Hero With A Thousand Masks: Departure

Last week, I declared my foolhardy intent to go through Joseph Campbell’s monomyth with an eye to geek culture. I’ve never been one to back out a bad idea, so here it goes. You can read the introduction of this series here, but if you already have – or just don’t fancy slogging through it – the short of it is this: we’ve been telling and re-telling the same story over and over again for millenia and that’s the monomyth. It’s alive today and the point of these articles is that you can see it across modern storytelling. The Hero is the same, just wearing a different mask. 

 This specific piece is going to be about the “Departure” phase of monomyth. In a nutshell, Departure deals with the events that lead up to the Hero setting out on their adventure and the early stages of the journey. This stage can be further broken up into the “Call To Adventure”, the “Refusal of the Call”, “Supernatural Aid”, “Crossing The First Threshold” and “The Belly of the Whale”. 

By the way, if you noticed that Departure is the name of the manuscript in Alan Wake, you’re not the only one. In a game so ridiculously referential, I doubt that’s a coincidence. 

 CALL TO ADVENTURE 

Luke recieves the call from Leia

The Call To Adventure is the event that exposes the Hero to a new, unknown world, drawing them into a relationship with ill-understood forces. The revelation often come about due to a blunder, a chance occurrence or a quirk of fate. Other times it is marked by the appearance of a herald, someone who beckons the Hero to set off on the journey towards life – or death. Perhaps the Hero’s love interest is held captive, or their home comes under threat. 

  • Prince Siddharta, the Future Buddha, is exposed to death, disease and age despite his father’s machinations
  • Odysseus ends the Trojan War and feels the call to return home, Ithaca
  • Peter Parker receives superhuman powers from a radioactive spider’s bite
  • Harry Potter receives a letter from Hogwarts
  • Alan Wake comes to the mystical town of Bright Falls, unknowing of the forces it holds

THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL 

Peter Parker has the chance to be a hero - but doesn't take it

 

 Upon receiving the Call, whatever form that Call may take, the Hero might not necessarily take it. Sometimes, the pull of the known keeps the Hero from venturing forth to adventure; the life he leads holds him back. Of course, narrative necessity means that something has to happen to overcome this obstacle – otherwise there’d be no story! While initially hampered, the Hero must inevitably set off on his way. After this, the Journey begins proper. 

  • Briar Rose is put to sleep by the Wicked Witch
  • Prince Kamar al-Zaman (of the Arabian Nights) refuses to marry
  • Daphne flees from the god Apollo, fearing for her virginity
  • Luke Skywalker must help with the harvest, but the farm is destroyed by Stormtroopers later
  • Harry Potter’s adoptive family stops him from exploring magic
  • Peter Parker refuses to stop the robber who ends up murdering Uncle Ben
  • Neo refuses to climb out the window
  • Alan’s wife gives him a typewriter, but he refuses to write

SUPERNATURAL AID 

Tom O'Bedlam provides Jack Frost with magical aid

 

One of the first steps of the Hero’s Journey involves encountering an older, wiser figure – usually in the form of an old man or crone. This mentor figure usually provides some form of “amulet” – a plot device that later turns out to be of great importance to the journey. The amulet might be a literal magic object, such as a sword, or it may be a mundane object, but it is always vital. The amulet might even take the form of words rather than a thing. The old man or crone usually represents the benevolent power of the past, which stands in contrast to the figure of the Holdfast – but that’s for another time. 

  • Ariadne provides Theseus with a magic length of string so that he can get through the Labyrinth
  • The Navajo Spider-Woman gives the Twin War Gods the magic words that calm any foe
  • Mephistopheles guides Faust, but is unpredictable and morally ambiguous.
  • Uncle Ben tells Peter “with great power comes great responsibility”.
  • Harry receives his wand
  • Obi-Wan saves Luke from the Sand People and gives him his lightsaber
  • Tom O’Bedlam schools Jack Frost in magic
  • Alan Wake encounters Thomas Zane in a dream, and later Zane gives Alan manuscript pages

CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD 

 

The Call to Adventure introduced the Hero to elements on a new, strange world but it is not until now that he truly enters it. The Hero leaves safety, striking out into the deep, dark unknown. He has left the familiar world of the campfire and enters the shadows outside the light. Here is where the adventure begins to pick up pace and the first real threats begin to show their teeth. The Hero has left the real world and now begins to encounter fantastical things on a regular basis, travelling through dream-like environments. 

  • Odysseus is thrown off-course by the god Poseidon and must find his way home through unknown waters
  • Prince Five-Weapons enters the dark forest to confront a terrible ogre
  • Luke leaves his destroyed home and travels to Mos Eisley
  • Harry leaves the muggle world behind to travel to Hogwarts
  • Alan Wake enters the dark forest to find his missing wife

THE BELLY OF THE WHALE 

 

This is the final stage of Departure. Once the threshold is crossed, the Hero encounters danger and finds himself surrounded by darkness. While he might be brave and powerful, the Hero encounters something much larger than himself – physically, conceptually, mystically – and is overcome. He is swallowed in act which is symbolic of death – and in some cases literally is death – but reemerges in a symbolic rebirth. 

  • Herakles is swallowed by a sea-monster sent to Troy but cuts his way out
  • Zeus is swallowed by Kronos, but emerges unharmed
  • Raven tricks a whale into swallowing him, kills it accidentally, and feasts on the corpse
  • Red Riding Hood is swallowed by the Big Bad Wolf
  • Luke falls into the trash compactor
  • Dane encounters Barbelith and is enlightened
  • Neo is tortured by the agents and later reborn into the “real” world
  • Alan Wake dives into the Lake and wakes up in the Lodge

So, that’s Departure for you. As you can see from the course of these examples, the monomyth lives today across movies, comic books and video games. It is as resonant and relevant there as it is in mythology, literature and religion. Even if the medium changes, even as technology advances how we tell our stories, the stories themselves remain the same and are likely to remain the same for a long, long time to come. 

TheHarkin is a writer, blogger and Brit. You can find more of his self-indulgence here or try to endure his banal tweets

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