The Hero’s Journey and popular culture

The Hero’s Journey and popular culture

Since the Hero’s Journey is so powerful, ubiquitous and influential, I will lay out its basic pattern this week, along with an example from popular culture.  At some later date, depending on the evolution of my activities and thoughts for this blog, I will discuss the relevance of heroic tales for the world of business and marketing.

As we noted last time, the Hero’s Journey follows a pattern that is elegant and simple, through four phases: separation, descent, initiation, and return.  In the separation phase, the hero is pulled from his ordinary world by a call to adventure.  Often, the hero is comfortable in the “ordinary world”, but at the same time uneasy, as if he does not completely “fit” there in some way.  His world is familiar and easy, but something is missing in the hero’s life, whether or not he can define it.  When the call to adventure comes, there are moments of hesitation.   Often, the hero ignores or even refuses the call.  In the end, though, frequently at the urging of a wise elder, the hero does decide to answer the call, and the journey away from the familiar begins.

In the second phase, the hero plunges into the underworld, the darkness, the netherworld, or the “belly of the whale”.  As with this entire journey, the concept of descent should not be taken literally.  The hero’s most important journey is often symbolic, with the belly of the whale representing an internal or psychic struggle.  However, in some form, the hero leaves his ordinary world behind and “descends” into a special world that is unfamiliar and challenging.  In this special world, the hero faces a series of trials, discovering friends and enemies along the route.  He is often aided by courageous allies, by an astute mentor, and even by unknown or supernatural forces.

At some point, the hero passes through the third phase, which is some type of initiation that will transform him in a profound and lasting manner.  He will enter the “innermost cave” and encounter his supreme ordeal.  Either in a real and physical way, or in symbolic sense, the hero “seizes the sword”, summoning all his courage and inner strength to win the ultimate victory.

The fourth phase is the return to the ordinary world, a journey home that may be fraught with its own perils and adventures.  In the end, the hero does return, completing the mythical cycle, but he returns transformed, often with new wisdom, or with an “elixir” that changes his life and the lives of those around him.

In many cases, the end of the story mirrors the beginning, except that the adventure, the journey to the special world, has changed the hero forever.  While the hero may return to a situation that resembles his former life in the ordinary world, his existence now has new meaning.  The wisdom, the understanding and the skills acquired on the journey allow him to perform acts of skill and bravery that would have frightened him in times past.  Upon return the hero and his followers are able to do things they could never have imagined before their adventure.  As Campbell says, the hero has now become master of two worlds.

While the discussion above may seem theoretical or mythological, the Hero’s Journey is part of our everyday lives and popular stories, more than we realize.  For proof, we need look no further than popular novels and movies such as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.

A rapid examination of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Tolkien’s novels or Peter Jackson’s films) reveals a story that follows the classic Hero structure and portrays archetypal characters.  At the outset, Frodo Baggins lives in the ordinary world of the Shire.  When a ring given to him by his uncle Bilbo turns out to be the One Ring of Power, the wizard Gandalf urges Frodo to take the ring from the Shire in order to prevent the allies of the evil lord Sauron from finding it (call to adventure, separation).

Frodo tries to refuse the call, claiming that he does not want an adventure, and is subsequently convinced by the wise mentor Gandalf that his mission must be done.  Frodo finds allies (his hobbit friends and Strider) and enemies (the Nazgul, the Orcs, and the allies of Sauroman) on his road to Rivendell, where he again is called to adventure.  For Frodo, the belly of the whale, his descent into the netherworld, is the journey to Mordor.   Along the way, he again faces numerous challenges and tests, finds allies, and confronts enemies.  He faces the ultimate ordeal, the innermost cave, at Mount Doom (his initiation), destroys the ring (the equivalent of seizing the sword), and then returns to the Shire, transformed by his experience.  His life, and those of his fellow journeymen, is transformed forever, as he has become the master of both the ordinary world and the special world of adventure.

As someone who has studied storytelling and leadership for many years now, I have found that the Hero’s Journey applies not only to fiction.   The hero pattern, along with other archetypal characters and behaviors, is present in all aspects of life, including our organizations and businesses.  But, all that is a subject for this blog on another day!


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