The Hero’s Journey

By Rebecca Ray

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What is the Hero's Journey?

Related to both plot diagram and types of literary conflict, the ”Hero’s Journey” is a recurring pattern of stages many heroes undergo over the course of their stories. Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, writer, and lecturer, articulated this cycle after researching and reviewing numerous myths and stories from a variety of time periods and regions of the world. He found that they all share fundamental principles. This spawned the Hero’s Journey, also known as the Monomyth, archetype. The most basic version has 12 steps, while more detailed versions can have up to 17 steps.

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Structure of the Monomyth

Part One - Call to Adventure

During the exposition, the hero is in the ordinary world, usually the hero’s home or natural habitat. Conflict arises, which calls the hero to adventure, where they are beckoned to leave their ordinary world in search of something. They may refuse the call at first, but eventually leave, knowing that something important hangs in the balance.

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Part Two - Supreme Ordeal or Initiation

Once the hero has officially begun their journey, they will meet a mentor or helper (a sidekick in some genres) and together these two will cross the threshold. This is the point where turning back is not an option, and where they usually encounter tests, allies and enemies. Obstacles like tests and enemies must be overcome it in order to continue. Helpers, aid in their journey.

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Part Three - Unification or Transformation

Having overcome initial obstacles, the hero and their allies reach the approach. Here they will prepare for the major challenge in this new or special world. During the approach, the hero undergoes an ordeal, testing them to point near death. Their greatest fear is sometimes exposed, and from the ordeal comes a new life or revival for the hero. For their efforts in overcoming the ordeal, the hero reaches the reward. The hero receives the reward for facing death. There may be a celebration, but there is also danger of losing the reward.

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Part Four - Road Back or Hero's Return

Once the reward is won, the hero and companions start on the road back. The hero wants to complete the adventure and return to their ordinary world with their treasure. This stage is often referred to as either the resurrections or atonement. As they reach the threshold (returning from the unknown to their ordinary world), the reader arrives at the climax of the story. Here, the hero is severely tested one last time. This test is an attempt to undo their previous achievements. At this point, the hero has come full circle, and the major conflict at the beginning of the journey is finally resolved. In the return home, the hero has now resumed life in his/her original world, and things are restored to ordinary.

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Popular Hero's Journey Examples

Homer's Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey (Note: this is one interpretation of the Heroic Journey from the abridged ninth grade version of the Odyssey. The original story is not linear, beginning in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things”).

Ordinary World King Odysseus is at home in Ithaca, with his wife, Penelope, and newborn son, Telemachus.
Call to Adventure Odysseus sets out for the war in Troy.
Refusal He does not want to leave his family and sail to Troy; he knows it will be a long trip.
Mentor / Helper Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, crafts, and battle is Odysseus' guide. She wants to help Odysseus, though she has been instructed not to. She takes pity on him while other gods forsake Odysseus, constantly saves him from death, and gives him guidance.
Cross the Threshold After the war, the gods become angry with the Greeks for their prideful ways. A great storm emerges and throws them off course.
Test / Allies / Enemies Odysseus is thwarted with many tests as he travels back to Ithaca:
  • Polyphemus
  • Circones
  • Lotus Eaters
  • Lastrygonians
  • Sirens
  • Scylla & Charybdis
  • Cattle of the Sun God
Approach Odysseus nearly makes it home, but his crew opens a bag that had been given to Odysseus by Aeolus, god of the winds. When the bag is opened, it releases a wind that blows them far away from Ithaca.
Ordeal Odysseus is sent to the underworld seeking information to guide him home. This quest brings him to the verge of death.
Reward The King of Phaeacia gives Odysseus passage home.
Road Back Unlike other heroes, Odysseus was not in search of treasure. Instead, he was desperately trying to reach his home. Once he returns, he finds out that his house has been overrun with suitors trying to steal his wife and palace.
Atonement Instead of rushing in and killing the suitors, Odysseus is patient. He wishes to learn if his wife has been faithful. With the help of his son and a loyal swineherd, he devises a plan. Athena disguises him as an old beggar so that he can enter his house undetected. Telemachus steals all the suitors’ weapons, and a final test is proposed. Penelope will marry the man who strings Odysseus' bow and shoots an arrow through a line of small circles; a seemingly impossible task.
Return Odysseus, still dressed as a beggar, completes the task and is restored to his original state. He and his son expel the suitors from their home by force. Penelope, seeing how Odysseus has changed, tests him to make sure it is actually him. She tells him she moved their bed. He replies, correctly, that this would have been impossible, and all is returned to normal.

