One topic which I casually mention in my How to Teach a Novel workshop that stirs a lot of interest is the Hero Myth as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
According to Campbell’s introduction,
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Described in greater detail, the journey of the hero typically includes most, if not all, of the following stages:
- call to adventure: the character leaves his ordinary, exceedingly common life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world;
- road of trials: there he encounters a number of tribulations, and often one exceedingly difficult challenge (he is often trained or advised by an older, wiser mentor);
- the goal or book: a reward the hero receives as aa result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self;
- the return to the ordinary world: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, knowing what he now knows;
- the application of the boon: the hero applies his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place, or to right a wrong which he was previously under-equipped to face.
It’s the plot line of hundreds of books and movies, most easily recognized in Star Wars, Gladiator, the Matrix (see my cool post over at the Teaching that Sticks blog), and the Odyssey.
Less obvious is its appearance in The Lion King, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Dirty Dancing.
Dirty Dancing? Absolutely. Our heroine Frances, so naive to the ways of the world that she’s called Baby, enters the strange and sexy world of the Catskills resort employees. Arriving wide-eyed and innocent at the steamy after-hours dance carrying watermelons (I’ll leave you to analyze that), Baby suddenly realizes that the world she thinks she knows is just a facade. She is indoctrinated into this brave new world by street-wise and somewhat jaded Johnny Castle, who helps her discover herself in many ways, both G and PG-13. She returns to her world (and Daddy) with new knowledge about herself, and the ability to stand up for what is right.
Isn’t it nice to find that your guilty little pleasure is following in the footsteps of the Hero Myth?
Teaching students about this literary pattern really opens their eyes to just how many stories utilize its conventions. Student writers may also find that it’s useful for identifying weak points in their own stories.
A great place to start exploring more about the Hero Myth (or Hero’s Journey as it is alternately called) is by checking out the collected sites and activities at The Web English Teacher. And of course, for you purists, nothing beats the book.