Thursday, November 10, 2011

Circling the Wagons: The Hero's Journey

One of the highlights of this past weekend’s Circling the Wagons Conference was Carol Lynn Pearson’s keynote address on Saturday morning.  She took Joseph Campbell’s discussion of The Hero’s Journey (from his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and likened it to the experience of gay Latter-day Saints.  It was a fascinating address, and I can hardly wait for the podcast to be released so that I again listen to it and ponder its meaning. 

I suggested to Carol Lynn afterwards that she please work this address up into at least an article, if not a book, and I would like to invite anyone else who feels the same way to email Carol Lynn at  There is so much more that could be added to what she said on Saturday morning, and I really hope she will undertake this project.

For those who are not (as I wasn’t) familiar with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and in anticipation of the release of the podcast on, I am presenting below a summary of the Journey as outlined here.

Setting the Stage:  The Hero’s primary purpose is to separate from the ordinary world and sacrifice himself for the service of the Journey at hand - to answer the challenge, complete the quest and restore the Ordinary World’s balance.  The Ordinary World is the Hero’s home, the safe haven upon which the Special World and the Journey’s outcome must be compared.  The Journey begins in the Ordinary World, travels to the Special World, and returns to the Ordinary World.

The Call of Adventure:  In literary terms, after the Hero is introduced to the Ordinary World, he (or she) receives the Call to Adventure, which  sets the story rolling by disrupting the comfort of the Hero’s Ordinary World, presenting a challenge or quest that must be undertaken.  The Hero is reluctant at first or refuses the callvbecause of fears and insecurities that have surfaced from the Call to Adventure.  The Hero may not be willing to make changes, preferring the safe haven of the Ordinary World.  This becomes an essential stage that communicates the risks involved in the Journey that lies ahead.

Encouragement from a Mentor:  At this point, a Mentor comes upon the scene who provides encouragement to the Hero and provides him with confidence, insight, advice, training, or magical gifts to overcome the initial fears and face the Threshold of the adventure.  Thus encouraged, the Hero crosses the Threshold which signifies that the Hero has finally committed to the Journey.  He is prepared to cross the gateway that separates the Ordinary World from the Special World.

Encountering Tests, Allies and Enemies:  Having crossed the threshold, the Hero faces tests, encounters allies, confronts Enemies, and learns the rules of this Special World.  The Hero must prepare himself for the greater ordeals yet to come and needs this stage to test his skills and powers, or perhaps seek further training from the Mentor.  This initiation into this Special World also tests the Hero’s commitment to the Journey, and questions whether he can succeed.”

Approaching the Inmost Cave / Engaging in the Ordeal:  The Hero then makes preparations needed to approach the Inmost Cave that leads to the Journey’s heart, or central Ordeal - the central life-or-death crisis, during which he faces his greatest fear, confronts his most difficult challenge, and experiences “death”.  His Journey teeters on the brink of failure.  The Ordeal is the central magical Stage of any Journey.  Only through “death” can the Hero be reborn, experiencing a resurrection that grants greater power or insight to see the Journey to the end.

The Hero’s Reward:  The Hero has survived death, overcome his greatest fear, slain the dragon, or weathered the crisis of the heart, and now earns the Reward that he has sought.  The Hero’s Reward comes in many forms:  a magical sword, an elixir, greater knowledge or insight, reconciliation with a lover.  Whatever the treasure, the Hero has earned the right to celebrate.  But once obtained, the Shadow forces race to reclaim the Elixir that must not see the light of the Ordinary World. The Shadow can represent our darkest desires, our untapped resources, or even rejected qualities.  It can also symbolize our greatest fears and phobias. Shadows may not be all bad, and may reveal admirable, even redeeming qualities.  The Hero’s enemies and villains often wear the Shadow mask. This physical force is determined to destroy the Hero and his cause.

The Road Back:  “The Hero must finally recommit to completing the Journey and accept the Road Back to the Ordinary World.  A Hero’s success in the Special World may make it difficult to return.  Like Crossing the Threshold, The Road Back needs an event that will push the Hero through the Threshold, back into the Ordinary World.  The Event should re-establish the Central Dramatic Question, pushing the Hero to action and heightening the stakes.  The Road Back may be a moment when the Hero must choose between the Journey of a Higher Cause verses the personal Journey of the Heart.”

Resurrection:  The Hero then faces the Resurrection, his most dangerous meeting with death.  This final life-or-death Ordeal shows that the Hero has maintained and can apply all that he has brought back to the Ordinary World.  This Ordeal and Resurrection can represent a “cleansing” or purification that must occur now that the Hero has emerged from the land of the dead.  The Hero is reborn or transformed with the attributes of the Ordinary self in addition to the lessons and insights from the characters he has met along the road. 

Return with the Elixir:  “The Return with the Elixir is the final Reward earned on the Hero’s Journey. The Hero has been resurrected, purified and has earned the right to be accepted back into the Ordinary World and share the Elixir of the Journey.  The true Hero returns with an Elixir to share with others or heal a wounded land.  The Elixir can be a great treasure or magic potion.  It could be love, wisdom, or simply the experience of having survived the Special World.  Even the tragic end of a Hero’s Journey can yield the best elixir of all, granting the audience greater awareness of us and our world.”

In a subsequent post, I will offer my own thoughts about what the “Elixir” consists of in the context of the gay Mormon’s journey.

1 comment:

  1. We are all starting to realize that we each are being called to take our OWN Hero's Journey. It DOES require sacrifice beyond familiar levels of discomfort from normal life. Because it is not just about head, heart and the will. It is also about moral conviction. Rather than policy, tradition or man's approval. It is a call to live by conscience rather than by law. It is to love unconditionally, rather than safely.

    We probably all need to read Campbell's seminal work. We probably need to start committing to each other for whatever it is that needs to be done next. We probably need to start seeing AND believing that we have now entered a new phase of our own lives.

    It's strange. I listen to Occupy Wall Street (where I work down the street) and realize that this is really big. I listen to the economic news from Europe and realize that this is really big. I listen to my heart about the journey I've been called to take and realize that this is really big.

    It has come time. The question is what kind of march shall we make. Because I'm not (pardon the historical reference here to an earlier generation of civil rights seekers) going to shuffle anymore.