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The Hero’s Journey: A Myth to Live By
Adapted from the 1995 edition of The Hero’s Journey: A Guide to Literature and Life, by Reg Harris and Susan Thompson
Background on the Journey
The Hero‘s Journey unit is the result of many years of planning, research and work, but our experience with the subject is far more extensive than that. We have been using elements from this unit since 1975 and have spent literally hundreds of hours creating, testing, revising, and polishing the material you see here.
The unit has been a passion for us. We have seen students changed profoundly by their understanding of the Rite of Passage and the Hero’s Journey. We have read countless essays in which students have demonstrated a new ability to step back from their lives and see their experiences as opportunities for growth and understanding. We have seen even the most “at-risk” students pause to reflect on where their journeys are leading them.
It isn’t uncommon for students, when telling us about the challenges they face, to use phrases such as, “I guess this is my call,” or “I haven’t reached the abyss yet, but I know it will make me stronger.”
We have also seen students who’ve had difficulty interpreting literature begin to see meaning in what they read. They find themselves able to compare characters and themes, explore motivation, and see symbolism and metaphor. After they study the Hero’s Journey, literature begins to have a deeper, more personal meaning to them.
Sometimes the process of revelation and change is quick; sometimes it takes several years; sometimes it doesn’t happen at all— not all students are touched by the Hero’s Journey. However, we’ve found the archetype far more effective than any other approach we’ve used to make literature accessible and relevant. We’ve found no better way to help students find constructive meaning in experience. In short, the Hero’s Journey has become an encompassing and enlightening foundation for all of our curriculum.
Rite of Passage forms foundation
The foundation of the curriculum is the Rite of Passage. Our premise is that our culture does not adequately “initiate” children into adulthood and acknowledge them as full members of the community.
Adolescence is a time of intense energy. In traditional cultures, elaborate rites of passage channeled that energy and used it as a springboard into adulthood. The rites said, “It is time to begin thinking in a new way, a community way.” With their associated myths, they gave the initiate patterns to follow in his or her new role. Moreover, the rites transformed not only the initiate, but the community as well. Through it, adults welcomed and acknowledged the initiate as one of them, with the rights and freedoms of adulthood.
Now, instead of using the energy of adolescence to propel kids toward growth, we try to control or suppress it. We provide no clear rituals to tell adolescents when to change their thinking and behavior, no myths to use as blueprints for their new roles. As a result, many young people are confused and frustrated. They feel alienated from their communities, which they feel don’t treat them as adults, even when they act like adults. They are locked into “perpetual adolescence,” with its rebellion, cynicism, frustration, and anger.
Nothing to write about
One characteristic we see in youngsters experiencing this problem is a feeling of dissociation from experience. When we ask students for autobiographical writing, we get responses like, “I don’t have anything to write about. Nothing ever happens in my life.” They don’t value their own experience.
Through literature, film and writing, we try to help our students re-associate with their experiences and to recognize and respect the changes in their lives. We hope that if students can understand what is happening at these pivotal moments, they will honor their own points of passage and use experience to learn and grow.
What myth is forming you?
Psychologist C. G. Jung wrote, “I asked myself, ‘What is the myth you are living?’ and found that I did not know. So…I took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth, and regarded this as the task of tasks…I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me.”
Children’s “life-forming myths” are implanted by peers, teachers, parents, film, music, the media—just about everything around them. We’ve seen these mythical roles at work in our own lives: the innocent, the martyr, the orphan, the wanderer, the warrior. What’s more, these myths/roles become the filters through which we interpret life. We frame the meanings for our experiences based on the myth we’ve selected for ourselves.
“Our experience quite literally is defined by our assumptions about life,” writes Carol Pearson in The Hero Within. “We make stories about the world and to a large degree live out their plots. What our lives are like depends to a great extent on the script we consciously, or more likely, unconsciously, have adopted.”
By working with literature and writing, we want students to become conscious of their own myth-making process. Once they are, they can begin to control it and choose for themselves how they will frame experience and shape their futures.
“Unfold your own myth”
The 13th century Islamic poet Rumi wrote, “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” We want to empower our students to do that, to understand the journeys in their lives and to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.
We also want students to be able to see literature and film as “modern myths,” stories that both reflect and guide the human experience. When they can do this, they will be able to make sense of what they watch and read, and they will be able to interpret even the most negative story in a way which fosters insight, growth and discovery.
Share the Journey
In 1994, as part of the Central California Council of Teachers of English retreat at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California, we presented a three-day seminar called “The Mythic Journey: Awakening the Hero in Your Students.” What we found, both for ourselves and the teachers in our session, was that the Journey isn’t just for students.
As we presented the material, we felt a shift of focus from the classroom to a focus which included the teachers’ journeys. We finished the weekend with a better understanding of not only the unit, but of our own journeys and of our place as guardians, helpers, and mentors for our students. After the session, one teacher wrote, “The Hero’s Journey is timely for my teaching; timeless for my life.”
Publishing The Hero‘s Journey has been part of our own Journey of growth and discovery, an adventure we hope that you will share. We know that, if you do, you will pass that excitement along to your students in a way that will influence the rest of their lives.