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Literary Myth Form's and the Harry Potter Saga

"The Hero's Journey"


Stories You Remember for All Time


There are stories that you enjoy for a while, and then STORIES that you remember for your whole life. What is the difference? I remember Dorothy and the Wizard, Star Wars (the "first" three), Lord of the Rings (the books) and the Chronicles of Narnia (the books) from my youth. You can remember Harry Potter, the Lion King, Star Wars (the "second" three), Lord of the Rings (the movies) and the Chronicles of Narnia (the movie), from yours. My mom and dad can remember all those, plus Anne of Green Gables, Hardy Boys, Zane Gray, King Authur and the like. But, we've all read and watched hundreds, even thousands, of other stories and can hardly remember them. Why is this so? What makes the stories of Arthur, Aslan, Luke, Frodo and Harry so intensly memorable, that they seem to come back for several generations in several forms?

In addition, we, in this century, are not alone in having MOST MEMORABLE stories. In times past, there were Hercules, Appolo and Zeus. Also Romulus and Remus, Gulliver, Odysseus and Achilles - all of whom we've learned about in school. You know, sometimes, after we've heard a story, we almost CAN'T FORGET it, even if we tried. Even if the story is so old that no one can verify whether or not it was true, it is still remembered. There is just "something" about it which sort of "rings true" and makes it memorable. Why is that? Because it is OUR Story! All of us! Our own lives follow the same pattern.

An American professor, Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 October 31, 1987) wondered the same thing and spent his career trying to answer the question. He collected and read nearly every story and myth that he could find. Then he synthesized his life long study of world mythology into a book: "The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In it, he described that the reason some stories are unforgettable is because they sort of 'ring true' to us. They fit into our own, or others we know, 'lifes journey' pattern.

He called the type of story: "The Hero's Journey." In it, at least the initial pattern is a journeying story, moving from one identity into another - such as from childhood into adulthood. The "traveler" recieves a "calling" into a journey and does not expect to become a "hero." In it he is drawn into a struggle between good and evil where he must make a choice about which side he will follow. Examples of literature in this myth form include: Frodo in Lord of the Rings, Luke and Anakin in Star Wars, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, Arthur in the Legend of King Arthur, Simba in Disney's The Lion King and, of course, Harry in the Harry Potter books.

Campbell describes that the Hero: starts out as a simple, slightly insecure character (Dorothy, Harry, Frodo, Arthur, Simba) and truly could be called "Everyman" meaning "all of us." In the journey there is always the possibility of rejecting the call; but, if chosen, the path leads toward a "threshold crossing" in which there is no doubt that life is different and will never be the same. The moment when the hero is profoundly aware that they are "not in Kansas" anymore.

There are then tasks to prove the "hero's" worth and in which valuable knowledge and insight is gained prepatory to a "significant battle" of emense importance. There may be a struggle between father and son (as the dead father in Hamlet, or Zeus coming to power). In the story there will be a serious battle and serious wounding; and throughout the rest of the journey the effect of that wounding will shape the actions of the hero. The real injuries of life add up as we go along; because, they are the genesis of character. Our struggles and 'overcomings' are what makes us human, and an adult, and in a way wise.

In the 'Hero's Journey' there is a mentor who gives spiritual and philosophical guidance to the hero. This person often possesses almost magical powers that reflect a lifetime of study, discipline and aquired wisdom. He often reveals to the hero his purpose or origins. In moments of absolute disconnection and loss and confusion and fear these mentors arrive to give purpose and confidence. [Odysseus began his journey by being concerned for his son's (Telemachus) welfare, so he sought and older friend named "mentor" to look in on him.]

Usually the mentor has another function, early in the journey, to present the hero with a "special gift" which will be useful in the hero's battles to come. In our personal experience, a mentor gives us a gift of an idea, wisdom, or of some discernment. Being able to make those distinctions allows the hero to move forward in the story.

During the hero's journey the mentor dies or is lost. Losses in lifes long journey are great. The first reaction is that "I can't make it without his help." But it is crucial that his help not stay with the hero, or we would never know that the hero has, in fact, taken in the teachings. The mentor is now "within".

