his youth.

Luke’s apotheosis isn’t as dramatic. It happens when Anakin tells him that he was right about him. In other words, Darth Vader could be redeemed. Luke’s spiritual truth shatters Darth Vader’s mask. This is the symbolic slaying of the enemy. It’s also Luke’s atonement with the father. In this stage, Campbell explains that “one must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy.”

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“When the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he becomes free of all fear, beyond the reach of change.” Buddhist Mahayana Text

Anakin’s expansion of consciousness is visually depicted after he dies and is seen standing with Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Luke  sees them. His ability to  gaze into the spirit world demonstrates his own expansion of consciousness.

LESSONS LEARNED

The themes in “Return of the Jedi”  carry spiritual depth. Good and evil isn’t a black and white issue. Redemption is possible, as long as the intention to redeem oneself is heartfelt. Forgiveness is another lesson. Luke forgives Anakin for the atrocities he commited as Darth Vader. It’s never mentioned, but we recognize it when Luke doesn’t want to leave him to die.

What Campell’s Hero’s Journey reveals to us is the commonality of humankind. An understanding of these commonalities allow writers to craft stories in which people from all around the world can connect to. Star Wars is one example that  demonstrates how one story can affect the world. That’s visionary!

HERO’S JOURNEY IS REAL LIFE

The metaphorical Star Wars battle is the dark against the light. These symbolic universal archetypes are part of our real world struggles that reflect who we are as a people. We live our heroes journeys as individuals, but the environment in which we live is a result of our collective experiences of our journeys. As such, it would be in our best interest to visualise a movement towards the light. Getting there will be challenging because the dark influences of the world can feel overpowering at times.

NEW RENAISSANCE

We need a new Renaissance to free us from a dark future that’s being carved out for us.  War, terrorism and poverty are the same struggles that we dealt with throughout history. The current socio-political climate makes it challenging to speak out. Groupthink is strong.  George Orwell would be shocked at its current intensity.

We need visionary fiction writers to write stories that they may be afraid to tell. Challenging the status quo can be difficult and scary. Here, the writer becomes the hero, plowing through her own fears. Hopefully, she’ll grow with her fictional hero. She’ll claim the prize by resisting  groupthink that can steer her off the path  toward the light. Thankfully, she’s not alone on her journey. She has many allies whose pens are  light sabers battling the shadow forces from within her subconscious mind, so she can operate from the light.  From out of the shadows, she emerges a giver of light. The more heroes that carry the light, the brighter their effect on the world.

THE HERO PATH

We have not even to risk the adventure alone

for the heroes of all time have gone before us.

The labyrinth is thoroughly known …

we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.

And where we had thought to find an abomination

we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another

we shall slay ourselves.

Where we had thought to travel outwards

we shall come to the center of our own existence.

And where we had thought to be alone

we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell from “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”

HERO’S JOURNEY RESOURCES

If you are interested in digging deeper into Joseph Campbell, here are some resources to get you started:

The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell in an engaging interview with Bill Moyers

The Mythology of Star Wars – Bill Moyers interviews George Lucas

Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Writer’s Journey: Christopher Volger’s condensed template for following the Hero’s Journey.

Stages of Hero’s Journey –  Website with a detailed explanation of the 17 stages along with movie examples.


Eleni Papanou is an award-winning author and perpetual student of life.  Visit her website for news and updates

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19 Responses to The Hero’s Journey and its Connection to Visionary Fiction

  1. Such a rich and profound article, Eleni. I particularly liked where you say “Hopefully, she’ll grow with her fictional hero. She’ll claim the prize by resisting groupthink that can steer her off the path toward the light. Thankfully, she’s not alone on her journey. She has many allies whose pens are light sabers battling the shadow forces from within her subconscious mind,… ”

    We do indeed have to be brave enough to face our own darkness. As writers, we are in a unique position, as our subconscious material emerges on the page when we write and we can’t escape it. As VF authors, we have the added benefit, of dealing with such dark themes directly and with purpose because it is part of the genre to ‘grow consciousness.’

    I have had the experience of being stopped in my tracks in writing my second novel because I had to deal with a shadow piece of my own grief before I could write about it for my character. There is much material to chew on in your post, both as an author and in personal spiritual growth. thank you!

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful remarks, Jodine. I know we’ve both discussed how we had to take pause in our writings in order to deal with internal conflicts. I look at it as the opening of a present in that I learn something new about myself. Here’s to our continued journeys of knowledge and bliss!

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  2. Dana Taylor says:

    Really good piece. As the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword.

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  3. Jim Murdoch says:

    “pens are light sabers”. Well said. Writers have always been an unstoppable force for change. Stories and philosophies have shaped history. Today we visionary writers wield a powerful weapon. Our stories may entertain but they also present new realities and new possibilities to the reader. I do not fear current political and economic upheaval. That is going to happen. I rather look forward to the new way of life where we are more self-determined, free and helping one another. Mankind and Earth are going through their own hero’s journey and are now crossing the threshold to mastery and freedom. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Victor Smith says:

      Love your optimism, Jim. Keep it going. We need some of that–and some real heroes–in the USA at the moment.

