The “Hero’s Journey,” part 1: The Story
“THE HERO AND HIS STORY”
I am into my second reading of David Wilcock’s timely book, “THE SYNCHRONICITY KEY – The Hidden Intelligence Guiding the Universe and You.” Chapter nine has captivated my curiosity about how novels and scripts for movies are written. So I thought it would be fun, even insightful, to blog on the topic, which is actually quite fascinating. I’ll just jump right into the middle of the chapter. But first a little background might be helpful.
The phrase “The Hero’s Journey” was coined by Joseph Campbell in his comparative mythology study, which he published in 1949 in the form of his world classic scholarly work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it Campbell explores and analyses myths from all over the world, in all different time periods, and finds that they have remarkable similarities to one another. He calls the overall story “The Hero’s Journey.” Wilcock describes the journey:
It’s how we work through our fears, our weaknesses, our limitations—each and every day. It is ultimately the blueprint of our evolution—and the path to a Golden Age. Anyone who writes an engaging, believable screenplay is tapping into the Hero’s Journey story structure, whether they realize it or not. Those who are aware of it have a much better chance of success. . . . Campbell drew heavily on the legendary work of Dr. Carl Jung, who found that these various ancient myths keep repeating in our dreams with certain ongoing themes he called archetypes.
And that’s a whole other topic which I may explore at a latter date. But for now . . .
ON TO THE MOVIES
Every successful Hollywood movie story line follows what is well known by all play-wrights – who want their stories to find favor with their intended audiences – as “the structure.” The structure unravels the story between three acts: beginning, middle and ending. The basic “structure” was first spelled out by Aristotle. The theme of the structure is the telling and retelling of the story of “The Hero’s Journey,” and it is divided into four parts: 1) The hero’s quest, 2) The hero’s initiation in the quest, 3) Facing and defeating the nemesis, which typically leads to the “dark night of the soul” when all is lost, and 4) The final showdown and triumph over the nemesis, and the seizing of the “Elixir of Immortality,” the prize and goal sought in the hero’s quest.
At least this is how movies with happy endings usually go. There are some “dark” movies where the hero is defeated by the nemesis and often dies. An outstanding example is the bloody comedy “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”— which we watched last night as a live performance by the New York Philharmonic from Lincoln Center of Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece staring Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel. The movie version features Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the leading roles.
The setting is 1831 London and the story is about a skilled barber and alleged serial killer named Benjamin Barker who is falsely charged and sentenced to penal transportation from London by the corrupt Judge Turpin. Judge Turpin seizes Barker’s wife Lucy for himself and rapes her. Lucy, who is said to have poisoned herself, shows up in the drama as an old beggar woman. Judge Turpin takes their daughter, Johanna, as his ward and raises her as his own.
Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London under the alias Sweeney Todd, sets up a barber shop above a meat-pie shop on Fleet Street owned and operated by Mrs. Nellie Lovett. The two concoct a sordid business in which Sweeney Todd murders his customers in a twisted mission to rid the world of useless human beings and drops their corpses down into Mrs. Lovett’s shop, who then processes them into meat pies. His primary quest focuses on avenging himself against Judge Turpin by luring him into his shop for a “shave.” His second goal is to get his daughter back.
As the complex plot unravels and thickens, Sweeney Todd does finally have his opportunity to avenge himself by slitting Judge Turpin’s throat in a bloody scene in his barber shop upon his fancy new barber’s chair. So, our hero does achieve his quest. However, the story takes a dark twist and turn when Sweeney Todd realizes he has also slain his “beautiful” Lucy, after the old beggar woman (Lucy) recognizes his familiar face. Fearing she might blow his cover and announce his return to the village, Sweeney Todd slits her throat as well not knowing it is his Lucy he has slain. Studying her face more closely and realizing his horrible mistaken deed, he presents his own throat to Nellie Lovett’s meat pie shop-boy, who has by now discovered the dastardly business at which he has been employed.
In the grand and gory finale, the boy takes Sweeney’s silver razor in hand and ends the demon barber’s ill-intended quest and miserable life. The hero is defeated by his own nemesis and, of course, fails to achieve the “elixir of immortality.”
(Although the story itself — which may have some basis in legend*– is now immortalized by Stephen Sondheim. Just as a side note, I am intrigued by, and somewhat concerned about, what archetypes in my own heredity makeup find this movie entertaining. And that goes for all movies and novels I seem to enjoy. Hmm.)
