I realise that last time I totally forgot about the Atonement with the Father chapter, for which I apologise. But, well, the title is fairly self-explanatory—there’s a father figure, there’s some conflict, be it low-key emotional like him not supporting your dream to be an inventor, or something more epic like getting mad about that time you drove his sun god chariot and set everything on fire. You resolve it somehow. Freud is probably there.
The Magic Flight
So you have The Ultimate Boon, and it’s time to come home. If Your Hero was destined for greatness and their quest was supported by, say, the gods, their journey home to renew and help the ordinary world will be smooth and wonderful. A neat example of this is Disney’s Moana—once Moana has restored the heart of Te Fiti and thus restored balance and life to the sea, Te Fiti rewards her by magic-ing her a new boat and sending her on her way. (As well as drawing heavily from mythology, Moana is very cool in that she has quite a traditional heroic arc, in that she is a warrior king who crosses into the world of the supernatural, has all sorts of adventures with monsters and trickster gods, then returns to her people wiser and stronger to govern them—which is also a traditionally male heroic arc, but I’m already writing a whole post gushing about how nifty it is that that’s been gender-flipped, so for now I digress).
However… if Your Hero wasn’t assisted by the gods and, say, snuck in and stole something from them instead, the gods are going to be none too pleased and your journey home will largely take the form of a chase scene. Sometimes this goes well—Campbell uses the example of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, which starts going really well for them when the enchantress Medea sees Jason and is like “boy, hot damn”. As well as being his Supernatural Aid along his Road of Impossible Trials, Medea helps Jason and his crew escape by murdering her own brother and scattering his remains in the ocean behind their ship. The keepers of the Fleece who were pursuing them had no choice but to gather him up and give him a proper burial, which gave the Argo plenty of time to whizz off back towards home. The whole “throw things behind you to trip up your opponent” motif is a common one in folk tales.
Sometimes this doesn’t go as well, as in another example in the book, where Welsh hero Gwion Bach ends his glorious epic shape-shifting chase scene by being eaten by a chicken.
Rescue From Without
“The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him.” (p.207) Sometimes Your Hero needs a bit of help before they can start the journey home. Their Supernatural Aid will once again kick in to do what the Hero cannot, and cart their butt safely home, or at least, start them on their way. Sometimes this is literal—Innana, who journeys to the Underworld and ends up turned into a corpse, was smart enough to leave her messengers with a “if I’m not back by this time, come and get me” note, and they rally the sympathetic gods to come transform and rescue her. Sometimes it’s emotional, to use Moana as my own example again—all seems lost, but she’s pulled out of her slump and set on the path to save the day by the Supernatural Aid of her grandmother’s ghost.
It’s yet another return from the dead, because Campbell’s heroes just do not die if they are killed. In the Three Act Structure, this would make a nice recovery from the low point that tends to mark the end of your second act—that one part where Everything is The Worst. But then the Hero is crowbarred out of their impossible situation and given a fresh burst of hope by outside forces, and the action-packed third act where all is confronted and resolved can begin. In a sports story, for instance, it could be a significant pep talk when it looks like the good guys can never win, or… you know what, as ridiculous as it feels one of the best examples I can think of is Shrek 2 where the good guys are broken out of prison by Pinocchio, who is wearing ladies’ underwear at the time. But it’s help from outside at the moment where it looks like all is lost, and leads into an epic climactic scene where the day is saved, and “I Need a Hero”’s most iconic cover is playing in the background, so into the post it goes.
Refusal of the Return/Crossing of the Return Threshold
I’ve combined these two chapters into one again, since for my purposes they seem to embody the same theme: sometimes your adventure changes you so much that going home simply isn’t an option. “Crossing the Return Threshold” lists some magic, literal examples of this, like Oisin of the Fenian Cycle of Irish myth—he marries the princess of the Land of Youth, and after what he thinks has been three years says “hey, I should probably go back and visit my homies”. His wife says “oh hon, it’s been three hundred years so everything will be a mess”, but Oisin goes anyway. He finds that Ireland and its people have changed so much he can barely recognise it, and he no longer has a place there, and to add insult to injury he turns into a blind old man the instant he sets foot on the ground.