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    • Eleni Papanou says:

      Yes! My sentiments exactly. I love how you included Earth in the journey. That’s a beautiful sentiment, and I think there’s also great truth to it because the Earth is alive and carries all the experiences of humanity. Did you ever hear of Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance? He talks about how morphic fields contain information about all the species of Earth. If his theory is correct, than I think the Earth plays even more of an important role in our evolution in that it acts like a hard drive that contains all the instructions on how to make living things. Quite an incredible theory! Now on a smaller scale, let us hope we get through that threshold with minimum damage. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. The Hero’s Journey is a great staple for writers.

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  5. Thank you for this article. Campbell’s understanding is continually humbling. I often wonder what might happen if we begin the tale from a different point on the story arc. What if our heroines and heroes were fully initiated, awake and aware at the beginning of the story? Perhaps visionary fiction can assist in evolving the story of human consciousness to a new paradigm for the Aquarian age, and provide a mythology which doesn’t begin with dualistic assumptions of good and evil, self and other.

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    • Victor Smith says:

      Great “what if?” Gerald. I believe stories can start and end at various points on the wheel. In the novel I am now working on now I have an already-enlightened “soul group” considering the question: Where do we go from here? I don’t know where it’s going to go but it’s got me going–and the Hero’s Journey is a valid map.

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    • Eleni Papanou says:

      Excellent question, Gerald. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t necessarily have an order. If you see my analysis, there are two stages happening at the same time: Apotheosis and Atonement with the Father. That’s the visionary element of it in that the structure evolves with the writer!

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  6. Victor Smith says:

    Great post, Eleni. Joseph Campbell and his mentor, Carl Jung, are must-read-and-meditate for every VF author.
    Funny, got momentarily stuck on your quote: ‘When the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he becomes free of all fear, beyond the reach of change.” I was using the wrong definition of “envelopment.” Had to see it as the “covering ” of consciousness and then it made sense. BTW, those are not Campbell’s words. He quotes it from one of the sacred books of the East.

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    • Eleni Papanou says:

      I can see Jung’s influence in Campbell’s work. What a pair to study together. So much insight to glean from them. I found the source of the quote you mentioned, and it’s Buddhist Mahayana text. I’ve corrected it. Thanks!

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  7. I so loved the last paragraph of your post, Eleni, especially: “From out of the shadows, she emerges a giver of light. The more heroes that carry the light, the brighter their effect on the world.” Just sharing the title of my next novel, “Between Darkness and Dawn,” will clue you in that we’re on the same page.

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  8. drstephenw says:

    How nice to be reminded of Joseph Campbell’s powerful work. I think his work with Lucas took Star Wars from blockbuster to mythic status. And I love the 17 step chart! Thanks, Eleni!

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  9. Christopher Sly says:

    Great post Eleni. Twelve years ago I wrote a novel based on the Hero’s Journey template and opened each of the seventeen chapters with a excerpt from Campbell’s book. One way I approach the Hero’s Journey is as a solution story. My hero is not a person, it is a solution function that a person can choose to undertake in the service of “the people.” The Call to Adventure is the manifestation of the problem, challenging the protagonist to take on the hero role and Depart across the “threshold” of uncertainty to be Initiated by the solution process, and ultimately, Return with the solution for the benefit of the people.

    What I love about Campbell’s work is that he integrates the solution process with the spiritual transformation it triggers in the problem solver. My understanding of the cycle of conscious evolution is based on experience triggering epiphany, for example, how the experience of awakening might trigger the epiphany of enlightenment. I think this is at the heart of the Hero’s Journey in the stage of Apotheosis that you refer to. In my understanding, the phenomena of epiphany is a “quantum shift” from inside of a smaller false story, out into a larger “truer” story, that frees us from the control of our misperceptions (within limits), producing a euphoric rush of expanding consciousness, I think of this repeating cycle as moving outward through story space, and I have spent much of my life studying it.

    I was a member here a few years back. It still feels like home.

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    • Admin - Eleni says:

      Eloquently stated. The quantum shift you speak of is when we arrive at that transformation from the hero before the journey to what she becomes during the process of awakening. I suppose I see it as the shedding of all the labels that you describe as the false story. What’s left behind is the true authentic self. It’s within this becoming that I see the evolution of consciousness, and it is indeed a lifelong study! Thanks for your comment.

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      • Christopher Sly says:

        “I suppose I see it as the shedding of all the labels that you describe as the false story. What’s left behind is the true authentic self. It’s within this becoming that I see the evolution of consciousness, and it is indeed a lifelong study! ”

        This is my experience as well. What is frequently characterized as a search for the truth may be a process whose “ultimate boon” is the “shedding” of what is not true. On this journey, the Hero spirals deeper and deeper into the problem until she reaches her “authentic self,” from where the solution becomes visible, triggering the Return to share what was learned.

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