What do you think of when you hear the word “hero”? Maybe you think of war heroes or firemen, people who put their lives on the line regularly to help people. Maybe you think of brave civilians who rise to the occasion during a disaster or a shooting. Maybe you just think of heroes in stories: myths and legends and superheroes.
Or you think of something else entirely. Maybe you think of some goal, some ideal person, someone who you need, or someone the world needs. Maybe just someone who you want to be. What do all these things have in common? What really makes a hero?
Joseph Campbell, a well-respected researcher and author on comparative mythology, has a theory about what makes a hero. Campbell was a scholar who focused on the power of archetypes, or reccurring elements in stories — both real and invented. They are common images that transcend cultures, making their way into stories from all time periods and all parts of the world. Femme Fatales are archetypal, as are Kings, to name a few. Heroes too are archetypal. Campbell had a theory about what makes a hero fit an archetype which he called “The Hero’s Journey.” The Hero’s Journey refers to the essential steps involved in becoming a hero and is extremely recurrent in literature and real life. According to Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is a basic part of the human psyche — so basic that he considered every human life to follow it to some degree. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a long and complex list of steps, but can be simplified to a couple of basic concepts and requirements.
The Hero’s Journey begins with the hero in question making a Departure from Normality. Going off to war, for instance, could be considered an archetypal departure. Being thrown into a dangerous situation and setting out on a mission are departures. Before this stage of the hero’s journey, a hero is generally young or inexperienced. The hero has been sheltered or cared for or has simply never encountered the dangers of the world. It is the beginning of the story. Being bitten by a radioactive spider and developing superpowers is a departure, albeit an unrealistic one. Even going off to college could be a departure. The point is that the hero sets out from his or her previous life with a goal and goes on a journey to achieve it.
The second stage of the Hero’s Journey is the Initiation stage. In this stage, the hero has usually hit some sort of obstacle before reaching his or her goal. This low point of the Hero’s Journey is a sort of “dark night of the soul” in which the hero faces inner demons. After the low point, the hero goes through an initiation, during which she or he completes a quest and experiences a personal revelation, having reached the goal of the Hero’s Journey and defeated inner demons. This “inner demon” usually takes the form of some sort of mental block that makes it hard for the hero to reach their goal. Everybody experiences self doubt at some point. The completion of a challenge that seems personal, difficult, or even impossible is a vital part of the Hero’s Journey.
The third and final stage of the Journey is the Return. The hero returns from the journey having beaten the villain or saved the princess or gotten the diploma and he or she comes back home having changed and conquered a personal problem, a demon or weakness of some sort. The person then becomes a hero. That’s it. One, two, three, hero. Anyone can do it.
But that can’t be true, can it? Is everyone who sets out to accomplish a goal really a hero? Every college application? Every first job? Every first kiss? Could everyone who has ever left home, conquered a goal that affects them personally and gone home a better person a hero? Is the average person growing up in the world the same as a superhero? Campbell claimed that the Hero’s Journey actually applies to everyday life; that simply growing up is technically a heroic feat. I’m not sure that’s all there is to it.
There is one more element in the Hero’s Journey that makes me question the idea of the everyday hero. It is not a step, like the other elements. It is a concept. The hero’s goal must be about something bigger than the hero. Campbell included this idea in his definition of the Hero’s Journey but it doesn’t seem to mesh well with the idea that everyone’s a hero. For example, imagine someone running for political office. If a person does it in order to gain personal respect and power, then they are not a hero. They can depart from normal life, face down an inner demon and return with new understanding and strength; but they are not a hero. To be a hero they need to change something, to make something better for someone else. Maybe everyone who grows up is out to change something. As I see it, this is what really makes someone a hero. It could be helping a friend or fighting for a group’s rights, or becoming a doctor to help people, but not for personal gain. And, in some highly unlikely scenario, it could even be saving the world.