THE NEMESIS OFTEN MIRRORS THE HERO
The lighter movies typically have a sweet ending where the hero triumphs and wins the prize at the end, usually in the form of riding off into the sunset with the beautiful woman, for whom he had to slay a dragon–usually the nemesis of the shadow of his own character flaw, often reflected back to him in the “bad guy” who stands in the way of achieving his quest. The hero’s nemesis is often mirrored by the villain in movies and novels.
The hero, of course, is sometimes a woman, as in “Gone With the Wind” — celebrating its 75th anniversary today. This movie is somewhat complex, however, having both failure and victory in the story line. Whereas Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) fails in his quest to tame Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) for himself, Scarlet emerges as the hero of the story who has to face her own nemesis: her self-centered, spoiled female ego. Her quest is to find her man, whom she singles out in Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who marries Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), a generous and kind woman with a compassionate and understanding heart. When that quest proves unobtainable, Scarlett turns her quest toward her beloved plantation home Tara.
Act I: In her futile struggle with her nemesis, Scarlet loses everything as Tara is pillaged by the Civil War and her father dies in a fall from his horse while pursuing a thieving renegade, leaving her with nothing but the land and in a pitiful state of having to scrounge for food and tax money to keep Kara from falling into the hands of the carpetbaggers. Scarlet has her dark night of the soul, swearing to heaven above that she “will never be hungry again!” (Intermission)
Act II: During her dark-night-of-the-soul experience, Scarlet remembers what her father had taught her about the land being the most valuable thing in life to possess and cherish. The land, then, on which Scarlet’s beloved Tara sits—restored to its former elegance with wealth she acquired by marrying Mr. Kennedy right from under of her sister’s nose—becomes a substitute elixir of immortality our hero literally and selfishly seizes in the second act of the movie. The genuine elixir that would fulfill her soul’s quest is the freedom to be her real Self in the wake of the demise of her nemesis, her false human ego.
Act III: Scarlet and Rhett, deserving one another, finally tie the knot and bring a daughter, Bonnie, into their lives, whom her father spoils and treats like a princess, buying her a pony as a final measure of his love and devotion, much against her mother’s wishes. In the end, Rhett is driven away from Scarlet after they lose Bonnie, who falls off her pony in the shadow of her grandfather’s fateful end, a tragedy Scarlet feared would happen and for which she severely blamed Rhett. This final blow led to their alienation and ultimate and dramatic separation from one another. Rhett returns to Scarlett, as he frequently does throughout the movie, only to be finally convinced of her incorrigibility.
Grand Finale: Neither of our would-be heroes defeat their nemesis, however, which is mirrored back to them each by the other. This failure turns this world-classic into a modern-day tragedy with Rhett closing the front door of Tara in Scarlet’s face, not giving “a damn” what she does with her miserable life, and Scarlet remains unredeemed from and defeated by her nemesis. Rather than facing her dilemma with Rhett – whom she realizes she has come to truly love – and letting her self-centered ego take a back seat to what had become really important to her, she chooses the path of least resistance by putting off the would-be victory with the classic line “There’s always tomorrow,” a sad but realistic ending for a much loved movie – which in itself makes a statement about the human drama.
All of it is the complex and sometimes frustrating story of the hero’s journey, a story we all apparently love and live to hear told over and over again in movies and novels, and for one reason only: it is the story of our very own lives. Even larger than that, it is the story of a nation, a people, and the evolution of the human race itself – all of which we will explore in this series.
The questions I would pose, then, and leave you to ponder, are: With whom do you most identify in the two stories I’ve cited? Do you see your own hero’s journey playing out? And where are you in your journey? Let’s take each act and part of the hero’s journey and explore where we are in it, as individuals, as a nation, and as a collective body of humanity.
We’ll start with THE QUEST in my next post . This will give you time to mull over these stories and reflect on your own hero’s journey. Until then,
Be love. Be loved.
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* The original story of Sweeney Todd was quite possibly based on an older urban legend that found its way into Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836–37). Dickens tells how “the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats ‘for beefsteak, veal and kidney, ‘cording to the deman’, and recommends that people should buy pies only ‘when you know the lady that made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kitten.’” (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd )