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A Myth to Live By
by Reg Harris
(This is the introduction to The Hero’s Journey: The Path of Transformation, our comprehensive guide to teaching the Hero’s Journey.)
This guide is about teaching the Hero’s Journey. But it’s not just about teaching. It’s also about the Hero’s Journey and its role in literature, film, psychology and life. As thorough as it is, this guide is not exhaustive―the transformative process described by the Hero’s Journey is too complex to be covered in a single book.
My goals here are smaller. First, I want to give you the tools and knowledge you need to teach the Hero’s Journey and to use it to its full potential with literature, film and other expressions of the human experience. Second, and, more importantly, I want to show you how you can use the journey with literature to help your students understand and negotiate the challenges they will face in their own lives.
The approach and journey model I present here are a synthesis of more than 40 years of experience and research. I began teaching the Hero’s Journey in 1975 and began studying it seriously in 1986. Since then, understanding the journey and the psychological dynamics that animate it has been, literally, the focus of my life. (For the story of my experience with the journey, see “My 40-Year Journey into the Hero’s Journey”.)
In the end, those 40 years of teaching, research and work have led me to a single truth: the Hero’s Journey describes the existential process we all go through as we live in and adjust to changes in our world and ourselves. And, because the journey describes an experience that is fundamental to human existence, it—or its elements—are found in virtually every expression of that experience, including literature, myth, film, music, art, psychology, counseling and therapy. This ubiquity makes the journey a valuable tool for all of those disciplines.
Unfolding a Possibility of Being
I designed this guide to give you a thorough teaching model of the hero’s journey, but more than that, I want to set you on a journey of your own, a journey into a different way of approaching literature, film and teaching itself. I want you to reconsider your role as a teacher. In his monomyth, Joseph Campbell spoke of initiates finding a mentor and supernatural aid at the beginning of their quest. I want you to think of yourself in that light: a mentor on your students’ journeys, with literature, film and poetry as “supernatural” aids for those journeys.
The first step in this process is to recognize that any understanding―whether of a text, a film or a poem―must always include self understanding. The only way we can understand anything is in terms of and through our personal narrative, the story we have created for ourselves in life (see “We Live in Story,” page 11). Thus, every time we engage a text authentically, we also engage our own narrative and open it to reinterpretation. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes,
The first function of understanding is to orientate us in a situation. So understanding is not concerned with grasping a fact but with apprehending a possibility of being…to understand a text…is not to find a lifeless sense which is contained therein, but to unfold the possibility of being indicated by the text. (1981, p. 56).
This perspective, that texts can open new potentials for being, is what I want you to consider as a teacher. Whenever we―or our students―genuinely engage a text, whether the text is historical or fictive, our identities as they relate to that text are brought into “play.” That is, our personal narrative is opened for reinterpretation and revision as the text offers us new potentials for understanding and engaging in our lives. Writing about narrative identity, Mark Muldoon (1997) observed, “In reading, we appropriate the author’s horizon [which], in turn, becomes an opportunity for a self-description, a redescription that is foremost a rereading of oneself in the world” (1997).
Thus, this manual is a guide to using the Hero’s Journey as a tool to help students explore stories and the resonances they feel within those stories. It will encourage them to open their thinking and, perhaps, “redescribe” themselves in their world. It also encourages you to shift your focus from analytical understanding to personal understanding so that your students don’t just examine literature, but grow from it.
The Power of Perspective: Seeing the “Big Picture”
In this way, the Hero’s Journey can transform your classroom. I’ve seen students changed profoundly by their understanding of the journey archetype. Students who had had difficulty interpreting literature began to compare characters and themes, explore motivation, and look for symbolism. Literature took on personal meaning for them. Using the journey, students have developed the capacity to “step back” and see their current challenges in the context of their life journey, as opportunities for insight and growth. I’ve seen even the most “at-risk” students pause to reflect on where their journeys are leading them.
I call this “consciousness-broadening” capacity the “power of perspective.” The Hero’s Journey expands our personal narrative from what Jean Houston called the “personal-particular” to the “personal-universal” levels of understanding, a perspective from which we can see the larger story unfolding in our lives. Within this larger context, even negative experiences can take on a constructive meaning. If we can’t see the “big picture,” life’s inevitable changes can overwhelm us. However, from this expanded perspective, “when we lose a job or win a promotion, end a marriage, have a grandchild, get sick or get well, it is not…personal. It is the dance of life” (Kornfield, 2008, p. 82).
The need to expand our consciousness will arise many times in our lives. However, adolescents, who are often besieged by the turmoil of dramatic social and physical changes, are especially in need of developing a long-range view. Literature can help them do this. When they connect their life journeys to the literary journeys they study, they can enhance their own “narrative-making” process. Through the journey, they can explore more deeply the stories of others and understand their challenges. They can see how those characters resolved their challenges successfully or, more importantly, why they failed to resolve them and what they could have done differently.
