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6:45pm on Tuesday, 2nd April, 2013:

How it Works: the Hero's Journey (part 2)


[This is part 2; see the previous post for part 1]

Step 8 (Initiation): Woman as Temptress.
The would-be hero is now in the Other World and sees the path laid out before him. He knows what he has to do and (because he didn't baulk at it) believes he can complete his task. Why, then, does he actually need to go through with it? The hard part was figuring out what he had to do; his ability to do it is a foregone conclusion. Having got this far, he doesn't have anything to prove any more — so why try?

Well, those are the thoughts going through the would-be hero's head. For an artist, making the sketch is the hard part; doing the painting is just routine. For a programmer, conceiving of the algorithm is the fun bit; coding it is fairly mechanistic. For an author, creating the plot is where all the deep thought goes; turning it into words is just a slog. If you've done the difficult planning, why do you actually have to go through with the boring execution? It's just a mundane activity.

The word mundane there is the key. The Woman as Temptress step is where the would-be hero is tempted (for male would-be heroes, usually by a woman) to return to the Mundane World. This is not because he doesn't think he's up to completing their Hero's Journey; rather, it's because he feels he's done enough already that he doesn't need to see it through. He can fix the Mundane World's problems without needing to expend all that effort collecting some stinking boon that's only of symbolic value anyway.

The Temptress is usually tempting in a physical or material sense. She is acting as a proxy for the Mundane World, reminding the would-be hero what he's left behind and how grateful the Mundane World will be if he were to return to it. He's been in the Other World for long enough to have improved as a person; these improvements are probably manifested as abilities, knowledge or items that could help change the Mundane World for the better. If only he came back now, he could use his powers for good; there's no need for him to pursue this ridiculous quest when he knows what will happen anyway. The Mundane World needs him now, not after some time-consuming display of doggedness.

Note that the Temptress doesn't have to be some floozy who hits on the would-be hero; indeed, she doesn't even have to be alive. An inanimate mirror reflecting a vision of the would-be hero's homeland being ravaged could do the job, for example.

The would-be hero will reject the Temptress if he wants to avoid failure. What he knows but she doesn't is that he isn't as yet completely the person he's destined to become. If he goes back now, he won't be able to solve the original problem as it requires the boon. He may be able to live a life of luxury untouched by the problem, or may be able to effect a temporary solution to it, but either way it won't last and he'll still feel unfulfilled. To do the job properly, he needs to be his true self, which he won't be until he attains atonement in the next step.

An important point about the Woman as Temptress step is that the would-be hero should actually be tempted. If a random woman comes up to him and asks him if he has the time, that's not going to be tempting. If a nurse tells him she's heard there's a plague in his home city where his plague-susceptible 7-year-old daughter lives, and in his pocket he has a vial of Cure Plague potion that the Goddess gave him earlier, OK, well he could as a result find the thought of giving up on his journey tempting.

Important: the Temptress can not be the Goddess. The Goddess is like the would-be hero's mother; the Temptress is like his girlfriend. If his mother tries to use her womanly wiles on him, he's going to be creeped out, not tempted. My students seem, with reliable predictability, to cast as Temptress the daughter of the leader of the local Other World village, city, province, kingdom, guild, college, army, ... . That's when she isn't the would-be hero herself. Again, I've no idea why this is the case.

Newbie screenwriters are often worried that when they send their screenplay off to be read, the production company will rip off their brilliant idea. They needn't be. Brilliant ideas are ten a penny in Hollywood: what's in short supply are brilliant scripts of brilliant ideas (or indeed of half-baked ideas). To become a screenwriter, you actually have to write screenplays, not just imagine you've written them. To become a hero, you actually have to complete your Hero's Journey.

Step 9 (Initiation): Atonement with the Father.
Sitting right in the middle of the 17 steps of the Hero's Journey, Atonement with the Father is the climax. This is what the Hero's Journey has been leading up to; this is what the rest of the Hero's Journey is coming down from.

The Father is someone who has been dominating the would-be hero's existence the whole time he's been in the Other World. The Father has the ability to grant the would-be hero the boon. To get the boon, the would-be hero has to defeat the Father. Unfortunately, the Father is undefeatable (by the would-be hero) and can annihilate the would-be hero if he so chooses. He's usually strict and uncompromising, too. So how does the would-be hero get the boon if the father is unbeatable and is not predisposed to give it?

