Most fans of fantasy and science fiction (or of storytelling in general) have heard of the Hero’s Journey. This template is spoken about at length in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Boiled down, the Hero’s Journey is a framework around which many books build their narrative arcs. While the Hero’s Journey has twelve steps, it can be broken down into three phases: The Departure, the Initiation, and the Return.
I got thinking: what does the Hero’s Journey look like in modern fantasy? Even though I’m more than willing to have a conversation with myself, I decided to ask some experts what they think. I’m joined today by Beth Tabler from Before We Go Blog, David (Book Meanderings) from FanFi Addict, Peatlong from Peat Long’s blog, and Filip Magnus from The Grimoire Reliquary.
W&S (Jodie)- Hi everyone! Thank you so much for being willing to share your time and your thoughts. First of all, do you think the Hero’s Journey is less common in recent SFF? Why or why not?
David- I don’t know that it’s less common. I think as humans most if not all of us look for someone to look up to, to inspire us. I don’t think that will ever go away. The Hero’s Journey does look a lot different, though. I’ve always thought of the Hero’s Journey as a very black and white trope. Something pretty straightforward and pretty simplistic at times. Good triumphing over, evil, right over wrong, etc. It’s not really like that anymore and I think the Hero’s Journey is all the better for it. Because we have characters that are not black and white good guys we are able to have characters that are both highly relatable and I would say even more inspiring than before. They can be weak at times just like us, but they ultimately overcome. They experience loss just like us, but they can deal with it and even be better for it sometimes. This change also makes for more flexibility in the plot which allows for the possibility of more unique stories. So I do think the Hero’s Journey is still huge in SFF, the journey and the Hero just look a lot different.
Peat- Right now I think my experience is different, although it’s possible we mean different things. I don’t think I see it as much as I once did, at least not from the major publishers. Why? I think there’s a bunch of reasons so I’m just going to give my favorite theory- a lot of us want to see what comes *after* these days.
W&S (Jodie)- Interesting point, David. I really love seeing characters that are more nuanced taking the Hero’s Journey. I always saw Beowulf as a good example of the “straightforward” Hero’s Journey, but there is definitely more of an archetype happening there than with more recent books. Why do you think the shift occurred and when?
Peat- Can’t speak for David, but my gut instinct answer for all “when did fantasy start doing this modern thing” questions is A Song of Ice and Fire and First Law. I think you can see very clear Hero’s Journeys there, but the way they questioned and interrogated the Journey told publishers and agents that people wanted different takes on it.
Filip- When Bruce Campbell [sic] defined the Hero’s Journey, he was looking for this universal structure through which virtually every myth, every legend, even folktale could be approached. It’s not so much a trope as it is a scheme or template a pattern open enough that, if you look hard enough for it, you can find just about everywhere. In fantasy, we might think of works such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or, say, The Wheel of Time, as the quintessential examples of the Hero’s Journey. A protagonist (predominantly male–one can only hope that’s no longer the case) leaves behind their home (in an idyllic countryside that looks suspiciously like Wales or New Zealand) to answer the call of adventure. They have a lark, nearly die a bunch, get a magic ring or a sword or a bangle and make it back home in time for tea (ten to twelve months or years later). That story mold is the one I think of initially. Yet the Hero’s Journey can be boiled down to three much more vague steps, “Departure, Initiation, Return”. The notion of departure as leaving behind the hero’s familiar world, navigating the unfamiliar world, before eventually returning to that familiar world–such a definition allows us to map the journeys of plenty more protagonists onto the Hero’s Journey, I think.
Peat- Bruce Campell! The Hero’s Journey would look a lot different with references to collecting the boomstick… Enjoying that one aside, that’s an accurate summation of what Joseph Campbell was doing, how it’s been used, and how most recognize it – but it’s all about how closely people cleave to it, or if they recognize that. And speaking of the predominantly male nature of many of the Hero’s Journeys of yesteryear – has anyone come across Gail Carriger’s The Heroine’s Journey?
W&S (Jodie)- Bruce Campbell’s Hero’s Journey would be awesome! I haven’t read it, Peat, but I’m curious now! Have you read it?
Peat- Not yet, but I plan to.
Beth- Hello everyone, just catching up here. To answer the original question that Jodie posed, I think the Hero’s Journey is so ingrained in literature as a format of storytelling that it would be hard to get away from it. However, with newer SFF, I think that the idea of a hero’s journey is broadening in scope. It feels to me more like a protagonist moving through different acts of a novel, more than leaving and going on a quest.