When students begin to grasp how they are creating their own stories, they will have the tools to choose how experiences will inform their lives. Rather than allowing their past to interpret their present, they will be able to interpret the present with an eye toward the future. They can explore a situation and reframe it as a story that fosters insight, growth and discovery. “Instead of telling ourselves the same story day in and day out,” explains psychologist Victor Daniels, “we think of a new one that not only casts things in a different light, but may even be more plausible than our old one” (1976, pp. 216).
This type of growth is possible if we, as teachers, encourage authentic engagement with a text rather simply demanding analytical reading (see p. 11). The Hero’s Journey can help foster authentic engagement. It can help students use the story to expand their perspective and to consider new possibilities that the story opens for them. Reading becomes not an invitation to discover meaning that is already in the story, but a process by which the story disrupts their current meaning and forces them to explore perspectives they may never have considered. Campbell (1949) often mentions the role of literature and art in this process:
…the agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization (p. 190).
The Soul’s High Adventure
Unfortunately, most approaches to teaching the Hero’s Journey overlook Campbell’s intent with the monomyth. He didn’t devote his life to the pattern so that teachers could hand students a chart and say, “Find these stages in this story.” He intended the journey archetype to be of deep, lasting value in our lives, but for it to have that impact, we must go beyond a “Where’s Waldo” approach to teaching it.
Campbell knew that the Hero’s Journey resonates for us because it describes our innate process of transformation and growth. In this process our ineffectual or limited understandings are reinterpreted or replaced by new understandings that are more in tune with the person we are becoming. In The World of Myth, David Leeming called the journey a metaphor for our search for self-understanding: “To follow the hero is to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves…in what Campbell calls ‘the wonderful song of the soul’s high adventure’” (1990, p. 217).
This concept of losing ourselves in order to find ourselves is the message of the Hero’s Journey. At its essence, the journey is a metaphor for death and rebirth: the old self dies so the new self can be born. Because it is a metaphor for the path we all take as we grow, it underlies all human experience and, consequently, is found in all stories about those experiences. As a result, it provides a powerful schema for understanding literature and film, a tool for analysis, a starting point for discussion and interpretation, and a common language for comparison.
You can understand and teach the journey on two basic levels. You can use it as an archetypal pattern to study myth and the mythic hero. Or you can also use it as Campbell intended: as a tool to help your students understand both literature and the challenges and stages in their own lives: “The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls” (1949, p. 122). This life-oriented approach to the journey will be far more fulfilling for you and far more beneficial for your students than a search Waldo.
This is not a “cookbook”
As I said at the beginning of this discussion, this guide has two goals: to give you the knowledge and tools you need to teach the Hero’s Journey and to encourage you to use the journey in concert with literature and film to help students negotiate their own life challenges. In this spirit, this guide is not a cookbook. It contains “suggested approaches” rather than detailed lesson plans. Part of your journey is learning the material and adapting it to your specific needs; this guide is as much about you as it about your students.
Because the journey or its elements are in any story, once you have taught the pattern, you can use it with virtually any curriculum. The most common use of the journey is probably for studying myth (especially epics such as The Odyssey). However, teachers have used the journey for a wide range of literature and film, including Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, Fahrenheit 451, Death of a Salesman, The Lord of the Rings, and Harold and Maude. I’ve even used it to teach postmodernism, existentialism, poetry and writing.
Your Threshold to Adventure
Teaching the Hero’s Journey fully usually takes about six weeks. I believe that it should be taught as a separate, dedicated unit, a “Rite of Passage” to a new way of thinking, both for you and your students. There three keys to using the program successfully.
1. Spend the time necessary to teach the Hero’s Journey thoroughly. Be sure that students fully understand the concept of transformation (Ritual and Rites of Passage) and the journey pattern itself.
2. Cover the Call Refused in depth, emphasizing that it is never too late to accept the call to change. The Call Refused, I believe, is the most important element in the journey, and it manifests itself in much of the great tragic literature we read.
3. Go beyond the journey. Understanding the elements in the journey pattern can be an end in itself, but it can also be the starting point for profound and far ranging discussion and analysis of all literature, film and life.
While these keys are important in teaching and using the Hero’s Journey, perhaps the most important factor is for you to recognize your role in your students’ journeys. You are not a facilitator, coordinator or “deliverer of content.” You are a mentor, and as a mentor, you can bring literature and film to life by using them to open to your students new possibilities for understanding and being. And you will grow along the way, as well. So, best wishes on your journey into the Hero’s Journey. You’ve an exciting adventure ahead.
Copyright © 2016 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article or any part thereof in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Posting this article or any part thereof to the Internet in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and strictly prohibited. For permission to use, please contact Reg Harris.