The Hero's Journey in Literature and Film

by Deborah Stern

If someone were to ask you, "Who are your heroes?" your answers might range from Albert Einstein to Queen Elizabeth I to Superman. This is an important question, for in naming our own heroes, we are revealing key aspects of our own personalities. After all, when we admire someone, we are saying indirectly "Here are my values, here is what I feel to be important actions." What is interesting is that no matter who your hero is, he or she will share many basic characteristics with all other heroes. How are all heroes alike?

The following is a list of such characteristics. It is important to remember that not every hero will embody all these qualities, but he or she will certainly embody some of them. Discuss the following definitions and find examples of each.

1. A hero is admired for his or her achievements and qualities.
2. A hero is often an embodiment of society's or the author's values and beliefs.
3. A hero will often go beyond the society's boundaries to find new ways of seeing or being that will then, ultimately, be incorporated back into society's ways. Explorers share this characteristic. They discover new lands and bring back what they have discovered to their own country.
4. A hero acts in perfect accidence with his or her will and consciousness.
5. A hero takes risks to help others and fights for things that we believe in.
6. A hero may or may not be recognized for qualities that the society esteems.

Along with these general characteristics, there are three main types of heroes. The popular or cultural hero is defined by his contributions to society. For instance, Elvis Presley is thought by many people to have influenced the creation of rock and roll. The historical hero is a person who lived and whose actions shaped the world. We will be examining the third type of hero, the hero found in myth, literature, and film. These heroes often embark on long journeys. They leave their homes and travel to far-off lands or even supernatural realms. In the course of their travels these heroes seek adventure, take risks, and prove themselves by finding new personal strengths and abilities. When the hero sets out on his journey, he is usually on a quest. He is searching for something or he is given a task to accomplish. This is the type of hero we will be examining. This hero can be found in literature from an ancient Polynesian myth to a 19th century fairy tale to a twentieth century movie and is called an archetypal hero. An archetype is "the original pattern or model from which all things of the same type are copies".

The most important study of the archetypal hero on a quest is "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell. Campbell studied the world's myths and literature and found that, although the specifics of each hero may be different, they all go on a quest journey made up of parts: Separation, initiation, and return. The separation is from the day-to-day life. Someone or something calls this hero to action. The hero is then initiated through trials and tests. Upon his return, the hero brings honor back to his society and, even more important, he has acquired some important truth about himself. This paradigm repeats from ancient times to the twenty-first century. Campbell calls this repetition of plot and heroic characteristics the "monomyth". This "one myth" will be examined in two epic poems; The Odyssey (an ancient Greek epic poem) and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (a medieval epic poem from England). It will also be examined in two films: The Matrix and The Wizard of Oz.

The first part of the separation phase of the heroic myth is the "Call to Adventure". The hero meets a figure that assigns him a task. For example:

The god, Hermes, comes down from Mount Olympus to urge Odysseus, dispirited and depressed, stranded on an island, to build a new ship and sail for Ithaca.

The Green Knight disrupts a Christmas celebration in King Arthur's court to give Arthur a "Christmas game challenge". "Sir Gawain, the youngest knight of the Round Table volunteers to take up the challenge". "Behead me tonight" he tells Gawain and, in exchange for this deed, Sir Gawain must find him in the Green Chapel in a year's time and offer up his own neck for a beheading. Gawain agrees to this horrible task. Amazingly, the Green Knight picks up his severed head, mounts his green horse and leaves the hall. Gawain accepts this task to prove his strength, both spiritually and physically, in order to serve his king and to uphold the honor of Arthur's court for the green knight. Gawain sets off in a dark and dangerous forest.

Once in Oz, Glinda the Good Witch of the South sends Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City.

Neo, the hero of "The Matrix", is called to his adventure by a message that appears on his computer. All four of these heroes, while in different worlds, have journeys that are remarkably similar and illustrate Campbell's concept of the monomyth.
Odysseus and the Sirens
Odysseus and the Sirens

Odysseus is called to action by the god Hermes whom Zeus sends. When we first meet Odysseus, he "lives and grieves upon that island in thralldom to the nymph". Beautiful and magical Calypso has kept Odysseus on her island for several years following the Trojan War. She is in love with him, and, although Odysseus yearns to make his way home, Calypso has refused to give him a ship so he can get off her island. Odysseus tells her:

"If any god has marked me out again for shipwreck,
My tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured at sea, in battle.
Let the trial come."

