Lesson One: The Hero’s Journey
Storytelling is teaching. Anytime we hear a story, or read a story in a book, or watch a story unfold in a movie, we are being taught something we must figure out for ourselves. This basic understanding of storytelling has been lost in the modern world and often reduces storytelling to entertainment for children, or a primitive way of explaining natural phenomena or human behavior.
There is a type of story told by all cultures around the world in exactly the same way; for it gives the same basic human teaching. This mythic story is called the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is essentially a template for human transformation. It teaches that human transformation is a struggle and that one must be prepared for that struggle to succeed. The power of this story is such that almost all movies are based on its story structure.
The Hero’s Journey follows a distinct pattern and, again, is told in this pattern by cultures around the world. The following is the pattern as developed by Carol Pearson in the book, The Hero Within. The archetypes in this sequence are the same individual transforming during the journey; they are not different characters, but the single protagonist changing in the course of the story.
This is the first stage where the hero is an orphan; their parents or people have died or are gone. Or else they feel like an orphan; alone, unloved, or confused. Think of all the literature or movie characters who are orphans. Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Batman, Simba, the lion cub from The Lion King, and even Napoleon Dynamite. And because the orphan is alone and troubled, they ask big questions about their life: Why did my parents die? Why am I alone? Why am I always in trouble? What will I do with my life?
This next phase has the orphan looking for the answers to their big questions, but they don’t know where the answers are at. They know they can’t sit and wait for the answers to come to them, but they don’t know exactly where to go to find them. So they begin to wander, hoping they find the answers somewhere. They go to places they’ve never been before. Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts, a school he’s never heard of before; Simba runs away to the desert because he thinks it is his fault his father died; Dorothy goes to the Land of Oz; Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings, heads to Mount Doom, where he’s never been before, to destroy the ring; and Luke Skywalker gets on a spaceship and travels across the universe to help a princess fight a thing called the Evil Empire.
As the hero wanders, they meet people and befriend them; but this is more than just being a friend. This next step is where the hero learns to care more for other people than he cares for himself. He is now the caretaker. In literature and movies, we can see this change as when in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, and invites them to go with her; essentially creating a little family that protects and works for each other. In Star Wars, Luke befriends Princess Leia, Han Solo, and the Wookie, Chewbacca, and they, likewise, become a family and are willing to die for one another. And in the film Napoleon Dynamite the title character makes friends with Deb and Pedro.
The hero then fights a battle or enters a struggle. We usually associate the hero with this action, the battle, but as we can see the hero must prepare for that battle. The hero doesn’t just walk up and enter the fray; they have taken steps to be ready. The battle can be external or internal. For example, Harry Potter is fighting Lord Voldemort with magic wands on the outside, but on the inside, he has another struggle. If he uses dark magic, he can be more powerful than Voldemort. And Luke Skywalker knows if he turns to the Dark Side, he can be more powerful than Darth Vader while he battles to defeat Darth and the Evil Empire.
When the hero finally wins the battle, they are transformed into a new person. They then return to where they started, changed, and with two outcomes. One, they realized they knew the answers to the questions that started the whole journey all along, inside themselves; and two, they bring back a gift to their people. Some Native people have a problem with the term “magician” as it infers trickery. They suggest we use the term “shaman,” which suggests a personal power. In The Wizard of Oz, after she has destroyed the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy is told that the slippers she wore throughout the movie had the power to take her home, any time. When Dorothy asks why she wasn’t told this before, the answer was, “You would not have believed me.” She had to go through the journey to truly understand. Or Simba realizes he was meant to be exactly like his father and protect his lion pride and the pride lands.
There is another important character in the Hero’s journey who is not the hero. Somewhere in the story an Elder appears to teach and guide the hero. So in The Lord of the Rings, the elder was Gandalf; in Harry Potter it was Dumbledore; and in The Lion King, it was Rafiki, the baboon.
These are the basics of the Hero’s Journey.
Below are 6 questions to answer honestly with a friend, family member, counselor, or Elder. These questions will guide you to learn more about how the Hero’s Journey Story and can help you understand more about yourself in relation to others.
- Orphan: Can you identify a time in your life that you felt alone or misunderstood?
- Wanderer: Have you had a time in your life that you were searching for answers?
- Caretaker: Have you ever had one person that became important to you?
- Warrior: Have you ever been willing to fight for what you believe in?
- Magician/Shaman: Have you ever helped someone else with your knowledge or skills?
- Elders: Do you know any Elders who you respect?