Skip to main content

The Hero's Journey: An Eternal Tale of Trial and Transformation

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

Read on to learn more about what Joseph Campbell called "The Hero's Journey".

Read on to learn more about what Joseph Campbell called "The Hero's Journey".

What Is the Hero's Journey?

Folklore and mythology were the means by which ancient cultures provided insight into the human condition. One particular archetype that has resonated throughout the ages is that of the Hero's Journey, which at its heart, is a story about transformation through trial and tribulation.

Joseph Campbell, a literature professor at Sarah Lawrence College, wrote extensively about the Hero's Journey, most notably in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949). He revealed how mythical traditions throughout the world—whether it be those of India, Greece or Egypt—follow a similar structure when it comes to the hero myth.

The Hero Myth

The hero starts off in a place that is peaceful and remote, far removed from the great conflicts and events of the time.

Then, something happens that forces him or her to leave the familiar and face the unknown. A mentor figure usually appears to provide guidance.

At some point, the hero descends into what Joseph Campbell refers to as the "belly of the whale", to face their greatest test. A profound transformation, or "resurrection", occurs, and the hero returns to bestow boons on their fellow man.

Whether it be the ancient Greek hero Theseus, the noble King Arthur, or contemporary heroes like Luke Skywalker; the hero myth follows this same basic pattern (though not always to the letter). Perhaps ancient storytellers were using the Hero's Journey to illustrate something fundamental about human nature.

Here is an overview of the Hero's Journey, along with examples of how the various stages match up to ancient and contemporary hero myths.

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.

— Joseph Campbel, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Summary of the Hero's Journey

The First Phase: Separation

1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting With the Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold

The Second Phase: Initiation

6. Trials, Allies and Enemies
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
8. Supreme Ordeal
9. Reward

The Third Phase: Return

10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection
12. Return With the Elixir

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Moses flees into exile in the desert; a classic example of the "refusing the call" stage of the hero's journey. His encounter with the burning bush strengthens his resolve.

Moses flees into exile in the desert; a classic example of the "refusing the call" stage of the hero's journey. His encounter with the burning bush strengthens his resolve.

The First Phase: Separation

1. The Ordinary World

The hero begins in a setting that represents the ordinary world. It could be an idyllic location or a mundane one from which the hero longs to escape.

  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker on the remote desert planet of Tatooine.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo in the Shire.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus in the peaceful countryside village of Troezen.

The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society.

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

2. Call to Adventure

Something occurs that requires the hero to leave the "ordinary world", willingly or unwillingly, and enter the world of the unknown.

  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker comes into possession of two droids carrying an urgent message from a princess in need of rescue.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo Baggins comes into possession of the One Ring, an object of great evil that must be destroyed before its master can reclaim it.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus finds out that he is the son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and that his father left instructions to seek him out upon coming of age.

3. Refusal of the Call

In many hero myths, the hero initially refuses the call, either because they fear the unknown, or because they lack faith in their own abilities.

  • Star Wars Luke Skywalker refuses Obi-Wan's request to accompany him on a mission to rescue the princess; his excuse being that his uncle needs his help on the farm.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo offers the ring to others he believes more capable of destroying it, such as Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn. Eventually, he is forced to accept that he is the one chosen by fate to bear the ring.
  • The Exodus – Moses flees into exile in the desert. Not until he encounters the burning bush does he accept his destiny.

4. Meeting with the Mentor

An older, wiser figure arrives to guide the hero. The mentor is a prominent mythical archetype that represents the transfer of knowledge and responsibility from the old to the young.

  • Star Wars – Obi-Wan is the obvious mentor figure if you see Star Wars as a standalone film, but in the context of the trilogy as a whole, Yoda could be seen as the teacher who arrives to help Luke on his quest to become a Jedi.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Gandalf agrees to guide Frodo in his quest to destroy the ring.
  • King Arthur – After pulling the sword from the stone, Arthur encounters the wizard Merlin, who will be his chief advisor.

5. Crossing the Threshold

The hero commits to the trials ahead and takes their first step into the great unknown.

  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker, after finding out that imperial forces have murdered his uncle and aunt, sets out with Obi-Wan to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of the empire.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo and his friend Sam leave the Shire to prevent the ring from falling into the hands of Sauron's agents.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus leaves Troezen and seeks out his father in Athens. There, he learns that the city is being forced to send seven sons and seven daughters to Crete every nine years, where they are sacrificed to the monstrous minotaur that dwells in the labyrinth. He resolves to go as one of the sacrifices, in the hope he can slay the minotaur and free his people from the gruesome tribute. His father asks him to change the colour of the sails on his ship when he returns to Athens so that he will know his son has returned safely.
The Shire from "The Lord of the Rings"; the hero often begins their journey in a setting that represents a state of innocence.

The Shire from "The Lord of the Rings"; the hero often begins their journey in a setting that represents a state of innocence.

Ob-Wan Kenobi; a classic example of the mentor archetype.

Ob-Wan Kenobi; a classic example of the mentor archetype.

The Second Phase: Initiation

6. Trials, Allies and Enemies

The hero encounters friends who will help them along the way and foes who seek to hinder their progress. Their mettle is tested time and time again.

  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker encounters the smuggler Han Solo and his Wookie friend Chewbacca, who end up reluctantly joining the quest. He gets attacked by a ruffian in the Mos Eisley Cantina, and by stormtroopers as he departs Mos Eisley Spaceport with his companions. In the context of the trilogy as a whole, Luke's training with Yoda provides a series of trials and tests, including his experience in the cave.
  • The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring is formed to help Frodo on his quest. They encounter many dangers along the way, such as the monsters that inhabit the Mines of Moria. Frodo realises the ring is attempting to corrupt his companions and resolves to venture into Mordor alone, although Sam refuses to leave him. They encounter the creature Gollum, who will play a pivotal role in the destruction of the ring.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus and the other youths arrive at the court of King Minos in Crete. There, King Minos' daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and resolves to help him in his quest. The genius Daedelus, who designed the labyrinth, provides the key to escaping it; a ball of thread that Theseus must tie to the entrance.