- "The Odyssey" Book Five


 After Athena begs Zeus to help Odysseus, Zeus sends the god Hermes (the God of transitions and change) to Calypso's island where, as messenger for Zeus, he tells her that Zeus has ordered her to give Odysseus a ship so that he can get off the island and sail for home. His wife, Penelope has faithfully waited for him for twenty years, despite a rambunctious group of suitors who have overtaken Odysseus' home waiting for Penelope to give up her hope that Odysseus will return, and marry one of them. They have moved into the castle, eaten Odysseus' food, slept with the maids of the castle, and pushed Odysseus' twenty-year-old son, Telemachus, out of his position as the "man of the house". The court is in terrible chaos. Finally, thanks to the intervention of Hermes, Odysseus gets his ship and embarks upon what will be a journey of trials and mortal danger. On the island of The Lotus Eaters the crew is offered a wondrous flower that made Odysseus' men forget home and long to stay in peace and forgetfulness. Odysseus captures his men and ties them to their oars. From there, Odysseus comes to the island of the giant Cyclops who attempts to kill all of Odysseus' men for eating some of his sheep. Odysseus faces the giant and pokes out the giant's one terrible eye and frees his men to return to the safety of the ship. From enticing Sirens whose songs attract men to their deaths, to a visit to the underworld, to the ship's passage through the dangerous Scylla and Charybdis passage, to the island of the evil Circe who turns men into swine, Odysseus is faced with trial after trial, but overcomes them with his guile and intellect, and, although, as one of the gods says, the journey "has been.cursed", Odysseus returns to reunite with both his son and his father, and the three of them kill all the suitors and reestablish the social order to Ithaca.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (illustration by Juan Wijngaard)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (illustration by Juan Wijngaard)

Gawain, like Odysseus, is tested throughout the poem. Not only must Gawain be brave and courageous, he must behave in accordance with the virtues of piety, courtesy and chivalry. Gawain sets off for his journey to the Green Knight. He must cross dark and dangerous forests in the middle of winter. While on this quest journey, Gawain is lonely, almost frozen to death and must battle with beasts and snakes. Gawain reaches the depths of despair and thinks that he will never complete the journey. At that very moment, a beautiful castle appears out of nowhere and the master of the castle, whose name is Bertilak, invites Gawain to rest there. He knows where the Green Knight lives and tells Gawain that the Green Chapel is only half a day's journey. Gawain partakes of Betrilak's hospitality and is given a beautiful bedchamber. Bertilak plans to go hunting on the three days that Gawain is his guest. Bertilak proposes a game. For each day, Bertilak will give Gawain what he has hunted and Gawain will, in return, give Bertilak what he has gotten in the castle. Each morning, after Bertilak has left for the hunt, his beautiful wife sneaks into Gawain's bedroom and attempts to seduce him. Gawain must live up to the virtue of chastity with the lady and courtesy to Bertilak. He allows her to give him one kiss and, that night, in exchange for the day's catch, Gawain gives his host one kiss. This exchange goes on for three days. Gawain must be courteous to both the wife and her lord, Bertilak. The lady is very insistent upon seducing Gawain. On the third and final day before Gawain sets out on the last leg of his journey, the lady attempts once more to seduce him, but Gawain refuses all but three kisses. The lady kisses him three times and, gives him her green sash, which she says will protect him from death. Gawain takes this gift. When Bertilak returns from the hunt with three catches, Gawain gives him three kisses but does not tell him about the gift of the green sash. Gawain leaves for the green chapel to meet his fate. Upon entering this secret place, Gawain sees Bertilak transform into The Green Knight. The Green Knight tells Gawain that it is time for him to live up to his part of the bargain. Gawain stretches out his neck. The Knight (Bertilak) takes one stroke and misses Gawain's neck, he takes another swing and, again, fails to make contact with Gawain's neck. The third swing just grazes the top of Gawain's neck. The Green Knight tells Gawain that he has been spared because he held up his part of the challenge twice. His neck was grazed on the third stroke because on the third day of the hunt, Gawain gives Bertilak three kisses but doesn't tell him about the green sash. Gawain is ashamed that he has been a coward in taking the sash and discourteous to his host by not telling the truth about it. He returns to Arthur's court with the knowledge that he has maintained the honor of Arthur's court. Interestingly, upon his return, the court adapts the green sash as a fashion to honor Gawain for his bravery. For Gawain, however, it will always be a symbol of shame.

The Matrix
The Matrix

The film, The Matrix, is set in the near future. After losing a battle to machines, humans are controlled by them and live in a computer-generated matrix. While humans think that they are living in reality, everything they do, even everything they eat, and everything they see is the illusion of reality. The name of the hero in this film is Neo (new). By day, his name is Jack Anderson, and he works as a computer programmer. At night, under the name Neo, he hacks. Neo has always had a feeling that something was amiss in his world. The truth is far beyond his imagination. There has been a war between humans and the machines they created. The machines (who look like humans) have taken over the world; a world is nothing more than an elaborate facade created by an evil cyber-intelligence. All humans are in bondage to the machines. Neo's call to action is a message that appears on his computer. It says, "Neo, awaken" and then "follow the white rabbit". Neo thinks this is all absurd until a group of friends come to his apartment, and one of the girls has a white rabbit tattooed on her shoulder. He decides to follow her to a dance club where a powerful young woman named Trinity approaches him. Trinity tells Neo that he must come with her to meet Morpheus, a wise man who, like Trinity, knows the truth about their world. Neo is taken to a rundown apartment where Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills. The red pill will allow Neo to remain in the comfortable world of illusion. The blue pill will open his eyes to the true nature of reality in the Matrix. Neo chooses the blue pill. Morpheus reveals to Neo that the city of Zion is the last outpost of humans not programmed to live in the Matrix and tells him that he is "The One" who will lead the rebellion with a coterie of people who have been liberated from the illusory world of the Matrix. Neo is put through a series of tests to see if he is "The One". He must learn martial arts so he is prepared to do battle with the agents of the Matrix. He must go through a painful physical process by which a microchip is removed from his body thus freeing Neo from the spell of the Matrix. The battles Neo faces are for his body and soul. The agents of the Matrix are everywhere. Ultimately, Neo survives his trials and makes it to Zion. He accepts his role as "The One" and prepares for further battles.

