Last time we examined the first act of the story where Your Hero leaves the proverbial nest, steps into the realm of adventure, and gets their ass symbolically and/or literally handed to them. Now it’s time for the second part of the archetypal epic tale as Campbell outlines it, starting with…
The Road of Trials
This is the fun bit, because it’s the bit where The Hero has to do a bunch of cool stuff in their realm of supernatural adventure. It’s where your epic quests and grand deeds usually go, and before you get to the quests that mark the (often tragic) end of the story, you can just set Your Hero on some zany hijinks that prove their worth as A Hero and are generally entertaining. A common motif is doing impossible tasks—that aren’t impossible because your hero is The Hero—to fight for their love. Often this is your classic Boy Does a Thing and Wins the Princess tale, but Campbell brings up the gender-swapped example of Psyche and Cupid. Psyche wants to date Cupid, you see, but Cupid’s mother Venus (or Aphrodite, mother of Eros, in their Greek versions), is having none of this, and says “Sure, you can take my son to the ancient Roman equivalent of the drive-in movies, just do these totally achievable little tasks for me first.”
The tasks are impossible, but Psyche is aided by animals and other tricks of enchantment, because screw you, Venus, she’s the main character and you’re the overbearing, villainous obstacle of a parent in this story, and she has the personification of destiny on her side. Sometimes they have to straight-up defeat the parent, and sometimes the parent isn’t even the problem so much as the love interest’s personal taste. The Wooing of Emer from the Ulster Cycle, for instance, varies in the telling: sometimes it’s Emer’s father who sends the young suitor Cuchullain on his valiant quest to prove himself, hoping that the guy will either mature enough to be a suitable son-in-law or die in the process and stop bothering him; and sometimes it’s Emer herself who says “Impress me” and sends Cuchullain on his mission. And sometimes it’s Ramona Flowers’ seven evil exes showing up demanding that you beat them in mortal combat!
It’s not all about love, though—sometimes it’s about death, with a lot of these trials weaving into The Belly of the Whale segment and involving an epic journey to the underworld, from which the hero valiantly returns. There’s plenty more symbolic annihilation in this part of your story—“The original departure into the land of trials represents only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again, and again.” (p.109) So if we stick with the coming of age metaphor, Crossing the First Threshold is the Hero successfully stepping into adulthood, and The Road of Trials is realising that adulthood is bloody hard.
Meeting with the Goddess/Woman as Temptress
These are two separate chapters but I’m mushing them into one, since Woman as Temptress is very short and only has one or two examples of Biblical stories where women are sinful and saints are rewarded for not being bothered with them. Because, assuming your Hero is male (as many do), what’s more mystifying than a woman? The Meeting with the Goddess (combined with the theory of Woman as Temptress) kind of represents Your Hero’s first realisation that not all girls have cooties (or, if you’re Freud, that not all girls are Mum) and their first mature—not necessarily sexual, but mature—interaction with one, which can go horribly wrong if the Hero themselves isn’t grown-up enough. The Goddess archetype (she need not be a literal goddess, but being magical and otherworldly helps—think Galadriel for example, who is infinitely wiser, older, more beautiful and bizarre than anyone Frodo has ever come across in his ordinary life) is the guardian of greater knowledge or treasure, but only heroes with certain qualities can acquire this.
A pure heart is the most common example, seen in plenty of fairy tales and in the Irish myth Campbell uses to demonstrate: a group of brothers venture into the woods and end up nearly dying of thirst because they forgot to buy Gatorade on the way out. A rickety old crone appears and offers them water if only they’ll give her a kiss, and because these are self-respecting dudebros they say “ew, no way”… except for the youngest brother, who is compassionate and accepting, and kisses the old hag. She then transforms into a beautiful, magical woman, who declares that the youngest brother has the makings of a true king and bestows good luck on him. So the moral here is to be kind, and not to mess with mysterious women you find in the woods unless you’re willing to deal with being judged.