7. Approaching the Innermost Cave

The innermost cave represents the point of utmost danger, where the hero will face their ultimate test. It doesn't have to be a literal cave; it could just be a place of darkness and despair.

  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker and his allies are captured and brought on board the Death Star. Alternatively, Luke Skywalker's arrival at Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back could be seen as "approaching the innermost cave"; the cave being his encounter with Darth Vader.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo and Sam follow Gollum to a secret entrance into Mordor, little knowing they are being led into a trap.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – With the help of Ariadne, Theseus enters the labyrinth and draws ever closer to the minotaur's lair.

8. The Supreme Ordeal

The hero arrives in what Joseph Campbell calls "the belly of the whale", in reference to the biblical tale of Jonah. This is their lowest point and the place of greatest danger. In many cases, the hero barely escapes with their life.

  • Star Wars – In the original film, the twisting hallways of the Death Star represent the belly of the beast. But if the entire trilogy were to be seen as a Hero's Journey, Luke Skywalker's near-death encounter with Darth Vader in the dark depths of Cloud City is his supreme ordeal.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo's encounter with the spider Shelob, which paralyses him with venom and is on the verge of feeding on him before Sam comes to the rescue.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus confronts the minotaur in the depths of a labyrinth littered with the bones of young Athenians.

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.

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

9. Reward, or Seizing the Sword

The hero emerges from the belly of the beast with a reward, which could take the form of treasure, knowledge or newfound resolve.

  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker rescues the princess and escapes the Death Star with his companions, including the droid carrying vital plans that could reveal a weakness in the battle station. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is rescued from Cloud City. He now possesses important knowledge about his heritage, which at first horrifies him, but will later be pivotal in defeating the emperor. He stands ready to face the trials ahead, including the mission to rescue Han Solo.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo is rescued by Sam, and together they find the strength to embark on the final leg of their quest. They reach Mount Doom, where Frodo, with the unwitting aid of Gollum, is able to destroy the ring.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus leaves Crete with Ariadne and the Athenian youths in tow, safe in the knowledge that he has freed his people from the shadow of the minotaur.
"The Belly of the Whale" refers to the tale of Jonah, who gets swallowed by a whale as he attempts to escape the mission given to him by the Lord.

"The Belly of the Whale" refers to the tale of Jonah, who gets swallowed by a whale as he attempts to escape the mission given to him by the Lord.

The Greek hero Perseus faces his ultimate ordeal in the lair of the Medusa. He "seizes the sword" in the form of Medusa's decapitated head.

The Greek hero Perseus faces his ultimate ordeal in the lair of the Medusa. He "seizes the sword" in the form of Medusa's decapitated head.

The Third Phase: Return

10. The Road Back

The hero begins the return journey. This doesn't have to be a literal return home; it could be a return to the world of the living after surviving their descent into the land of the dead (the ultimate ordeal). In some cases, the hero will have to deal with the consequences of their actions.

  • Star Wars – In the first film, Luke and his companions are pursued by tie fighters during their escape from the Death Star. They manage to reach the rebel base, where the plans for the Death Star are analysed and used to plan a daring attack on the battle station. In the third film of the trilogy, Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker returns to the world a wiser and more powerful Jedi-in-training, having learned much from his encounter with Vader and his time in exile.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo and Sam resign themselves to death as the mountain erupts around them. In an act of divine grace, they are rescued by the eagles and carried to safety.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus returns to Athens but forgets to change the sails as his father requested. King Aegeus, believing his son to be dead, takes his own life in despair. Theseus faces the consequences of his negligence.

11. Resurrection

This could be a literal return from the dead or a profound transformation of some kind.

  • Star Wars – In the first film, Luke reaches out with the Force during the assault on the Death Star. This is a transformational moment for the young pilot as he experiences the power of the Force firsthand. In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has the chance to slay Vader but refuses to give in to hate. He turns to face the emperor, and proclaims himself a Jedi, like his father before him.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo awakes to find that his companions, like himself, have survived against the odds. After bearing the burden of the ring through the land of the dead, he has now returned to the world of the living.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – With the death of his father, Theseus becomes king of Athens.

12. Return with the Elixir

The elixir represents the gift that the hero, having triumphed in their quest, is able to bestow on their people. This could be a gift of knowledge, peace or justice.

  • Star Wars – After redeeming his father and bringing about the death of the emperor, Luke Skywalker returns to his friends, ready to bring the light of the Jedi back to the galaxy.
  • The Lord of the Rings – Frodo and his companions return to the Shire, having ensured that peace will remain thanks to the destruction of the ring.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur – Theseus rules wisely as king of Athens.
Luke Skywalker emerges from his final duel with Darth Vader as a Jedi Knight.

Luke Skywalker emerges from his final duel with Darth Vader as a Jedi Knight.

Moses returns with "the elixir", in the form of the ten commandments.

Moses returns with "the elixir", in the form of the ten commandments.

The Lesson of the Hero's Journey

The hero myth is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, dating back to the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia.

Perhaps the reason it shows up in the same form in so many mythical traditions is that it speaks to the spiritual journey that many individuals must undergo.

Most people begin in a state of innocence (childhood), and face trials and tribulations as they grow older, with some help from mentors and friends along the way.

Furthermore, many can claim to have entered the belly of the whale and emerged transformed at some point in their life; if not several times.

So it's no surprise that the Hero's Journey continues to pervade contemporary storytelling, as it did the myths of the ancients.

“Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

References

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles