Why Do We Travel? Understanding The Concept Of The Hero's Journey
“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. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.” ~ Joseph Campbell
One fine day you might wake up and have the thought suddenly hit you like a sledgehammer; there has to be more to life than this…. drudgery.
And indeed there is.
This revelation, this sudden awakening is your call to adventure. The universe has intervened in your life and has given you an invitation to take the red pill, to take a journey into the unknown and discover what lies beyond the confines of the limiting reality that you’ve grown accustomed to.
Do you heed the call, leave the known familiar world behind and begin the quest of the hero’s journey? Or do you ignore the call, choose the blue pill and continue living as before, dismissing the odyssey as a fool’s errand?
After all, there are risks. Going away means that you might be severing ties and burning bridges. When your journey finally comes to an end, will you return penniless, jobless, homeless and a stranger to your own country?
But this powerful impulse, this irresistible desire to seek out new lands, people and experiences has a wisdom of its own. It is seemingly embedded within our DNA.
In fact, people have been taking perilous journeys into the unknown since the dawn of time.
In many groups of indigenous people for example, young adolescents will undertake a solo journey into the wilderness, where they will have to survive for several weeks or months and fend for themselves.
Australian aborigines call this journey the walkabout. Native American people call it the vision quest and the vision quest also involves having a vision (usually of an animal spirit), which tells the young adolescent their role as a future adult in the community.
Then there are the countless ancient myths, traditional lore, religious stories, popular video games and highly compelling films that are based on this narrative of taking a journey into the unknown.
For example, we see the narrative played out in numerous Greek myths, such as the Odyssey and The Iliad and in religious stories where the central figure like Jesus or Prince Siddhartha (future Buddha) plays the role of the journeyer.
We even see it in countless Hollywood blockbuster films like Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Indiana Jones, The Lion King, Harry Potter and the Wizard of Oz and even in best-selling video games like the Final Fantasy series, The Legend of Zelda and Pokemon.
But why is this theme so ubiquitous and why do we do it in the first place? Why do we travel into the unknown? To find the answers to those questions, we’ll have to turn to the work of a man named Joseph Campbell.
Back in the 50’s, Campbell was studying comparative mythology, or, in layman’s terms, he was specifically looking for similarities between the ancient myths and stories from every conceivable culture on the planet.
What Campbell discovered was truly extraordinary.
Even though the myths and stories originated from such a wide range of different cultures and people, he found that this same basic theme of taking a journey into the unknown was running through all of them.
The faces and the particulars would change from story to story, but the same underlying structure could be identified in all the stories. Borrowing a term from James Joyce, he termed this one universal story pattern the monomyth or hero’s journey.
Now this is obviously a very important concept to pay attention to, seen as it’s found to be the core underlying structure of virtually every important story and myth of antiquity.
In fact, the reason this same narrative is found throughout all of these ancient myths and stories is because the act of taking a journey into the unknown is a fundamental part of the human experience. The myths and stories are told to prepare us for our own hero’s journey, by clearly laying out the paths of others that have gone before us.
Having analyzed so many stories and myths, Campbell was able to identify the repeating patterns and create a very useful model, or blueprint for the various stages of the hero’s journey. This conceptual framework appears in his 1949 book, ‘’The Hero with a thousand faces.’
His model really helps to break down the various stages of the process of and can give us a powerful insight into our own personal journey. It can help us to understand the bigger picture in our own lives; what stage of our own hero’s journey we’re currently at and what lies ahead of us, giving us a sense of control over our destiny.
In the original model, which is quite elaborate, Campbell breaks down the hero's journey into 17 stages. Christopher Vogler later refined this model and details a more abbreviated version of it in his book ‘’The Writer’s Journey.’’
In truth, there are several slightly differing interpretations of the hero's journey narrative but for the sake of brevity and to just gain a basic understanding of the model, we will take a look at the abbreviated version by Vogler.
So, according to Vogler’s model the hero’s journey can be summarized by three main stages:
1. Separation: The character leaves the known and familiar world behind
2. Initiation: The character undergoes trials, overcomes obstacles and learns to navigate the new world, which all culminates in the central ordeal, where the character must pass the ultimate test
3. Return: The character seizes the reward and returns as a hero to the familiar world to bestow the boon upon his community
The diagram above helps to summarize the different stages of the hero's journey but we’ll discuss these stages below in greater depth to give a deeper insight into the process.