Well, the answer is that the would-be hero approaches the Father for the boon, knowing that the Father could swat him aside on a whim but trusting he won't. The would-be hero has reached a sufficient level of confidence in himself that he doesn't think the Father will destroy him even though he could, because he thinks the Father will show him mercy. He goes to the Father not to beat him, but to be accepted by him.

What's going on here symbolically is that the Father represents the would-be hero's Mundane World self. The would-be hero, having spent time in the Other World establishing his new identity and associated abilities and powers, is now a different person. In the Atonement with the Father step, the new self is accepted by the old self and they become the would-be hero's true self; the would-be hero beholds the Father, sees his old self reflected in him and in that moment understands. The fact that in English the word atonement can be split into at-one-ment was observed by Joseph Campbell (the person who formulated the Hero's Journey), and is an easy way to summarise what happens. The would-be hero and the Father don't usually coalesce into a single entity (although I suppose they could); rather, the would-be hero reconciles his new and old selves internally.

As an analogy, suppose that you wanted to learn to drive, but in the country where you lived you only got one shot at the driving test, ever. You could practice and practice and practice, until at some stage you decided you were ready. You'd know that you could take on the driving test and win. It wouldn't so much be "winning", though, it would be "acceptance": the driving test would be recognising that you were a true driver. Now it could be that you were ready to take the test but you had insufficient confidence to do so; you'd therefore never take it in case you failed. It could also be that you have an inflated sense of your own driving abilities, so when you take the test you fail. So: in this analogy, the driving test is the Father; you only challenge the Father when you are confident that the Father will accept you. If your confidence is misplaced, you will fail. If you lack the self-assurance to take the test, you will never even get to the point at which you can fail. In truth, you're the person judging whether you're worthy or not, not the Father. Most PhD failures are due to withdrawals, not to handing in a rubbish thesis.

The Father is the mechanism by which the would-be hero's assessment of his own worthiness is tested. Your would-be hero only goes to the Father for Atonement when he's certain that he's not going to have his head bitten off.

It may be that the would-be hero has had to do a whole bunch of things on the way to the Father that prove he's worthy to be accepted by the Father. This is fine, and can make for a good story. Really, the would-be hero is proving his worthiness to both his selves: to his old self, in the form of the Father; to his new self, such that he feels worthy enough to approach the Father.

What does not happen in this step is that the would-be hero kills the Father. This is something that many of my students fail to understand. They're gamers: they see the Father as a boss. If the would-be hero wants to win, he has to beat the boss. That means killing the boss. They've played enough games to know a boss when they see one: this is clearly a boss. Unfortunately, that's not how this step should be understood at all! If the would-be hero kills the Father, he's not becoming one with his old self, he's destroying it. He's therefore not going to return to the Mundane World as a balanced person — he'll be incomplete. The Father is unkillable for a reason: he has to show that the he accepts the changes embodied in the would-be hero's new self. He can't do that if he's dead.

Step 10 (Initiation): Apotheosis.
Apotheosis is usually quite a short step. Having been accepted by the Father, the would-be hero is usually pretty damned pleased with himself. Lots of other people in the Other World are impressed, too, holding him in high esteem for his achievement in obtaining Atonement. He gets congratulations, pats on the back and many plaudits. This is Apotheosis: it's a period for congratulations and relaxation following the successful conclusion to his endeavours.

It's like when you've found out your examination results and you've passed. Yay! Let's go celebrate! You can't actually do anything with your results as you don't yet have your certificates, but who cares? It's party time!

Step 11 (Initiation): The Ultimate Boon.
The would-be hero went into the Other World to obtain the boon: in this step, he's finally pure enough to receive it. It's the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the Elixir of Life. The boon is the gift of the Father. Sometimes this is direct (the Father gives it to the would-be hero), sometimes it's indirect (the Father allows the would-be hero to collect it from where it's hidden) and sometimes it's re-affirming (the would-be hero has obtained it beforehand and surrenders it to the Father, who lets him keep it).

As I've mentioned, the boon represents the would-be hero as hero: it's what the Mundane World needs to solve its problem. The would-be hero gets it at this point because, having attained Atonement, he is now acknowledged to be the person he was destined to be. All that remains is to see whether he will do what he was destined to do. If he does, he'll be the hero he always was but didn't know he was.

Step 12 (Return): Refusal of the Return.
In the Refusal of the Return, everyone in the Other World is expecting the would-be hero to return to the Mundane World with the boon, but he doesn't. In the Other World, the would-be hero has status, power and accomplishment. He's one with the Father. Why would he return to the Mundane World? Things are cushy for him here, not like in the Mundane World. Yes, OK, he may know that he ought to return to the Mundane World soon, but couldn't he tarry in the Other World for just a little while longer?

