The Hero Journey Motif As a Tool for Reading and Writing

Quite often teachers in middle school and high school find themselves teaching the grade level language arts curriculum from a conservative and sometimes minimalist point of view. What that means is that many follow generic lesson plans devised by a team, a textbook company, or themselves that cover only the very basic or minimal reading comprehension and writing skills. The reasons for this vary:

• They are required to follow a preordained set of standards.

• They aren’t sure their students can achieve such a higher level of thinking and so do not take the risk of advancing beyond the suggested plan.

• They use methods with which they are comfortable.

• They may be unfamiliar with the available tools they can use to guide students successfully to higher levels of analysis.

If the reader identifies with any of these circumstances, please read on. Throughout my many years of research and classroom experience, one archetype in particular stands out as a foundation for guiding my students to in-depth analysis of literature. That tool is the monomyth, or hero’s journey story pattern. Once students understand the basic components of this archetypal motif, they can analyze a story more easily using a specific set of criteria, but they can also use this tool for writing their own short fiction, a task which I ask them to do as a required entry for writing competition each fall semester. Whether students use this pattern in reading or writing, the hero journey archetype adds clarity and interest and depth to the task.

Although the hero journey motif is ancient, the oldest story structure in literary history that begins with Gilgamesh, it was Joseph Campbell’s seminal work with world mythology that produced the most enlightening interpretation of the archetypes in the hero’s journey. As with all of Campbell’s work, he leads us to see that the stories of mythology are really our own stories, the symbolic pieces of our own lives. Imagine how beneficial such relevant studies can be for students in both reading and writing. So let’s get started.

According to Campbell, the hero is called to an adventure, but sometimes he or she either refuses the call for personal reasons or doesn’t recognize the call. What follows is an event that helps to change the hero’s mind, and he decides to take up the gauntlet. Rarely does the hero go it alone. Help soon shows up in the form of friends, loved ones, even total strangers to accompany the hero to the first threshold crossing into the kingdom of darkness. The hero and his companions leave the world of common day to face the dangers looming in symbolic and even actual darkness. The hero tricks, seduces, destroys, or escapes from the threshold guardian in order to pass into the new world.

As the hero begins this new leg of the journey, she must face tests and trials as she is initiated into the danger. Ogres and demons must be conquered until the hero finds the elixir, the boon-either concrete or abstract–that will change the lives of everyone, including the hero. The supreme ordeal thrusts the hero into the most difficult battle. Named for the Biblical character Jonah who is swallowed by a whale, the supreme ordeal is often referred to as being in the belly of the whale and going on the night sea journey, and also as the archetypal image, facing a life threatening situation in the inmost cave, literal or figurative. The meaning is clear: the hero experiences rebirth in the symbolic womb. This event is the single most defining event that turns the typical adventure story into a quest for good. The hero is not the same person he was when he began the journey.

The hero must now return home with the elixir. Her flight takes various forms. The hero often flees from danger but sometimes he is dismissed, driven out, or escorted home along with his followers. On his return, the sharing of the elixir-the boon, the treasure-improves life for at least the hero and remaining companions if not everyone in their world.

A number of experts believe the monomyth is the underlying structure for the most popular and also most financially successful novels and films today. While this is an interesting and provocative idea, I have found the stories listed here illustrate the elements of the hero’s journey quite well for my students’ reading and writing benefit. This is only a small sampling of what is available. Once you begin to look for the motif in other works, you’ll see what I mean.

• The Last Book in the Universe by Philip Pullman

• The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

• Any of the Harry Potter series

• True Grit (I use the John Wayne film.)

• Jason and the Argonauts (I use Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.)

• The Odyssey (Again from Edith Hamilton)

• Theseus and the Minotaur (Edith Hamilton)

• Children on their Birthdays by Truman Capote (film version)

• To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

• Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

• The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

• Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

• Night by Elie Wiesel

• The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

• Blessings by Anna Quindlen

Good readers make good writers; thus, the monomyth motif can serve as an excellent structure for the short stories I ask students to write for the Scholastic Art & Writing competition. Although this writing contest for grades 7 – 12 is worth devoting precious teaching time to, this article will not delve into the details of the contest. I urge the reader to look at scholasticart& for more information. What I will explain here is how I use the monomyth structure to prepare students to write their short fiction entries.

The initial action:

• Call to adventure

• Refusal of the call

• Setting out with helpers

Building the action and moving the plot forward:

• Crossing the threshold

• Encountering dangers and conflicts

• The supreme ordeal: facing the main character’s greatest fear or challenge, perhaps even death (usually symbolic death, but sometimes actual death)

Building the close with flight/elixir/return

• The main character flees old ways, dangers, fears, and he/she is a changed person. Life is going to be different and usually better for the main character and perhaps even other people in his life. The main character or hero has returned home, literally or figuratively, with the symbolic elixir that solves the initial problem.