David- I agree, Beth. I think it has changed so much in part because after seeing it so frequently as almost the same story it became predictable and therefore somewhat boring. The Hero’s Journey is still just as present in my opinion and can be even more compelling now than it was before because of the many twists and turns on the original format that make it more unique. I don’t necessarily agree that a return home has to be included in a Hero’s Journey, but maybe that’s just me being somewhat ignorant of the original definition because I haven’t read a lot of classic fantasy. Ha ha!
Filip- As I understand it, it’s not necessarily a return home so much as it is a return to a state where the conflict that pushed our hero on their journey has been put to rest, David.
Peat-My understanding of the return home is similar to Filip’s. Look at Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, both famously faithful uses of the hero’s journey. You don’t see them back in the homes we met them in come the end. What we see is an end to the extraordinary circumstances that forced them to be heroes and a return to something we recognize as normalcy – even if their version of normal is different to ours.
W&S (Jodie)- I just read an excellent book that covers the *after*, Peat. I’m a sucker for that sort of story but only if it has direction. Do you think it’s possible for a book like that to cause a reset, so to speak, with the Hero’s Journey starting again only with different stakes or characters?
Filip-If I may jump in real quick, series of SFF books, especially older ones, often make use of several hero’s journeys to power the continued return to their respective narrative worlds.
W&S (Jodie)- Jump away, Filip! Is it the main character (or the character who embarks on the first Hero’s Journey) starting another Hero’s Journey to return to the world, or are you referring to different characters taking on the Hero’s role in that template?
Peat- Adding on to Jodie’s question – are there any series you’re thinking of in particular, as I’m struggling to think of them?
Filip-Let’s see if I can put up a proper answer to these lovely questions, folks! I was thinking of several series: the first one is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea. The first novel sees Le Guin’s protagonist, Ged, experience an arc we could map onto the hero’s journey structure. The second novel, The Tombs of Atuan, centers around a different protagonist (Tenar) who goes on her own journey. Meanwhile, we can extrapolate that Ged, in his role as a supporting character, is going through a second Hero’s Journey, with all new lessons divorced from the Hero’s Journey he went through in the first novel.
I was also thinking of a more recent read, The Drowned Empire trilogy by Andrea Stewart. Jovis, to me, has one very distinct Hero’s Journey across the first and second book, and then a second Hero’s Journey across the final book in the series. So, to answer your original question, Jodie, I am referring to consecutive Hero’s Journeys experienced by the same character across different novels. Let me know if this reads like the random ramblings of a madman and a prophet–I am one but would hate to advertise it.
Peat- I just read revisited Earthsea with Tehanu and yes, now I think about it, I see what you mean by Ged’s second hero’s journey. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find a few in Feist’s Riftwar, and you absolutely can in Kerr’s Deverry Cycle. Druss and Waylander do in Gemmell’s Drenai Chronicles. I would point out though these, along with Earthsea, are all series in which the books don’t form one long continuous narrative. I think the multiple hero’s journeys are rarer in series that do (i.e. Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire) because the hero rarely gets to go home.
Beth- If I can interject a series, The Enders series as three specific journeys. The first is Ender’s journey in the first book, then Bean’s journey, and then Ender’s second journey on the alien planet. They are all very different arcs in tone.
W&S (Jodie)-I see what you’re getting at with The Drowned Empire, Filip. That’s pretty much what I meant when I mentioned a “reset”- the same character experiencing the Hero’s Journey, then going through it again. What’s interesting to me with that example is that Jovis’ goal (or reward, so to speak) in the second Hero’s Journey didn’t seem to be that different from the first, but rather more in-depth and developed.
I know David reads manga (which I’m not very familiar with): what does the Hero’s Journey look like there, David? Is it found often?
David- I basically look at anime and manga as a single entity, so I’m going to speak through that lense when answering this question. The Hero’s Journey in my experience is incredibly prevalent in manga/anime. In fact, I would say it is just as common as it is in fantasy. But just like fantasy, it is morphing and changing into something new as time goes by. I know that some of my favorite manga/anime are ones where the protagonist feels like an underdog or outcast that matures and grows both mentally and physically and transforms into the hero that we know from the Hero’s Journey. Black Clover is a fantastic example of this from what I’ve seen so far. So is Demon Slayer.
I also really love stories in manga/anime that twist and flip that story structure on its head like Attack on Titan, One Punch Man, and other stories.
W&S (Jodie)- I like to play TTRPGs and I see the Hero’s Journey there a lot, especially in pre-made adventures. There seems to be a less straightforward journey when playing a homebrew, which I love. I know many great sff books, such as Jeffrey Speight’s Paladin Unbound and Thomas Howard Riley’s We Break Immortals have taken their inspiration from D&D. What role do you think the Hero’s Journey plays in TTRPGs?
