The Hero’s Journey: The Power of Myth in Action

An Interview with Mythologist Peter Wallis by Marion Moss (Hubbard)

Photo of Peter Wallis
Photo permission of Peter Wallis
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

How does Joseph Campbell’s classic definition of the hero’s quest have meaning in our times? Marion Moss interviews Peter Wallis regarding the practical application of Campbell’s mythological perspective.

Marion: So, Peter, you lead workshops called “Hero’s Journey.” What drew you to doing this type of work?

Peter: In 1982, I discovered an article called “The Hero’s Journey,” written by Maureen Merdock after a 1980 Jean Houston workshop held in New York. I was excited by the description of children’s camps called “The Hero’s Journey” based on Joseph Campbell’s terminology and the exploration of “stages of adventure,” refining the senses, dramatic expression and archetypal characters. I decided to develop my own version of those original camps and in 1983 began doing summer camps for nine to twelve year-olds.

In his original book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell analyzed the world’s mythologies and discovered 17 stages or recurring patterns. For my purposes, I developed eight main stages for working with children” Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Crossing the Threshold of Ogres, Meeting the Allies, Road of Trials, The Great Meeting, The Magic Flight, and The Triumphant Return. I now offer workshops for adults as well.

Marion: Maybe you could describe what you do in these workshops, how you help people bring mythology into their lives in useful ways.

Peter: We explore the myths, which alone are very helpful, as the Campbell-Moyers interviews demonstrate. But our workshops set the stage for a greater learning by combining mythology with concrete activities, such as movement, artistic expression, active games, guided imagery, and dramatic skits. These are great tools to understand each stage of the adventure, to give people a different frame of reference for viewing their lives. 

Marion: I was drawn to this Campbell quote: “Myth is the public dream and that dream is the private myth.” Do you think the Hero’s Journey symbolizes the “public myth?” Do you see our society developing a greater mythological awareness?

Peter: Yes. I think about George Lucas’ inspiration to do the Star Wars films after reading Joseph Campbell. What I see happening is that the mythological is breaking into our everyday consciousness. A greater literal example of that is the movie The Fisher King, where Robin Williams’ mythic image of the fiery Red Knight bursts out of the boundaries of his mind and onto the screen, galloping through Central Park. Another indication is the book The Cry of Myth by Rollo May, noted psychiatrist and author. He writes eloquently about the need for mythology in our lives and how myth is becoming a central tool for the therapeutic process: “Myths are essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bring new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world.”

Marion: You mentioned earlier the influence of Campbell in George Lucas’ Star Wars series. Do you think those particular films have contributed to this shift?

Peter: There’s no doubt that Star Wars – those films and that imagery – connects us to a larger picture. You may consider them to be just fantasy but the worldwide response shows that these movies touch people and bring a different level of awareness of what is inside, a greater experience of being alive.

Marion: Can you briefly describe the cycle of The Hero’s Journey?

Peter: They cycle begins when an “average” person gets a sudden invitation to travel a different path. This is The Call to Adventure. The person may respond with fear, feeling that the spirit is willing but the body is afraid. This is stage two, The Refusal. In this stage, the would-be hero eventually can decide to take the risk, to Accept the Call. Then, he or she comes to the third stage, Crossing the Threshold to a passageway protected by a pair of creatures or guards who test to see if the hero is brave enough to go through the threshold of the underworld. This is the first test to determine readiness for the adventure that lies ahead.

Once getting through the threshold successfully, the hero earns the right to the next stage, Meeting the Allies. In the myths, Allies are human, animal, spirit, or nature forms usually appearing out of nowhere with knowledge, bravery, and skills to help in the passage. A classic example is Yoda in Star Wars, who becomes a chief ally and mentor for Luke Skywalker.

The next stage of the cycle, The Road of Trials, is an encounter the allies have helped the her prepare for: Physical tests, mental discipline tests; they can be…

Marion: Tests of courage?

Peter: Right. The test can be a real-life obstacle or a more subtle internal difficulty to overcome within the self.

Marion: Does this have to do with confronting the dark side?

Peter: It does indeed. In The Road of Trials, each person confronts his or her own dragon, representing the dark side. A very strong aspect of the internal self is dealt with, one which may create external obstacles, such as difficulties with colleagues at work or children in a classroom. Or a person may confront physical danger, such as being caught in an avalanche or a mountain.

Marion: Yet it doesn’t mean that we always overcome the obstacle. Sometimes, we surrender to it.

Peter: That’s a good point. If you are always battling your internal dragon, then you will always be at war with a part of yourself. There is a time when the dragon, the dark side, needs to be embraced and accepted. You might even call this the internal trial where, instead of trying to discredit or ignore, you actually come to terms with part of yourself.

It’s important to remember that each of us has a repertoire of skills to use, depending upon the situation. The warrior, the hero – each of us – can choose to be forceful, or yielding, or even to embrace the fear. Other times, we may just need the discipline and courage to get through the minefield in the path.

The Triumphant Return, the last stage, represents coming back from the trials victorious with the empowerment obtained in the world of adventure – the other world. You come back to the world you left but now you are a master of both worlds because you come back in a transformed state. In the classic myths, Percival, for instance, returns not just as a hero parading through the streets but brings back the Holy Grail. This represents the treasure of his spiritual enrichment or empowerment, the boon that will benefit the whole kingdom. That’s the universal gift of the hero.

Marion: So, is this the same as finding your purpose in life? 

Peter: I think you could see it that way. Certainly, when you find a calling that is both very satisfying to you and of service to others, you feel triumphant. It’s likely that you’ve gone through all of these stages to get there. It’s not something that you just stepped outside the door and obtained. This makes the triumph all the greater.

Marion: It also sounds like it is very humbling, to go through all of these trials. A hero knows that humility is important because triumph was not easily achieved.

Peter: Exactly. And it’s also by that very humbleness that we come closer to God.

Marion: This whole process sounds like our internal spiritual quest.

Peter: It is. I see the Hero’s Journey as the framework within which each of us can view our own spiritual quest.

Marion: That’s a very powerful way to use myth as a metaphor for our lives, bringing mythology into the real world.

Peter: As I said earlier, I think Campbell and Moyers spoke to this a lot. Mythology expands the context in which we view our lives, getting us out of our narrow ruts. Using the example of The Fisher King again, here is a character which by usual standards would be considered quite psychotic; yet he is connecting with some archetypal parts of himself, the deep, dark side he needs to go through to experience a tremendous transformation. In the movie, he almost dies and in essence becomes reborn. The whole meaning of the Crucifixion is not simply a Christ figure suffering on the cross so people will feel better but really a very powerful symbolic process of death and rebirth. One of the many ways to view this is that parts of the ego or the old self are dying. What is being born again is the new self, the Christ self.

Marion: What I am hearing you say is that this is not reserved for traditional heroes, whom we put on pedestals, but the hero is actually within each of us.

Peter: That’s a great way to put it.

Marion: And that must be the goal of your Hero’s Journey workshop – to help people discover that heroic sense of themselves.

Peter: It is. Artist Robin Maynard and I have developed a workshop format for people to deal with stuck places in their lives, to get in touch with a new Call to Adventure, and discover their allies. The workshop is very much oriented to, as you say, using the myth as metaphor and applying it very concretely to the growth in people’s lives.

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(Published Originally August 1992 in The New Times, Seattle, WA)

Peter Wallis combines mythology with concrete activities such a movement, artistic expression, active games, guided imagery, and dramatic skits, to give people a different frame of reference for viewing their lives.

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