The wonderful mythology professor, Joseph Campbell, popularized this term in his lectures and books on mythology and comparative religion. You might recall him from the memorable program with Bill Moyers called The Power of Myth and the companion book to the series with the same name. Campbell was influenced first by Carl Jung who explained that the hero—that is, YOU, being the hero in your own saga—must experience certain steps that represent the struggle for psychological wholeness, which Jung called individuation. Campbell called it the monomyth, a term he got from James Joyce. Whether we actively seek these steps or not, the best literature seems to follow them. What are these steps?
Broken down to their simplest components:
1) A call to adventure or quest
2) Trials and tribulations along the way
3) Gaining knowledge and tools from wise ones
4) Achieving the quest and receiving special powers
5) Returning to the mundane life and applying those powers for the betterment of the community
Granted, that is a significantly abbreviated form of the message, but if applied to any number of "mythologies" we can see the pattern repeating. The Illiad and the Odyssey, the Egyptian gods, Beowulf, the Bible, Buddhist writings, The Lord of the Rings (which took its mythology from many Norse and Celtic sources), Star Wars (where George Lucas says he used these stages of the hero's journey deliberately), and the Harry Potter series, to name but a few. What does this mean to a story to apply these stages or steps? Will a story fail if it doesn’t include these steps?
Well, no. It’s just that some stories really scream for this. And while I didn’t consciously frame my own series around the hero’s journey, that’s exactly what happened, despite my best efforts. When I was trying to come up with an original take on the medieval mystery, I decided to style my protagonist on the hardboiled detective of the '30s and '40s. I actually researched them. Yes, even through text books, one in particular by a University of Texas professor, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines by Erin A. Smith. I used her examples to break down this style of story into its components and chipped off what I needed in a detective to make it work. My best examples were Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. They are the lone wolves who perhaps had a better or at least hopeful past that somehow degenerated by circumstances, leaving them cynical and with a chip on their shoulders. Women came and went through their lives and relationships were few. Hard drinking was part of their credo and they were often roughed up or did the roughing up. When I transplanted these traits to a medieval man I found a very interesting transformation.
My protagonist, Crispin Guest, needed to be brought low so that he would have no alternative but to become a private detective. What resulted was a poignancy I hadn’t expected. A man who had everything and lost it all. He is an ex-knight, having lost his title, wealth, and place in the world in one fell swoop when he committed treason against King Richard II. Spared execution, he was set adrift in London with nothing but the clothes on his back. We have more than a man with a chip on his shoulder. We have the makings a true tragic hero. The chivalric code was not only made to order for such characters as Spade and Marlowe, but certainly Crispin, who actually was a knight. This code includes maintaining one’s personal honor but not at the expense of others; to be truthful; to protect the weak; to seek justice. This code can be found in the heroes of most any epic: King Arthur, Frodo, Harry Potter.
It is this last in the code—to seek justice—that puts the action into motion for both Spade and Marlowe, and also for Crispin. But unlike Spade or Marlowe (or most any detective from the past with the exception of Lord Peter Wimsey, who can be considered on his own hero’s journey), Crispin learns and grows from his experience, which moves him into another category from the typical hardboiled detective and plants him firmly on the path of the hero’s journey. A hero is changed by his experiences and by those he encounters along the way.
If we take the example of Gone with the Wind, we can follow Scarlet on her quest to Get What She Wants. Her “call to adventure” begins with the war (although, it may be argued that it starts earlier with her quest to get Ashley). Slowly, the encroachment of the war begins to adversely affect Tara as well as Scarlet personally through the devastation of her family. Eventually, she must leave her place of safety and venture forth. During these trials (including a few marriages and losses) she seeks the advice of wise ones—Mammy and to some extent, Melanie, the conscience of the piece. She acquires tools from them to achieve her goals and finally obtains her “special powers” of money and influence. But when all of that proves futile to her happiness, she returns to the mundane of Tara to use what she has learned to make her life a better one.
Let’s take Lord Peter, too, since we already brought him up. He, like Scarlet and Crispin, began with privilege but was also changed by a war. This put him on his quest to do more with his life than simply spend his family money. Bunter becomes the wise one who often supplies him with the tools he needs to go forward. His journey veers again when he encounters Harriet Vane and falls in love. The tools that he has picked up along the way and the special knowledge acquired allows him to win the damsel and live happily ever after in the mundane world of Tallboys.
In the case of Crispin Guest, he must continue on stages 2 and 3 for most of the series. Time will tell whether he achieves steps 4 and 5. But that does not limit his growth or even those inevitable steps backwards he might need to take. By continuing to experience trials and rising above them, his character is strengthened and broadened. Likewise, the wise ones he encounters can come in many guises, and the tools he gains may yet lead him onto many more trials.
Sometimes I feel sorry for the poor bloke.