Before that, let’s briefly talk about archetypes and their role in the story.
The eight hero's journey archetypes
Within the hero's journey narrative, there is a repeating cast of character roles in every story. These are called archetypes and we can distinguish eight main archetypes in every story that uses the formula.
These archetypes are found in the vast majority of the myths and stories that Campbell studied; the same roles played by different names and faces in each story. Note that the same character might often play more than one role or archetype.
The eight archetypes are:
1. The hero – Self-explanatory, the person undertaking the journey and the central character in the story. Example: Frodo from Lord of the Rings or Neo from the Matrix.
2. The herald – The herald is the catalyst for change in the hero’s life and usually appears near the beginning of the story to deliver an important message or piece of news that will compel the hero embark upon a journey. Example: Effie from the Hunger Games
3. The mentor – Usually appears just before or after the hero enters the new world and is crucial in helping the hero to quickly adjust to the new circumstances. The mentor usually vanishes from the story once they are no longer needed. Example: Morpheus from the Matrix or Dumbledore from Harry Potter.
4. The threshold guardian – This character can appear at any transitional stage of the journey, but often appears when the hero crosses the first threshold into the unknown. Their role is to try to discourage the hero and make the hero abandon the quest. The hero must find a way to overcome this initial barrier to prove they are worthy of the completing the greater quest. The hero’s own doubts or fears can also play the role of the threshold guardian. Example – The agents in the Matrix or The Doorknob from Alice in Wonderland
5. The ally – Appears to assist the hero in the daunting quest that lies ahead and without the ally, the journey would probably be impossible. The hero may have to earn the ally’s loyalty and respect over time. Example: Robin from Batman or Sam from Lord of the Rings.
6. The trickster – Brings some comic relief to the story but also challenges the status quo, raising important questions and helping the hero to see things from a different perspective. Example: Dobby from Harry Potter or Merry and Pippin from LOTR.
7. The shapeshifter – Plays an unpredictable or ambiguous character, wavering back and forth between the roles of ally and enemy. Often begins as an ally but then betrays the hero at a critical part of the story. Example: Catwoman from Batman or Gollum from LOTR.
8. The shadow – Usually the villain of the story or the main threat to the hero’s quest. It can also be an internal force that the hero must struggle against like the hero’s dark side trying to win over. The hero must defeat the shadow in order to fulfill the quest. Example: Sauron from LOTR or Voldemort from Harry Potter
Alright, let’s now take a look at the stages of the hero’s journey in a bit more detail.
Stage 1: Separation
The call to adventure: The hero's journey begins in the ordinary, mundane world of the character. The first important event is the call to adventure. Some issue suddenly arises that compels or invites the character to embark upon a journey.
The trigger may be a wizard turning up with 12 dwarves (The Hobbit), a letter from Hogwarts (Harry Potter), a message on a computer screen (The Matrix) or just a sudden revelation that life has become meaningless.
The refusal of the call: Once the call to adventure is heard, the character may initially reject the call. This may happen because of a sense of duty to society or equally, the fear of embarking upon a daunting journey into the unknown.
Meeting with the mentor: Because the journey ahead will be daunting and challenging, the character must receive some kind of assistance or guidance fromthe mentor. The mentor here may be the same character that played the role of the herald.
Crossing the threshold: Before the journey can begin in earnest, the character must take the first step into the unknown world, leaving the known world behind. Often the character must first defeat or bypass the threshold guardian, whose function is to turn the character back to the known world.
Stage 2: Initiation
Test, allies, enemies: The character starts out upon the journey and begins to encounter various trials and obstacles.New rules must be learned. The character meets allies, who assist the character with overcoming the new challenges, but also enemies, that only want to exploit the character or hamper the quest.
Archetypes like the shapeshifter and the trickster may also enter the story here, playing a key role in helping the plot to unravel.
The trials and obstacles that are overcome help the character to become more adjusted to the new world and will prepare the character for the central ordeal that lies ahead.
Approach: Soon comes the approach, which is the lead up to the central ordeal and may involve great mental and physical preparation.
Central ordeal:The central ordeal is the midpoint of the quest and everything up to this point has been preparing the character for this final struggle or central conflict.
