“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure …” 

— Gandalf in “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien  

Adventure calls and a hero answers. Along the way, they encounter unlikely allies, formidable foes, and trials that will test their resolve. Against all odds, they prevail, and the world will never be the same.  

Sound familiar?  

This is the hero’s journey: a story structure followed by virtually every bestselling novel, blockbuster movie, and hit TV show. Spoiler alert! We’re here to talk about how the hero’s journey has shaped the craft of storytelling. Join us as we spoil every plot point and twist ending you’ll ever encounter!  

Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth 

The hero’s journey comes from author Joseph Campbell and his seminal work “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” which was published to widespread acclaim in 1949. In it, Campbell presents the concept of the monomyth: a narrative pattern shared by all heroic tales, transcending historical, cultural, and regional differences. (Shoutout to James Joyce for coining the term.) 

Myths reveal universal truths about human nature, with themes “appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same.” Myths, Campbell believed, inspire us to live a blissful life in harmony with our inner selves. 

The Stages of the Hero’s Journey 

We’re all searching for the meaning of life. So are our mythical heroes, “who must travel to an unknown world and do battle with the powers of darkness in order to return with the gift of knowledge.” The hero’s journey breaks down the monomyth into stages, outlining the transformative quest a hero undertakes to overcome whatever challenge they’re presented with.  

Campbell described anywhere from 17 to 31 stages in the hero’s journey. Inspired by “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Hollywood story consultant Christopher Vogler developed a condensed, simplified version of the hero’s journey that can be applied to almost any story, particularly screenplays. 

The 12 stages of the hero’s journey, as described by Vogler, are: 

  1. The Ordinary World: We see the hero in the Ordinary World before they’re thrust into a Special World.  
  1. The Call to Adventure: The hero is presented with a challenge that can only be overcome by abandoning the comfort of the Ordinary World. 
  1. Refusal of the Call: No journey worth taking is without risk, and the hero is reluctant to take on such a life-altering challenge.  
  1. Mentor (the Wise Old Man or Woman): A Merlin-like character appears to guide the hero on their journey, representing the bond we share with our role models (e.g., parents and teachers).  
  1. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero accepts the Call to Adventure and enters the Special World. Now the story really begins.  
  1. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero encounters new challenges, learning the rules of the Special World the hard way.  
  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero pauses before entering the most dangerous place in the Special World: the Inmost Cave, where the villain and the object of the journey reside.  
  1. The Supreme Ordeal: It’s life or death! The hero confronts their greatest fear in battle and dies (literally or metaphorically), so they can be reborn.  
  1. Reward (Seizing the Sword): The hero prevails to claim the reward: a “sword” — a weapon, elixir, or bit of knowledge that can “heal the wounded land.” 
  1. The Road Back: Vengeful forces chase the hero for Seizing the Sword, leaving no choice but for them to return to the Ordinary World.  
  1. Resurrection: The villain makes one last desperate attempt to thwart the hero: a final test to prove whether the hero’s learned the lesson of the Supreme Ordeal.  
  1. Return With Elixir: The hero returns to the Ordinary World and delivers the Elixir, a treasure (e.g., love, freedom, wisdom, or knowledge), to their community. 

Coming to a Theater Near You 

Scriptwriters and storytellers have for decades used the hero’s (and heroine’s) journey as a blueprint to craft stories that resonate with all audiences. Famously, George Lucas took inspiration from “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” when making “Star Wars: A New Hope.” A more contemporary example can be found in “The Hunger Games” and its heroine, Katniss Everdeen. (Luke is trained by the wizened Ben Kenobi, while Katniss is mentored by the jaded Haymitch Abernathy. Can you spot any other parallels?) 

The hero’s journey has influenced countless books, films, and TV shows. If, however, you’re worried it leaves little room for originality, don’t be. Think of the hero’s journey as a tool, highlighting the common elements of modern storytelling. And like any other tool in a writer’s repertoire, its effectiveness depends on how it’s used.  

Answer the Call to Adventure 

Whether you’re an aspiring writer or avid reader, there’s so much more to learn about literature, visual arts, and the cultural, historical, and psychological elements that influence these works. If you have an insatiable appetite for storytelling, we recommend studying English online at The University of Texas Permian Basin. 

We offer two English degrees: A Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in English, both of which are offered entirely online. Gain a deep understanding of the English language by looking at modern and classic literary works. Study your favorite movies in one of our film courses, or enroll in a literature course to examine the works of British and American authors. (Check out Literature and Mythology for more on the mythological allusions found in pop culture.)  

Stuck in the Ordinary World? Visit the above program pages to learn more about online learning at UT Permian Basin. If, however, you’re ready to answer the Call to Adventure, apply to one of our online English programs