Filip- It really depends on the player, their character, and the DM (I don’t play pre-made adventures, and so I couldn’t tell you how that more guided experience compares). Every hero has their journey, but not every journey is a Hero’s Journey in the schematic sense.
Peat- My group was decidedly unheroic; I don’t think we ever had anything like that in there! I have read RPG actual plays where I suspect I could map it on though (DaveB’s Mage the Awakening actual plays on RPG.net are utterly epic).
WS&S (Jodie)-Something that I’m not sure all companies who sell pre-made campaigns consider is that, even when they go in with the Hero’s Journey pretty much written out, the players themselves tend to not cooperate. It’s one of the things I love about gaming: the people playing are the ones telling the story, and it will never be the same thing twice, even if every group were to start from the exact same campaign.
How important is the Hero’s Journey to SFF? What role does it play?
Peat-I think the main thing it offers is a recognizable, iconic template as to what someone’s experience of dealing with a whole new world would look like, how they’d react, how it’d change their life, and so on. Given how much SFF is about people discovering these incredible worlds – both to us and to them – that is pretty important. Even when people are using different narrative models, or are writing about characters who live in fantastical worlds they find completely normal, people are often subconsciously using their understanding of the hero’s journey to help it make sense.
Filip- I don’t think it’s altogether important. It’s a famous template and that might provide the reader with some familiarity, but when I read a SFF novel, I like to be lost in the world without thinking about how well a story maps onto Campbell’s scheme or not. I agree with Peat that what strength the Hero’s Journey derives is more on a subconscious level than anything else; humans work well with familiar patterns at the back of their minds.
W&S (Jodie)- Is there such a thing as an “arrested” Hero’s Journey?
Filip- Psst, Jodie, did you have Alf from The Sword Defiant in mind with this one?
W&S (Jodie)- You caught me dead to rights, Filip. Although by the end of the series, I suspect he’ll move on from that stalled state.
Peat- I don’t know I understand what you mean by arrested, can you go into more detail, Jodie?
W&S (Jodie)-As in, instead of completing the Hero’s Journey, it stops at a certain point, never completing. Does it then become something other than the Hero’s Journey?
Peat- Oh, interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like this, but I can see it being very fun to read. Would it be something different? I think it would, but in a way, that’s a variation rather than its own thing. My immediate guess for what it would look like, and how it’d get used, is it’d be side-arcs belonging to heroes that failed and whose mess the book’s hero has to clean up. In fact, hang on… right, yes. There’s a book called The Shape of Fantasy by an academic named Charul Palmer-Patel, all about how the shape of heroic epic fantasy. It talks about what it calls ou-heroes, which are basically characters who went out there to become the hero and ended up the villain. Think the Lord Ruler in Mistborn. I think those are probably where you see arrested Hero’s Journeys in fantasy right now… but I’m sure you can do more with it.
W&S (Jodie)-See, now I’m curious: can a “villain” or morally gray character follow the template of the Hero’s Journey without any sort of redemption story arc also added? I kind of think yes. But jumping off that, what would that look like in a grittier setting, such as grimdark, where the line between hero and villain tends to be blurred?
Beth- I can see this playing out. This reminds me of a book I read last year that started as one journey, but became something else entirely. A young man wanted to join a group of warriors as they cross the frozen wastes to slay the baddie. But what he found along the way changed his journey significantly. I just remembered that the book is The Coward by Steven Aryan.
As for the talk about grimdark, I don’t think a hero’s journey is a part of grimdark. Grimdark characters have more agency in their decision-making. It is to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and vice versa. There is no set path to follow, no trope. Characters choose to behave in a manner in which they find it best to fit the situation. A hero’s Journey is a path that implies redemption in my opinion. Not all characters/protagonists can be redeemed, but they can move from point A to Point B. Grimdark as a genre is sort of hazy, and is changing constantly so it is difficult to say if something is possible.
Peat- I was thinking we’d get this question and I’m both yes and no. No, because Campbell’s model contains an atonement stage. No, because it’s about becoming a better person as well as vanquishing the evil. But yes, because you can clearly create a dark mirror of it with all the same steps but instead of becoming a better person, they just become more effective. Or worse. Off the top of my head, I think the protagonists in Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword hit a lot of the same beats as the Hero’s Journey on their way to tragically bad decisions. Ditto Caul Shivers in Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Even if they’re not quite the same thing, even if they’re riffing on it… well, they’re still riffing on it.
I also do think you could do a straight-up hero’s journey in grimdark simply by applying different moral standards to what heroism is. I mean, all the dudes in the Iliad are called heroes, most of them are bounders and cads, and what’s more grimdark than “the city falls, the lovers are split, and most of the victors come to bad ends anyway”?