It usually involves an ultimate battle or struggle against the villain or shadow of the story, which is often the hero’s greatest fear. The villain might also be an internal enemy as opposed to an external one. Surmounting this obstacle demands great courage and the hero often risks his life to complete the quest.
Seizing the reward: After passing the ultimate test, the hero is free to claim the reward or the ultimate boon. Indeed this was the very reason for embarking upon the journey in the first place.
The reward might be a great hoard of treasure, the elixir of life, the holy grail or something more abstract like the vanquishing of evil from the world or the ending of a war.
There may be a moment for celebration but this is usually short-lived, as danger and even more challenges still lie ahead.
Stage 3: Return
The road back: The hero has now completed the quest but returning is not necessarily going to be easy.
The hero may have to first escape with the reward or treasure in a dramatic pursuit if it was stolen from its guardian and not gifted willingly to the hero. Sometimes, due to sheer fatigue and exhaustion from the harrowing journey, the hero may require external assistance and may need to be rescued from without.
Even if returning is physically possible, the hero may experience reluctance to go back. He has become habituated to the new world, forged new alliances and strong connections here and the old world may now feel alien and unfamiliar.
Resurrection: The hero will often be tested one final time upon reaching the threshold of reaching home and is thrust into another climactic ordeal, just when it seemed to be all over.
If the hero can pass this final test, he undergoes a transformation, in which he experiences a symbolic (or often literal) death, to then be resurrected as a new individual. The Phoenix rises from the ashes. The hero is now purified and ready to rejoin his community.
Return with the elixir: The hero now returns with the elixir to bestow the reward upon his community or people. This is also known as the sharing of the gift.
He may not literally bring a huge hoard of treasure, but may instead bring renewed hope to the people he left behind, a new perspective, new wisdom that can be integrated into the community or perhaps a solution to a problem that before proved intractable.
He is back where he started but he now sees things differently, people see him differently and one thing is for sure; coming back is not the same as never leaving.
The hero is now a changed person and has become the master of two worlds. Mastering the new world has allowed the hero to transform the old world for the better, because the lessons learned in the new world are still applicable in the old.
Applying the model to your own journey
So maybe at this point you’re still wondering how this model of the hero’s journey narrative can be applied to your own personal travel journey. Well, supposing you’re in the midst of your journey right now, just ask yourself these questions:
Did you experience an inciting call to adventure? Did you initially refuse the call? Did you receive guidance from a mentor near the beginning of your journey, whether that mentor was a guidebook, online travel guide or real person?
Did someone try to dissuade you from beginning your journey (threshold guardian)? During your time on the road, did you face and have to overcome any new challenges or obstacles?
Maybe you can also assign archetypes to some of the people you met along your journey. Did you encounter allies, enemies, tricksters or shapeshifters?
Maybe now you are beginning to see just how useful this model is for understanding the process we all go through whenever we take a journey into the unknown. Campbell may have derived the model from studying ancient stories and myths but those stories and myths were based on people’s real-life experiences.
Answering the ultimate question: why do we travel?
Campbell’s model would suggest that we do it for the ultimate reward. There’s clearly some worthwhile outcome to be gained by setting out on an adventure around the world, overcoming all of the obstacles that lie before us and ultimately completing our quest.
Maybe we won’t literally find a pot of gold, a holy grail or a horde of treasure. But there is the alluring possibility of personal evolution and transformation. There is the chance that we may shed our old selves in the process and be reborn again, as a new and hopefully better person.
But as the model points out, the journey is not necessarily undertaken for selfish reasons like personal growth or because we covet some treasure trove or magic elixir, even though those rewards may be incidental.
We may always realize it, but the hero’s journey is something we also undertake for our people; for our families and communities. When we return we ultimately bestow the fruits of our quest upon others and we share the gifts of our journey, whether that be great riches, new wisdom, an inspiring story or the resolution of a conflict.
It is therefore not just our own life that is transformed by the journey, but the lives of all our people and community members too. We must first transform ourselves before we can help to transform the lives of others.
It is called the hero’s journey after all.
Did this article help you to understand the power of travel to bring about personal transformation and change in the world? What stage of YOUR hero's journey are you at right now? Let us know in the comment section below!
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Our names are Eoghan and Jili and we hail from Ireland and India respectively.
We are two ardent shoestring budget adventure travellers and have been travelling throughout Asia continuously for the past few years.
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