A similar tale is that of King Muchukunda, who, long story short, takes a cosmic nap and then finds when he wakes up that he can’t re-integrate with society. So, his place among mortal men lost, he lives as a hermit in the mountains. Campbell says plenty of heroes “have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being”, whether because the world has changed too much for them in the time they’ve been away, or because the hero themself has changed too much over the course of their adventure and what was once their ordinary world no longer fits them, leaving them in the lurch either way.
At the end of Neverwhere, for instance, Richard returns to ordinary life in London Above, but finds he can’t click back into it and voluntarily descends back into the monstrous supernatural realm of London Below. Frodo has been significantly messed up by his quest carrying the One Ring that he leaves with the elves at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and in a less tear-inducing example from the same author, Bilbo returns to The Shire at the end of The Hobbit to find that all his neighbours are attempting to sell his stuff to each other and none of them believe he’s who he says he is.
Frankly, fair enough—this isn’t addressed super often, but I feel like it’s an important thing to consider that with everything a Hero has gone through (including multiple deaths and rebirths, symbolic or otherwise) simply returning home to their everyday life just won’t be the same. Your Hero will see things differently, and their peers will see the Hero differently—they’ve lost all sense of what they once knew as “normal life” simply by having experienced what they have.
Which feeds nicely into…
Master of Two Worlds
“The disciple has been blessed with a vision transcending the scope of normal human destiny, and amounting to a glimpse of the essential nature of the cosmos.” (p. 234) As that quote implies, this chapter mostly discusses religious stories where the Hero gains some sort of cosmic ascension that allows them to have one foot symbolically in each world—the ordinary and the supernatural—at once. Narnia is still there at the back of the wardrobe, and indeed the kids will return to it in later books, but as they are at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, they’re basically immortal beings with a lifetime of knowledge crammed into the bodies of average children. They’re planted back in the world of the mundane, but they’ve lived as royalty in a magic kingdom and the proverbial and literal door to that kingdom is always open to them. Would this kind of thing mess you up? Probably. Again, that’s the kind of thing that Crossing the Return Threshold looks into.
Madoka and Homura at the end of Madoka Magica (the series, not the hellfire that is Rebellion) are kind of two different versions of this same step, as I understand it: Madoka has literally ascended and become a cosmic force, and Homura is a Hero who carries the burden/gift of this cosmic knowledge—she’s living her ordinary life while remembering everything magical that’s happened in the past, leaving her with one foot in reality and one foot in the supernatural.
Freedom to Live
Well, what now?
Now, assuming Your Hero has restored peace to the galaxy, gifted the elixir of life to their people, or brought the trophy home, it’s time to celebrate. This is where you’ll find the resolution to your story, and where you’ll find your big party scenes, be they all those fireworks going off at the end of Star Wars (which, thanks to the new trilogy, is no longer actually the end of Star Wars, oops) or the wedding party where you dance with the love interest you won. The Hero has been through enough trials that, presuming their epic quest hasn’t had a tragic ending as so many of them do (though that in itself could be considered a freedom of sorts depending on context), their story is over and it’s time for them to chill. When they could return home and are chilling there, the mythic cycle is complete—they’re back where they started with a world of new knowledge and power, and everyone who hears about it is going to have a great old time.
And that brings us to the end of The Hero’s Journey. These posts have been, I reiterate, a very abridged (and hopefully at least a little bit funny) version of the chapters. If you want to read them yourself I’d recommend it, but otherwise there are plenty of scholarly or not-so-scholarly works written about the scholarly work, so Campbell’s ideas and their modern evolutions are mercifully quite accessible. This is Christopher Volger’s self-described practical guide with dot points, sub-headings, and diagrams; the gals at Spirits did a fun episode on it recently where they also talk about postmodern iterations of the Journey; and as always TV Tropes is a great place to start if you want to load up on examples and get super meta.
Not every set of tropes listed in these chapters will appear in every story, nor will they necessarily appear in that order, but if you look long enough you’ll find echoes of these ideas in almost all linear media. Again, it ties neatly into the Three Act Structure, with your beginning, middle and end arcs matching up with the separation, initiation and return arcs as Campbell outlines them. There are a lot of fun ways you can play with these frameworks and they are by no means the rules, more like guidelines that inform a lot of ancient and modern storytelling techniques, which seems to say that we as audience members like them and find them important enough to keep wanting to see them redone. But with less Freud. Maybe? Hopefully.