In the fight against evil the hero needs more than a mentor and courage. They rely on the help and the friendship of companions. (Dorothy: tin man and scarecrow; frodo: the fellowship; Luke: Han and Lea; Harry: Ron, Hermione and others). The Hero's journey is still done in groups of one or more faithful followers, so he must play well in groups.

There are several "standard" personality types for companions. These are called Archetypes, and are: the "Damsel in distress" (helpless, deserves attention and efforts at rescuing); the "mercinary pirate" (out for himself, outsider, self reliant, but good at heart, must learn to commit himself to a cause outside himself); the "parasite" (a tag along person, who is usually comic); and, the "childlike innocent" (jar jar?)

The hero becomes himself by being tested by various monsters, a sort of "journey into the belly of the whale." Going into the deepest part of oneself. Overcoming doubt about oneself, overcoming our worst fears, and confronting mistakes. A hero must fight demons that come from within his own heart.

Each hero has a villan. Confronting the villan and all he represents is the critical part of the hero's journey. Evil may be seductive, and there may even be an evil mentor who is: seductive and promising. The fundamental greek tragedy is a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve a purpose but results in his own destruction. The price of evil becomes apparant. The Wagnerian Nemesis is: the notion that you are going to be the victim of the things that you sow.

Campbell's insight was that important myths from around the world, having survived for thousands of years, all share this fundamental structure. So, after he published his book, it is not suprising that authors, story-tellers and film-makers all have deliberately used the pattern in their own works. Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood screenwriter, was highly influenced by Campbell. He created a 7-page company memo based on Campbell's work, A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which led to the development of Disney's 1994 film The Lion King. Vogler's memo was later developed into the late 1990s book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, which became the basis for a number of successful Hollywood films and is believed to have been used in the development of the Matrix series.

The Hero's Journey in a nutshell

So, Christopher Vogler said the Hero's Journey can be boiled down like this:

  • A hero must start off in an 'ordinary' world, where the stage is set and character relationships are established. Before long the hero will be separated from this world, when he receives a Call to Adventure. But, although he may be eager to accept the quest, at this stage he'll have lingering doubts or fears that need overcoming. So his first, quick response may be a Refusal of the Call.
  • Our hero's doubts and fears will be dispelled when he meets a mentor figure, who will give him something he needs, maybe an item and/or advice, so he can progress on his quest. The mentor doesn't have to be old, and may not even be personified, but the role will be there somewhere in the story.
  • Armed with the mentor's help, the hero will begin his descent into the world of the unknown by Crossing the Threshold. He may go willingly, or he may be pushed. This often happens symbolically rather than physically - how many stories see the hero 'falling' in love?
  • Once he's immersed in the special world of the story, the hero will meet both allies and enemies and will have to undergo a series of tests, culminating in an Ordeal and a consequent (usually metaphorical) death and rebirth.
  • Emerging from this the hero begins the Road Back, completing the mythic cycle. After confronting death during the ordeal he will have gotten some kind of reward, which will equip him with the will to finish. He must now face a final showdown and at the moment of climax he will experience a Resurrection, bringing with it an element of sacrifice and ultimately a resolution to the story. At the end he will have returned to the ordinary world with an elixir, which he can share with all the people who have benefited from his heroic escapade. He will have been transformed by the journey, and his new understanding will radiate out, affecting everyone.

There are different ways in which the cycle is completed, and this will reflect the style of storytelling. Often European authors of stories will end their works with rough endings and many loose ends and questions. This sort of follows Aristotle's theory in that just signifying an important change has occurred is enough of an ending. In contrast, Hollywood is more eager to produce scripts with reassuring (happy!) endings, and also tends to tie up any loose ends and unanswered questions [except, of course, for the questions that leave an opening for a sequel.]

Harry's "Hero's Journey"

The boy Harry Potter nonchalantly strolled onto J. K. Rowling's mind, fully formed, one day during a long train ride — a handsome orphan, with a scar, who didn't know he was a wizard until he recieved a letter of entrance from a wizarding school. Harry had a job to do, which was more fully discovered in the few moments of solitude that a single-mother author could manage to snatch up in order to think of such things. Each book has its own adventure and "journey" in and of itself. But, each is but a mere portion of a "greater journey" which has finally been disclosed.

[To be continued]