The Hero’s Journey
By S M Chen, posted 9/7/2017 “We are who we choose to be.”- Willem Dafoe, in “Spider-Man”
Someone near and dear to me is writing a book. I’ve had the privilege of proofreading and editing it somewhat. I find the topic fascinating and relatable. It led me to begin thinking about stories, their commonalities and differences.
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), American writer and mythologist, after examining numerous tales from various cultures and ages, described the stages of story in virtually all successful art (books, cinema, theatre). A person who ultimately becomes a hero (in broad definition of the word) takes a journey, as do we all from birth to death.
For most, it is not necessarily a smooth, uninterrupted passage. In fact, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. There are obstacles, setbacks, triumphs, and failures.
And, of course, a villain.
Along the way, the hero encounters allies, who assist him on his voyage. He may not recognize them as such but, upon reflection, we viewers/readers do. He may also not recognize opportunity when it first presents itself. It may appear again later or in different form. Hopefully the hero will recognize it this time and respond appropriately. This is what keeps us turning pages of a good book or sitting on the edge of our seats in a cinema or theatre: a scenario that engages.
When the hero (or heroine; the journey is not gender-specific) takes the path to enlightenment, we applaud. We root for him/her to succeed. We relate. For they represent what we are or that to which we aspire. Art recapitulates life.
The villain is not always obvious. In fact, it is often more interesting if he is not. Uncertainty breeds tension, which leads to greater excitement upon dénouement.
Allies are also not always obvious, either. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy does not necessarily recognize the lion, the scarecrow and the tin-man as allies, but they turn out to be such. From the story line, one may think they need her, but she needs them just as much. Together, they journey to the Emerald City. The Good Witch is also an ally. The Wicked Witch is a villain.
George Lucas set the hero’s journey in outer space in Star Wars. That led to fame and fortune. He acknowledged his debt to Joseph Campbell in interviews after the film put him on the stellar map.
The greatest story we know is one that is yet unfinished. It is a work in progress. Like Star Wars, it began in a place far away. So far we can only imagine it.
Like all good stories, it has a hero and a villain. The hero is fairly well known. He walked among us. He assumed human form in a way that is almost incomprehensible. He was tested in many ways – in the wilderness, in the synagogue, on land and at sea – in some venues we can only imagine. But we are told that in all the ways we are tested, He was.
The villain also had his origin in another place, but, because of circumstance, has come to dwell among us. In fact, my understanding is that he (with cohorts) is confined here. Even now, despite all that has transpired, he schemes, plans, and plots against the Hero and His followers. C. S. Lewis imagined those interactions in The Screwtape Letters. He must know he is vanquished, yet, like a defiant scorpion, he is determined to sting as long as venom lasts.
Some allies of the Hero may not have known they were allies. Had they, they might not have slumbered in the Garden of Gethsemane when they were asked to stay awake and be of comfort to the grieving Hero. One of them even denied the Hero – thrice. It was thus predicted, and indeed came to pass. That was the low of Peter’s life. Many of us have experienced similar lows.
Since the time He was here, He has ever had allies. But some were false. They claimed to be allies but, in fact, worked against Him. They may not have known this was the case. Others, who at first didn’t claim to be allies, turned out to be. As W. S. Gilbert wrote (and Arthur Sullivan provided the music) in the comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore: “Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream.”
The dénouement will occur at the Judgment, at which time there will be some surprises. Not all will be pleasant.
Like boxes within boxes, there are stories within the larger story.
We each have a story to tell. Each is different. We have our enemies and allies, our triumphs and disappointments. Will we prevail, or fail? So long as we live, there is hope.
If you doubt that, look at the penitent thief on the cross of Golgotha. His clock read 11:55 pm when he made the decision to be the hero of his own story. When midnight came and the curtain dropped, it didn’t fall on him. He had (barely) escaped stage right.
Some of us don’t get such opportunity, but none of us can claim we didn’t have grace to make our story end well.
It’s been said – perhaps to promote self-help books: “No one is coming to save you.” I understand the underlying message. But, if we really believe that, we might as well eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And stay dead.
The larger story will end someday in the future. None of us knows when. For all, it will end when we breathe our last or at the Parousia, whichever comes first.
Produce your own story in such a way that the ending will be salutary. For the Hero is returning, not as a babe in a manger but in the splendor He once had. He is the original once and future King.
Shakespeare entitled one of his plays: All’s Well That Ends Well.
No matter what your story has been up to now, you can look forward to a good ending.
It’s up to you. You are writing your own story.
S M Chen lives and writes in California.