man in black backpack during golden hour

By Carmine Rodi Falanga

 This article was originally published on “To Say Nothing of the Cat”, the author’s personal blog where he explores the connections between storytelling and contemporary culture

What is “The Hero’s Journey”?

It’s a general term to describe an adventure, a transformative experience, a journey that will determine change, learning and experience.

It’s used now as a general term, but it was first introduced by Joseph Campbell in his amazing work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” , a comparative study of myths, legends and stories collected from all over the world. Campbell noted that there seems to be one single story that links us all, and called it “The Monomyth” ( = the one story), or “The Hero’s Journey”.

Campbell originally divided the “Journey” in seventeen stages. Later authors have identified more, or less (I like it with twelve phases, like the hours on the clock, as suggested by Christopher Vogler in a memo for scriptwriters for the Disney Studios), but essentially the model stays the same. And here it is, in the essence:


Basically, it’s the storyline of each movie, novel, fairy tale or myth that I have ever experienced and loved. Somebody starts small, in their everyday life where everything is under control… mmmh but maybe not quite. Then something happens that brings a change. Willing or not, our character (unwilling to be called “hero” – for now) will start a journey that will change his life, and his world, forever.

Cool uh? Could be the synopsis for any blockbuster movie nowadays, right?

Well – in fact, it is.

Here a very young (and happy) George Lucas, the man behind Star Wars, says that learning about Joseph Campbell at the university gave him the original idea for the story of his movie.
But he was the first filmmaker to admit it and credit Campbell for his work; and since then it has become extremely well known (more recently, see the reference made by George Miller in his Mad Max), even sometimes to fall into some sort of a cliché. Hollywood script writers, game designers, novelists around the world refer now to “The Hero’s Journey” as a fail-proof checklist, to follow as a quality measure of their work. Which is also a danger: that it will soon become abused, and spent. But fear not, there are good news: storytellers, no matter what sources they follow and in which era they live, were and still are divided in two broad groups: the good ones, and the poor ones.

Great storytellers will always be able to surprise and move us. They may be telling a story that is in fact 3,000 years old, but they will do it by bringing a fresh look to it, twists in the storyline, by making their characters more complex, alive and believable. Their stories will be timeless, universal, memorable. They will treat their audience like responsible, honorable, discerning people – not just passive consumers – and will lay out open the invitation for us to pick something from the story and make it ours, forever, so we can grow and be changed by it. Because that’s the main aspiration of the best stories: to live a life on its own.
Poor storytellers will maybe be able to bring the paycheck home at the end of the day, but will not be able to elevate themselves from the cliché source material they use, and their work will not be able to connect to a wide audience or to stand the test of time.
And that is why millions of people still love and talk about “The Odyssey”, “Star Wars” or “The Lord of the Rings”, but in a couple of years, no-one will remember the name of the main character of “Divergent” (it’s Tris, by the way).

But then — What’s So Cool about “The Hero’s Journey”?

In one word: everything!

It’s a strong, universal story that is able to speak to all of us. It’s the archetype of a story, in fact (Campbell was a great admirer of the work by Carl Gustav Jung on psychoanalysis). And we love it, out of our instinct, because it’s the matter of which fairy tales, cartoons, myth, legends, and even the religions are made of. We love it, because that’s how a good story must be told. And we all know it.
I use this concept a lot in my work in education since as a basic storyline it works perfectly well to describe each adventure that has an impact on us. Even every single day, we get out from our comfort zone (often unwillingly); live an experience – pleasant or not; meet people and face challenges; get some sort of learning or ‘reward’; develop a new potential or learn a lesson, and go back to square one. Ready to start all over again.
We design experiential learning events (weekends, one-day, or more) based on this concept and the potential outcome is really powerful. We can become able to infuse magic in every moment of our life, just by drawing power from our own imagination. One example of our work is here!

But also, this can be a very useful road map to interpret my own experiences from everyday life. “Through storytelling, we restore order with imagination”, Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) says in “Saving Mister Banks”. Great quote, and nothing is more true. Our life would be a simple series of actions and facts – I wake up, I get up from bed, I eat breakfast… – but through the immense power of our imagination, we are able to transform it into a story that makes sense, and can inspire, motivate, even heal. To the point that it can (and should) be transmitted from person to person, and even to future generations.

With storytelling, we transform our lives in magic and are “spellbound” to it. This is the immensity of the power we are dealing with, even when telling a simple joke, or a story we know. Wow: fascinating.

Please note! Rescogita doesn’t own the pictures used in this article. They are shared under fair use for educational purposes. All rights belong to the respective owners.

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