This step has the would-be hero assimilating into the Other World, so much so that it becomes mundane for him. As we'll see in step 16, he does later get to treat it as mundane, but he can't do so yet. The Father still controls his life in the Other World; he doesn't have the freedom he needs to live his life. For that, he has to return to the Mundane World where the Father's influence is no longer felt. He can Refuse to Return, but sooner or later he'll have no choice but to leave.

Step 13 (Return): The Magic Flight.
The would-be hero can't both have the boon and stay in the Other World. There are powerful forces in the Other World that also want the boon, and they're not going to leave the would-be hero alone until they get it. The Father is all-powerful with respect to the would-be hero, but that doesn't necessarily cut much ice with everyone else in the Other World. Yes, it's great to have the all-powerful Zeus as your Father, but if Zeus gave you something that Hera wants, she's still going to try and get it off you.

In the Magic Flight, the would-be hero is chased out of the Other World by people in the Other World who want the boon (or at least who don't want the would-be hero to have it). This step can be played for laughs; it's where you'll see those I-become-a-lion-you-become-an-elephant-I-become-a-mouse-you-become-a-cat style duels, for example. The word flight derives from flee here, but the way, not fly: your would-be hero doesn't have to escape in an aircraft. It's magical in the sense that it uses powers that are supernatural in the Other World, which the would-be hero now has at his disposal (possibly naturally, possibly using the boon) and which his pursuers can also wield. It's not magic in the sense of being full of wonder.

Step 14 (Return): Rescue from Without.
The Mundane World still needs its original problem to be solved and it knows that the would-be hero is the one to solve it. It wants him back. Without in this step is the Mundane World; the Other World is within. Someone (or a group of someones) from the Mundane World reaches into the Other World and rescues the would-be hero from his Magic Flight pursuers. The would-be hero could be injured or exhausted at this point, to emphasise the fact that not only does the Mundane World need him but he also needs the Mundane World.

Step 15 (Return): Crossing the Return Threshold.
Unlike when Crossing the First Threshold, when Crossing the Return Threshold the would-be hero has no commitment to make — he's been rescued, so is returning whether he likes it or not. His challenge in this step is to treat the Mundane World as real once again. It's like when you go on vacation and come back a week or two later having got used to where you were; the Mundane World now feels like an Other World to you and you're quite surprised that time seems hardly to have passed there while you were away. You have to get back into the swing of things again (quite quickly in the would-be hero's case as he still has a job to do).

Step 16 (Return): Master of the Two Worlds.
In this step, the would-be hero uses the boon to solve the problem he went to get it to fix. This makes him Master of the Mundane World. He became Master of the Other World upon Atonement with the Father, so now he's Master of the Two Worlds, celebrated in both. Neither of them has any mythical significance for him any more and he can move between them at will.

Step 17 (Return): Freedom to Live.
The would-be hero is at peace with himself and with both the Mundane World and the Other World. He has become his true self and so has nothing left to accomplish. He has no fear of dying before his time, because all time is now his; consequently, he has Freedom to Live — which is all that anyone ever does want at heart. This marks the end of his Hero's Journey: the would-be hero becomes a hero.

So those are the steps. It's possible to miss steps out sometimes, or to swap them (particularly in the Return phase), but unless you really know what you're doing you should endeavour to fit them all in. If you find that you have to omit or move a step for it to make sense, you're almost certainly doing something wrong and the resulting story will feel odd.

The Hero's Journey is so ingrained in the human psyche that sometimes my students will write a plot that conforms to the formula while they're trying to shoehorn bits of it into wrongly-labelled categories. They'll call the set-up the Call to Adventure but still have a symbolic Call to Adventure that's properly Refused, even though they didn't notice. They may send the would-be hero on a mission to kill some boss, which they call the Atonement with the Father step, but he's actually just the guardian for Crossing the First Threshold; the whole Initiation step is then squashed into what they call Apotheosis and The Ultimate Boon. It's as if these students know the formula implicitly at the sub-conscious level, but don't have a handle on it at the conscious level. It's quite remarkable. It doesn't get them marks, but still, you have to be impressed.

So, that's my take on the Hero's Journey, along with some of the common gotchas awaiting the unwary. It's almost certainly wrong in places, but I'm sure people will waste no time in telling me where.

Have fun trying it out!

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