Written by Darius Thornton
Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years and has taken many forms during that time. There’s been folktales, legends, tall tales, fairy tales, films, novels, and countless other forms. Every story has its own unique elements, from a unique plot to a cast of memorable characters to the world in which the story happens. On the surface, it appears like these elements are enough to wildly differentiate each story. What does Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Shrek have in common, besides the fact that they’re both films? At first glance, absolutely nothing other than both having a fantasy setting. Well, what if I told you it was deeper than that? That some propose that every story has the same structure hidden beneath layers of unique elements. If you strip away all these elements and revert it down to its base, there’s the same basic story in the Hero’s Journey. Today I will be examining this through the lens of today’s two most conventional storytelling methods, films, and novels.
To begin, the Hero’s Journey or the “Hero’s Adventure”, as it was originally called, is a phrase first used by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He proposed that even with as different as heroes tend to appear, they all go on a similar journey throughout the course of their story. This journey also goes by the name of the monomyth, since it started with Campbell pointing out similarities in the stories of myths and religious texts. It introduced the concept of the “archetypal hero” and archetypes in general, a pattern of traits shared by heroes in their stories. The original interpretation of the journey had 12 stages, though it has since been simplified to eight stages by some and three by others. The original stages are, the Ordinary World, the Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor, Crossing the Threshold, Tests, Allies and Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back, “Death” and Resurrection and The Return. Now, Campbell proposed that not all of these things needed to literally happen in a story for it to demonstrate the journey, but there are often times figurative examples of allusions that occur. Over time, the Hero’s Adventure became the Hero’s Journey and began to serve as a staple story structure for all fictional literature, as opposed to just ancient myths. It became evident that myths were the basis of modern storytelling, as simplistic and outdated as they often were.
With that being said, it is important to understand each stage of the Hero’s Journey before we go any further. The Ordinary World is just that, the ordinary life of the hero before the conflict arises. For an eleven-year-old orphan, Harry Potter, this world is tucked away in the cupboard of his aunt and uncle’s house, neglected and verbally abused constantly, while his cousin Duddly is pampered. For Shrek, the ogre normal is living alone in his swamp and terrorizing those unfortunate enough to cross his path. In the Call to Adventure, something happens to provoke the hero out of their comfortable life and into action. Harry begins to get magical letters that invite him to some strange school called Hogwarts. Shrek comes home one day to find his swamp full of fairy tale characters from Far Far Away, banished by the tyrannical Lord Farquaad. The Refusal of the Call is defined by reluctance or outright refusal by the hero to take action, though sometimes it is caused by those around the hero, not the hero themselves. Harry’s uncle forbids Harry from reading the letters and keeps them locked away, prompting more and more to show up. Shrek initially refuses to go confront Farquaad until he realizes it’s the only way to get the creatures to leave. Next, the hero Meets the Mentor, someone with the knowledge and experience that they don’t have. For Harry, this comes in the form of Hagrid the giant, who rescues him from his relatives, tells Harry he is a wizard and takes him off to get ready for Hogwarts. Shrek meets Donkey, who has extensive knowledge of how the land of Far Far Away works. This also serves as Shrek meeting one of his allies, which he will embark on many tests and trials with, including defeating the dragon and saving Princess Fiona. For Harry, these allies end up being Ron and Hermione, classmates who help him in his quest to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone. Not even halfway through the 12 stages and the similarities are notable.
With all these parallels stated, it is clear that both Harry Potter and Shrek, although having wildly different stories and tones, share the same story structure, with different character types. Why? Why is this deceptively simple narrative framework employed so frequently in film and literature? Well, to put it simply, the Hero’s Journey is the story of humans. A story about a character living a life that’s lacking something, embarking on a journey, being tested, meeting allies and enemies, reaching their lowest point, facing their fear, winning and returning to the “normal world”, whatever that may be. It is the story of life, portrayed on a more grand, idealized scale and that is why it is so ingrained in the minds of writers, readers, and audiences alike. Life is something we all live, it may look different due to our circumstances, who we are, the people we meet, but we all live life. Joseph Campbell drew inspiration from the works of a great many when he wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces, though most notably renowned psychologist, Carl Jung. Jung was a firm believer in archetypes. He was once quoted as saying, “There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the forms of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action.” Essentially, we have been exposed to so many archetypes, both in myths and in the real lives in which we live, that everything becomes an archetype, every type of person we encounter, every situation that occurs becomes a possibility. Characters and stories resonate because we find said characters relatable, endearing or both. We can see ourselves in the every-man that becomes a hero. We can marvel at the wisdom of the mentor. We can root against the tyrant or the dark lord because we have been conditioned to do so over the many times we’ve seen it.
To answer the question I originally posed, no, it is not possible to craft a story without it inevitably being based around the Hero’s Journey. If one is telling a story about a character walking to the store to get milk, it already has elements of the journey within it. Even if the hero doesn’t change in any meaningful way, something still occurred, a plot still advanced. How can one truly avoid something that seems to hold endless molds of endless possibilities? We might not be the “chosen one” or have to lead a revolution or slay a dragon, but we’re all going from Point A to Point B, in some way or another. All that needs to occur is the hero wanting or needing something and then doing something to have to get it. That is life at its most basic. The Hero’s Journey is simply every story resorted to its base level. Even its variants are simply tweaked versions of itself. Everyone is the hero of their own story after all, which makes it unavoidable.