Prompt: What’s the importance of “The Hero’s Journey”? How has storytelling evolved from oral to written and where is the future of storytelling headed? Are we going back to our roots?
(This post has spoilers for The Hobbit)
I would say that the first time I ever truly learned about The Hero’s Journey was in my 9th grade English class (shout out to Mrs. Chesser for being awesome!). I want to say it was the beginning of the year when we’re all sort of still clinging to the last rays of the summer sun and there’s still hope that this year we won’t feel like we’re drowning in school work and obligations and pressure to do well. We talked about how over time authors have developed a pattern to their stories, a road that almost every protagonist in almost every story follows (I say almost because there are usually exceptions to every rule).
As a lover of the written word, I’ve always been fascinated by learning new things about both the things I love reading and the things I love writing. I started to look at my favorite books in a new light. I of course knew that most books have predictable endings (the guy gets the girl, the evil person looses, the protagonist comes home), but I never really understood why. Or why that predictability appeals to humans so much.
In all of the years we’ve told stories, we’ve followed a simple pattern: meet the hero, the hero goes on an adventure, the hero returns home changed. Over time, that pattern has gained more steps, added more characters, and become more and more recognized.
I think out of all of the story I’ve ever read, the one that best fits The Hero’s Journey is The Hobbit. We start by meeting Bilbo, a normal hobbit totally opposed to going on adventures. Gandalf comes along and invites him on a journey sure to be filled with excitement and treasure, which Bilbo refuses. Promptly putting this encounter out of his mind, you can imagine Bilbo’s surprise when Gandalf and a dozen dwarves show up on his doorstep and eat all of his food. Somehow, they convince him to go win back the dwarves’ Mountain from Smaug, the great dragon who’s taken it and all of its gold. After a trek that involves goblins, trolls, giant eagles, elves, and humans, they arrive at the Mountain, and Bilbo – both the hero and the smallest of the group – slays the great beast, winning back The Mountain. After a battle for The Mountain between 5 armies, Bilbo finally gets to return home. After being gone for almost a year, his things are being sold off by his neighbors. We leave him grumpy about being thought dead, but a changed man (hobbit?) from who he was at the beginning of the book.
One thing that I’ve found interesting about this book is that the mentor isn’t with the hero the whole time. In other books, like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, there are times when the mentor isn’t with the hero because the author didn’t make them part of the adventure or there’s no need for them to be there, but in The Hobbit, Tolkien specifically had Gandalf leave the group just when they’re about to really need him. This form of forcing the hero to grow, adapt, and think is interesting to me because so often it is very obvious that the hero couldn’t have done it without their mentors and sidekicks. Instead, over and over again, Bilbo is left alone to figure things out by himself.
I think part of the importance of The Hero’s Journey is just that: the changes between it from story to story, but also the continuities. Obviously, things like the setting, characters, and plot change from one story to another, but we can always count on certain steps, and a happy ending. I think humans like that predictability with all of the unpredictable things that happen in our own lives. There’s something comforting about knowing that no matter what pains happen in the characters’ lives, they will always get a happy ending: the girl, the victory, the growth. I think we sometimes worry that after all of the pains we go through, we won’t get that happy ending, so we want someone else to get it.
We had a writing assignment last year in English class that I lost a lot of sleep over. Not because I was up late finishing it or anything like that, but because of the prompt: Is human nature inherently good or inherently bad?
I’ve continued to think about this question long after the due date of the assignment (I hope you’re happy, Mrs. Tussey, that your assignment has stuck with me). Not every day, but sometimes I’ll think of it again and rethink my answer. To be perfectly honest, I think most of the answers people gave were not what they actually thought, but instead what they could best defend with the sources they were given. I know my answer was because of that. Now, given the time to properly think about it, I think my answer is that in it’s simplest form, human nature is to make our decisions based on past experience. A villain is not born a villain, but experience has made them one. A hero is more often forced into that role than willingly takes it up. And for those of us who fall into the middle category, I think we wish the best upon those we don’t know but who look down on their luck, and only really wish harm upon those who have hurt us. Or maybe we wish good upon everyone, but if someone has hurt us there may be a time where we are indifferent to their lives until we forgive them. Or maybe that’s just me. The thing about human nature is that more often than not, we have only our own experience and maybe the experience of those we surround ourselves with to make our decisions, which creates incredibly biased opinions. We share these opinions through the stories we tell, both spoken and written.
Once, a very long time ago, our only means of telling stories was through spoken word. We would gather around fires or in amphitheaters or near our grandparents and hear the stories told, the ones the storytellers had heard when they were children. As we progressed, people started to write these stories down. With the invention of things like typewriters, we spread these stories to bigger and bigger audiences across the country, the continent, the world. We were exposed to thousands of different lives, and our knowledge and understanding grew.
The assignment Anya and I assigned to ourselves for summer work was to read (or watch, in the case of TED Talks) ten articles and place them in The Hero’s Journey. When we shared them with each other, we were curious about the ratio of videos to articles and discovered it was about 1:4, which brought up the discussion of the ways we tell our stories have changed and curiosity of why we looked at more articles than videos. When the iD mentors came in, we discussed it a bit more and wondered if part of it was that we read articles more in school than we watch videos, so it seemed like the more natural choice. We also wondered if oral stories were making a comeback, or if TED Talks and YouTube videos and other things like them were a combination of the two and that’s why they are gaining so much popularity.
With movies and TV shows, a script is (usually) first written, the actors are picked, and the movie/show is produced (with tons of other steps in there). One of my recent favorite discoveries is vlogseries. They’re all over YouTube and essentially it’s people making characters from books into YouTubers and telling stories that way. Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Little Women, Peter Pan, and Frankenstein are just a few of the many out there. These classic stories are told in 5-10 minute clips, sometimes from one perspective, sometimes from many, and provide a way for new generations to connect with stories and characters hundreds of years older than they are.
But why do people go to all of that effort just to make it easier for people to like the classics? I think it’s because humans like stories. We like feeling connected to others. We like to believe in a happy ending. And The Hero’s Journey means we get a happy ending, even if it isn’t for our own story.