The Hero’s Journey in the West
by Caroline Lawrence
Over 60 years ago, Joseph Campbell demonstrated that world mythologies had many common themes, particularly that of an individual who takes an epic journey. Campbell called his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Famously, George Lucas used elements of this mythic journey template as the structure for the first Star Wars movie in 1977. At about the same time, Disney screenwriter Christopher Vogler sent his fellow writers a memo urging them to incorporate Campbell’s discoveries into whatever story they currently working on. Star Wars was a world transforming hit and Disney’s failing fortunes revived spectacularly. Christopher Vogler left Disney and for the past thirty years has been teaching his own simplified version of Campbell’s revelation. He calls it The Hero’s Journey. Today, every screenwriter in Hollywood knows about it, and many use it, along with other story structure templates.
The Hero’s Journey goes something like this: In an ordinary world, an individual is living an uninspired and often oppressed life. This individual (our hero) seems ordinary to all around him, but inwardly he suspects that he is destined for something greater. One day a messenger arrives to summon the hero on a quest for a particular prize. Although he has often suspected he was meant for something great, the hero often gets cold feet and refuses to leave his comfort zone. A mentor then arrives to reassure the hero that he is the only one who can achieve this particular task. The mentor gives the hero advice and a talisman, and sometimes a violent prompt. Our hero then crosses a threshold from his ordinary world into a world of adventure. As he struggles to adapt to this strange new world, he meets friends and makes enemies. He also undergoes training and fights skirmishes in preparation for the biggest battle, with the enemy or beast who possesses the prize. At last he enters the final arena of battle, often a cave or dark underground place, and there he does battle with the opponent or beast. The hero wins the battle, and gets the prize, but his real reward is knowledge and growth. Emerging from the arena in a kind of resurrection, our older and wiser hero is now ready to perform the role for which he was destined: to live (and often rule) wisely and well. In most myths the hero returns home, but in some versions he remains in the new world.
The Hero’s Journey structure is formulaic in both the worst and best senses of the word. Worst because almost every Hollywood blockbuster uses it, or a variation of it. Best in the sense that it echoes the human struggle of life and growth, and therefore resonates deeply in our subconscious. When used correctly and imaginatively, the Hero’s Journey template can create a life-transforming story.
A recent example was the film Avatar, which follows the beats of the Hero’s Journey step for step. Critics derided the plot as formulaic but the public adored it. The story may have been paint-by-numbers simple, but it was deeply satisfying. For Cameron, whose main desire was to create a new world by means of multi-million-dollar special effects, the Hero’s Journey structure was his safest bet. The bet paid off. In 2009, Avatar it became the highest grossing film of all time, taking nearly 3 billion dollars.
The Heros Journey template doesn’t work for every story, but it can work very well for the Western genre. Take two recent successful films, the Coen Brothers take on True Grit http://www.truegritmovie.com and the animated film Rango http://www.rangomovie.com. They hit almost all the beats of the Hero’s Journey. Both heroes leave their ordinary worlds to cross a wilderness, Rango in search of water and Mattie in search of revenge. Rango has an Armadillo mentor and Mattie has a talisman, her father’s gun. Rango crosses the threshold of a busy road and Mattie rides her horse through a fast flowing river.
In the first of my new Western Mysteries
series, my 12-year-old hero P.K. Pinkerton is called out of his ordinary world when he finds his foster pa and ma scalped and dying. P.K.s dying ma tells him to run away from her killers and gives him a talisman, his dead pas detective button. P.K. crosses the threshold when he rides through Devils Gate on the back of a stagecoach. His world of adventure is Virginia City, a rough and ready mining town known as Satan’s Playground. P.K. makes friends and enemies, undergoes training and finally comes face to face with his nemesis, Whittlin Walt, a deadly desperado who whittles his victims while they are still alive. The battle is fought in the deepest cave of a mineshaft and when P.K. emerges he’s learned well, read it for yourself!
P.S. If you want to know more about The Hero’s Journey in Westerns, I’ve taken a closer look at True Grit, Rango and The Case of the Deadly Desperados over on my own blog: http://tomboycowgirl.blogspot.com.
The Case of the Deadly Desperados is available to buy now in all good book shops! Many thanks to Caroline for stopping by.