Understanding the Hero’s Journey: An Interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

A diagram of the hero's journey

Joseph Campbell was a renowned American mythologist, writer, and lecturer who extensively studied comparative mythology and religion. His comprehensive study led him to formulate the monomyth also known as the Hero’s Journey. In his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell defines the monomyth or Hero’s Journey and indicates its presence in countless works of literature, movies, and even popular culture. Campbell explains that the Hero’s Journey is a universal human experience. It is a mythic quest that reflects the psychological and spiritual journey of a person’s transformation.

If you do get a chance to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, you’ll get an in-depth exploration of each element of the Hero’s Journey followed by example after example. The downside to this is it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the weeds and dense terminology can be a bit overwhelming. So, if you’re like me, you may want a simplified look at the Hero’s Journey. The Hero's Journey consists of three main stages: departure, initiation, and return. Each of these stages is able to be broken down into further substages. Ultimately, a hero must pass through each stage to complete his journey.


Departure is the first stage of the Hero's Journey and it’s a bit self-explanatory. At this stage the hero leaves their ordinary world and embarks on their quest. If following a three-act structure, this will occur in act one. The first substage is the “call to adventure.” The call to adventure is when the hero receives a call to action to leave their status quo. This call may come from an external source, such as a messenger or an event, or it may come from an internal source such as a dream or vision. Often the hero will refuse this call due to fear, doubt, or a sense of inadequacy. However, the character must overcome this refusal and set out on their journey.

Related: Three-Act Structure Explained

Next comes “crossing the threshold,” where the hero formally crosses the boundary from their ordinary world into an unknown world. This crossing can be physical, such as traveling to a new place, or symbolic, such as having a dream or a vision. Either way crossing the threshold represents the hero's willingness to leave their familiar environment and face whatever challenges await.

The final sub-stage is “meeting a helper or mentor.” Once the hero has left their ordinary world, the Hero’s Journey dictates that the hero will cross paths with a guide or mentor who will assist them on their quest. This mentor/helper may be a wise elder, a magical creature, or a spiritual teacher who provides the hero with advice, tools, and support. A key role of the mentor is to help the hero overcome their internal doubts and fears. They may give the hero the final preparations needed to face the challenges ahead.


The second stage of the Hero's Journey is the initiation. This is the longest stage of the Hero’s Journey and will force your hero to face trials, tests, and transformations. These challenges will lead the hero to new levels of awareness and understanding. It’s important to make each trial or test harder than the one before to maintain tension and ensure the hero continues to grow. This series of rising action can be considered the first substage of the initiation, “the road of trials.” The road of trials is where the hero’s skills, courage, and character is put to the test. These events can be physical, such as battles or competitions, or psychological, such as facing inner demons or overcoming personal weaknesses.

A primary substage of the initiation is “the abyss or ordeal.” Here, the hero faces their greatest challenge or crisis. This challenge is often a life-or-death situation or a symbolic death and rebirth experience. The hero at this stage must confront their fears, doubts, and limitations and undergo a profound transformation that will enable them to succeed in their quest. A great example of this can be found in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II when Harry “dies” and is subsequently “reborn” to defeat Voldemort once and for all.

The third substage is “transformation.” In the closing of the initiation, the hero undergoes a fundamental change in their identity, values, or purpose. One way or another, the character is no longer who they were when their journey began. Like other stages in the Hero’s Journey this transformation can be expressed physically, such as gaining new powers or abilities, or it can happen on a spiritual level, such as achieving enlightenment or self-realization. Either way, the hero will emerge from the abyss as a renewed and transformed person.

Related: What is the Belly of the Whale? 


The final stage of the Hero's Journey is the return. This is where the hero returns to their ordinary world with all the knowledge, wisdom, or treasure they have gained along their journey. The first substage is “the return threshold,” where the hero formally crosses back into their ordinary world and must attempt to reintegrate into their old life. The hero upon their return may be met with resistance or disbelief from their peers, who may not understand the hero’s transformation.

The last sub-stage is “mastery or freedom.” At this stage the hero uses their newfound knowledge or abilities to either achieve their goal and overcome their final obstacle. The hero may also use their wisdom to help others or to serve a higher purpose. It represents integration of the hero's inner and outer worlds, and their alignment with their true self.

More: Understanding the Unity of Opposites

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