The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is a young farm girl in Kansas. Worried that the evil Miss Gooch will take her beloved Toto for growling at her, Dorothy wishes she were "somewhere over the rainbow". A tornado comes toward Dorothy's farm. Because Dorothy gets home too late to join her family in the basement shelter, she runs into the house, which is lifted by the tornado and spins and careens within the tornado while Dorothy sleeps. She awakens as her house lands with a thump and Dorothy opens the door to the magical world of Oz. Dorothy's house has landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. The people in this world are tiny folk called Munchkins. They cheer her as a hero for killing the witch. Dorothy is amazed by the magical and beautiful world in which she has landed; yet she longs to return to her familiar world of Kansas. Suddenly, a beautiful woman appears as Dorothy watches in amazement. Glinda the Good Witch of the South, tells Dorothy that in order to return home, she must find the Wizard of Oz who lives in the Emerald City. He is the "great and powerful" Oz and only he can return Dorothy to her home in Kansas. Glinda warns Dorothy that the Wicked Witch will try to kill her in revenge for Dorothy's house killing her sister. As protection, she gives Dorothy a magical pair of ruby slippers. To reach the Emerald City, Glinda tells Dorothy, that she must "follow the Yellow Brick Road". Dorothy begins her journey. She meets a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion, all of which can speak and move like humans. Each one of them has a problem for the Wizard to solve. The scarecrow wants a brain, the tin man wants a heart and the cowardly lion wants to be brave. They join Dorothy and the four of them continue the journey. The Wicked Witch, furious that Dorothy's house killed her sister, creates dangerous trials for them. They move through a forest where the trees speak and threaten them. The witch sets fire to the scarecrow (Dorothy saves him), sends an army of evil flying monkeys to attack them and creates a field of poppies that will put the four of them to sleep. "Surrender Dorothy" she writes in the sky. Glinda intervenes and sends a snowstorm over the poppies to stop its soporific effects. The four of them finally reach the Emerald City where there's one more trial. They discover that the Wizard is a fake and has no magical powers. He talks to the Scarecrow and gives him a "degree". He gives the tin man a heart-shaped watch and to the lion, he gives a medal for bravery. He tells Dorothy that he cannot help her get back to Kansas. She is distraught. Suddenly, Glinda appears and tells Dorothy that she has had the means to get home during the whole trip - her ruby slippers. Dorothy must click her shoes together three times and say, "There's no place like home". The next scene shows Dorothy awaking from a dream, back in her bed in Kansas. What's especially interesting about this hero journey is that what the four of them are given is the knowledge that, really, the power to change was inside them.

All of these stories, although completely different, are the same in the sense that the hero goes through the same cycle of experience. Campbell writes:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man".
- "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" p. 97


Odysseus returns home and, after a horrible battle against the suitors, establishes his place once again and restores order to his home. Gawain has upheld the honor of Arthur's court. Neo is "the One" who will lead the small band of humans in a rebellion against the Matrix. Dorothy returns to Kansas with the knowledge that all we really need is confidence in ourselves.

What human beings have in common is revealed through the journey of the mythic hero. The cycle of separation, initiation and return is, as Campbell suggests, a metaphor for the three stages of life. We leave the safe world of our families to enter the world of experience and find our way through the challenges of life. We enter old age with the acquired knowledge of a lifetime. Each part of the journey requires a different kind of awareness; "What all of these stories deal with is transformation of one consciousness to another. You have been thinking one way; you now have to think in a different way", writes Campbell in The Power of Myth.

In all of these journeys, there is something that everyone wishes to find. Dorothy wants to find home. Gawain searches for the Green Knight. Neo looks for the true reality hidden by the Matrix. Odysseus is relentless in reaching his home in Ithaca. In a deeper sense though, the places they find are within themselves. They gain self-knowledge, which will serve them for the rest of their lives. This is our journey too because, as Campbell tells us, the "mythic journey helps to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive".

"Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world." (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

Related Links

Joseph Campbell Foundation - is the official home of Joseph Campbell's legacy and works in the fields of mythology, comparative religion.
A Collection of MY HERO stories - that celebrate the hero's journey in Literature and Film



Author Info

Becky from Laguna Beach