Beth-That is a very good point. It would have to be a hell of a story to achieve that, but I can see that happening.
Filip-To my mind, grimdark contradicts the notion of a Hero’s Journey. Grimdark’s principal traits include the denial and negation of hope, as well as the impossibility of positive growth and change–which are the signature traits of a Hero’s Journey. Of course, I agree with Peat that each of the beats can be flipped–but I don’t believe we can call that a Hero’s Journey. There’s also an objection to be made about calling the Illiad grimdark–I’ll permit my love for all things classic speak when I say that the epic is done a disservice when we conflate its tragic overtones with those of grimdark, especially considering that its final book ends in the reconciliation between Achilles and Priam, and their common mourning for their loved ones.
Peat- I accept that in terms of solely the Iliad you’re correct, but in terms of the broader story of Troy as we know it? In any case, there are other tales of ancient times and different morality that lend themselves well to grimdark inspiration in terms of celebration of people easily seen as immoral today, great betrayals, and tragic ends. Or, at least it works with how I see grimdark.
David- I agree that the Hero’s Journey isn’t really possible in grimdark, but at the same time the genre is so hard to define. What I would call dark fantasy some people would call grimdark. I generally define grimdark by the tone of the book when it comes to hope. I think of grimdark as basically the nihilism that is a consistent message throughout the First Law books by Joe Abercrombie. No right, no wrong, no redemption and even if there is a hint of redemption it’s not for the reasons that would fit A Hero’s Journey.
I’m actually starting to realize in my own reading life that I love Dark Fantasy, but the brand of grimdark that First Law represents is not for me personally. And that’s not to say that I don’t believe First Law is written well because it really is. I just need and want elements of hope in my story. I want redemption. I want the good guys to win, even if the “good guys” look a little different now than in classic fantasy. There’s more gray now and that’s a good thing. For me, the Hero’s Journey will always be important even if it looks different than it used to.
W&S (Jodie)- I see what you mean, Peat. I suppose it would also have a little to do with how the character sees themself: a villain can easily see themself as a hero. In that case, redemption might look different. Of course, then it all becomes semantics. Even a hero can look like the villain, especially in fantasy when there is a good amount of stabbiness.
You make a strong case about grimdark, Beth, and how much it is changing. I think it might even be the subgenre that most strongly defies definition. I think the Hero’s Journey might be easier to categorize in certain subgenres over others, anyway. I’ve sort of seen the final step in the Hero’s Journey as a change in some way, not necessarily redemption. I think that’s me bungling that final step up, though.
David, I also need elements of hope in my fantasy. The “good guys” don’t always need to win, but I need to know that if they don’t at least they’ve set things in motion so that hope will win out in the future.
Well, we should probably wrap this up, although I could keep going and going and going (just like the Energizer Bunny). Thank you for discussing the Hero’s Journey!
What do you think, readers? Feel free to weigh in!
Meet the contributors below:
Elizabeth Tabler runs Beforewegoblog and is a lead on Grimdark Magazine. She was at one time an architect but now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and as many book worlds as she can get her hands on. She is also a huge fan of Self Published fantasy and was on Team Qwillery as a judge for SPFBO5, and is a judge for SPFBO7.
You will find her with a coffee in one hand and her iPad in the other.
Blog: Before We Go Blog
David (Book Meanderings):
David S. loves fantasy and Sci Fi books and enjoys hiking, spending time with friends, and eating too much pizza. On the weekend you can find him visiting family, going to church, and most of all at home under a blanket while reading books, watching anime/tv shows, or playing video games with friends.
Blog: FanFi Addict
Peat is an ageless eldritch horror currently incarnated in the body of a grumpy man. Introduced to fantasy through bedtime readings of The Hobbit, he swiftly fell in love with the whole shebang. When not writing novels that will change the world if he could only just finish them, or making torturous food and sport analogies on his blog, Peat enjoys job hunting, playing ringmaster to a house of feral beasts, and run-on sentences.
Blog: Peat Long’s Blog
The Filip Magnus:
Prisoner #91734, also known as F.I.L.I.P. is certainly not an advanced artificial intelligence system meant to make your blogging experience more frustrating. He is instead a human man person who loves discussing SFF in any context and experiencing it across multiple mediums. You can find him at his blog, The Grimoire Reliquary, as well as on YouTube as FilipMagnus.
Blog: The Grimoire Reliquary
Youtube: Filip Magnus
Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub:
Jodie is the creator of the Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub blog. She either lives in Florida with her husband and sons, or in a fantasy book-she’ll never tell which. When she’s not reading, Jodie balances her time between homeschooling her hooligans, playing table top roleplaying games, and lamenting her inability to pronounce “lozenge”.