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To Kill a Mockingbird Heroic Journey

Here is one interpretation of the Finches' Heroic Journey in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ordinary World Sleepy Maycomb Alabama, 1930s
Call to Adventure Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape.
Refusal He realizes the attention that this case will bring, and that it will expose his family to the cruelty of society. The psychological journey of Atticus and his family begins as they battle morals vs. prejudice in the South.
Mentor / Helper Calpurnia is often Atticus’ helper. She is his black cook and disciplinarian for the children. She acts as the passage for the Finches into the black community. The Mentor of the novel is Miss Maudie, who, like Atticus, believes in Justice and becomes friends with the children.
Crossing the Threshold As the trial begins, hostility towards the Finches grows. Although Atticus knows what the verdict will be, he promises to do everything he can for Tom.
Test / Allies / Enemies Many of the townspeople become enemies during the trial. They allow their racism to cloud their judgment and morality:
  • Bob Ewell
  • Walter Cunningham Sr.
  • Walter Cunningham Jr.
  • The white community
Approach The trial ends with a guilty verdict, but Scout's journey has not ended. She still faces hardships brought on by her father’s involvement in the trial.
Ordeal Sometime after the trial, Scout and Jem are walking home. Bob Ewell attacks them. Boo Radley, who is agoraphobic, leaves his home to save the children and kills Ewell in a fight.
Reward Scout and Jem’s lives are spared.
Road Back Scout gains a moral education, their lives are saved, and her faith in the goodness of humanity is somewhat restored by Boo, who risked his life for them.
Atonement The Sheriff rules Ewell’s death accidental, saying that he fell on his own knife. “Let the dead bury the dead.”
Return The Sheriff’s decision not to convict Boo restores Scout and Jem’s faith in justice and humanity. While Atticus does not think this is right at first, Scout explains to him that sending Boo to jail would be like killing a mockingbird. These words prove Scout has learned a valuable lesson, and has come full circle in her journey.

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Classroom Applications and Uses

Example Exercises

Customize the level of detail and number of cells required for projects based on available class time and resources.

Common Core

Hero's Journey Storyboard Rubric

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Prefer a different language?

•   (English) The Hero's Journey   •   (Español) El Viaje del Héroe   •   (Français) Le Voyage du Héros   •   (Deutsch) Die Reise des Helden   •   (Italiana) Viaggio Dell'eroe   •   (Nederlands) The Hero's Journey   •   (Português) A Jornada do Herói   •   (עברית) הגיבור של מסע   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) رحلة للبطل   •   (हिन्दी) हीरो की यात्रा   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Путешествие Героя   •   (Dansk) Heltens Rejse   •   (Svenska) Hjältens Journey   •   (Suomi) Sankarin Journey   •   (Norsk) Heltens Reise   •   (Türkçe) Kahramanın Yolculuğu   •   (Polski) Podróż Bohaterów   •   (Româna) Calatoria Eroului   •   (Ceština) The Hero Cesta   •   (Slovenský) Cesta Hrdinov   •   (Magyar) A hős Útja   •   (Hrvatski) Herojsko Putovanje   •   (български) Пътуването на Героя   •   (Lietuvos) Herojus Kelionė   •   (Slovenščina) Junak je Journey   •   (Latvijas) Varoņu Journey   •   (eesti) Hero Journey