Heck, you could even consider the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or Magical Girlfriend trope, too) a modern, diluted equivalent of Meeting With the Goddess—the MPDG will be otherworldly and full of wisdom, or at least, once she flits out of the bewildered Hero’s life he will have learnt something about himself and grown as a person (given that the MPDG was most likely one of his first “mature” relationships, tying back into that idea). In another modern, but less benevolent, example, Miranda Priestly is very much the Goddess figure in the story of The Devil Wears Prada–guardian of knowledge, an awe-inspiring figure you simultaneously want to be your mum and want to run away from, and the protagonist’s eventual gateway to maturity via all the trials she puts her through. The Goddess is not so much Supernatural Aid as someone there to test the Hero, and only give them new knowledge or treasure if they impress them. If not, well, no kingdom for you, dudebros.
Now, there’s another chapter here called Apotheosis which talks about the archetype of duality and gender in creation myths, and frankly that’s a fascinating topic but a) I can’t really do it justice in a couple of paragraphs and with what little knowledge I have of it, and b) it has less to do with The Hero’s Journey as storywriting help. So we’re going to zoom ahead to The Ultimate Boon. The largest, most impressive, awesome prize you can imagine.
The Ultimate Boon
This is the Thing you want. The Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the elixir of life, the packet of obscure-flavoured candy that your local store doesn’t stock so you specifically drove across town and wrestled an old lady for in the aisle. Or it’s the Dress Up Keys from Go! Princess Precure or the infinity stones in the MCU, or a trophy in a sports story.
It can also be more abstract things the protagonist is trying to win, like acceptance into their dream university or casting in their dream stage role, but ideally it’s a Thing that you seek, get, and then bring back to your people (a Macguffin, in modern TV Tropes terms). Campbell also discusses the ultimate reward that is a paradise afterlife, a la Valhalla, Mount Olympus, or the kingdom where the Persian gods sip on drinks distilled from the Tree of Life itself, where a successful hero can chill for eternity.
If the Hero Gets the Thing, be it knowledge, power, or a cool sword, they’ll have to zoom back to their ordinary world in the next step, The Magic Flight. But often the point of the story is that they don’t acquire the Thing—or they do, and it doesn’t work out. See King Midas, who won a wish from the god Bacchus, and wished for everything he touched to turn to gold. Bacchus was like “I mean, I guess” and granted Midas this ability, which Midas was super happy about until he tried to eat, hug his loved ones, and presumably go to the bathroom… at which point he realised that there’s more to life than being obnoxiously rich. The same way Gilgamesh (original Gilgamesh, not douchebag in a jacket Gilgamesh) went on an epic quest through and out the other side of the underworld to pick a plant that would grant him immortality, only to have it be eaten by a snake. Ultimate frustration! Failure! Loss!
Gilgamesh didn’t get to live forever, but, through his trials he did learn to appreciate the time he did have left and became a wiser, less impulsive king. Again, through good ol’ self-annihilation, the Hero is taken apart and put together in a new enlightened form, gaining the even more ultimate boon of knowledge and self-actualisation.
Unless, of course, Your Hero is already wonderful, as in the tale of the Prince of the Lonesome Island, in which case the travelling prince can quite easily pick up the magic treasure he came to get and head out the door. “Where the usual hero would face a test, the elect encounters no delaying obstacle and makes no mistake” (p.173) which ties back into that whole idea of destiny personified, supernatural aid, and some people just inherently being better than each other because of reasons. This, generally, makes a less exciting story, so more commonly modern adventures will throw as many obstacles and failures at the Hero as their writers think is reasonable, because a hero who wanders in, picks up the Holy Grail with no problem, then wanders out, is not super exciting to watch even if it does show us they’re pure of heart.
And so, whether you got the boon or not this brings us to the end of the “Initiation” period—now it’s time to head home, returning to the ordinary world with all your magical adult knowledge and possibly a hot princess! Stay tuned!