The Archetypal Quest

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            Joseph Campbell was one of the first people to notice that the stories and mythologies of cultures separated by time and space had some common elements.  In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he explores these common elements of what he termed the “monomyth,” one story framework with only minor variations.  He is the big dog of archetypal theory, but others have focused solely on more modern stories and have modified the hero’s journey slightly.  Christopher Vogler, a script consultant for many of Hollywood’s major studios, adapted the Campbell framework and uses it to help produce quality movies.  In his book, The Writer’s Journey, he presents his version, and it is from this source from which I take the following.

            When George Lucas wrote the original Star Wars movies, he intentionally incorporated the archetypal quest into the framework of his story so it would have universal appeal and not rely solely on Industrial Light and Magic's new breed of special effects.  Consequently, it has both a great story and outstanding, cutting edge special effects for its time.  Consequently, it is the only movie of my lifetime that garnered national news coverage of people standing in line for tickets across America.  That's the power of archetypal elements.

The Ordinary World

Since most stories take a hero out of his or her normal environment, it is necessary to first show it before he or she leaves it. It is a before picture of the hero.  In Star Wars, the first and best movie in the Star Wars saga,  Luke Skywalker begins the movie as a farm boy bored by his surroundings.  On the traditional plot structure graph, we would call this the exposition stage where background information is given.  Next comes …

The Call to Adventure

The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake.  The Call to Adventure establishes the stakes of the game and makes clear the hero’s goal.  In Star Wars Princess Leia’s holographic image requesting help from Obi-Wan Kenobi is Luke’s Call to Adventure.

Refusal of the Call

Often the task set before the hero is so daunting that he or she hesitates to undertake it. He or she needs some other influence to change his or her mind, and when in the future I only type he, please don’t assume gender bias but only typing laziness on my part.  Luke initially declines Obi Wan’s invitation to accompany him.  It takes the death of his uncle and aunt to make the quest his goal.

Meeting with the Mentor

A mentor is a wiser person than ourselves who guides on our way through life, and that is why “wise old man” is synonymous for mentor in archetypal terminology.  This parent, teacher, doctor, etc. is an archetypal character who aids the hero in his quest.  He prepares the hero to face the unknown and sends him on his way.  Obi Wan stayed with Luke longer than many mentors and shifts archetypes to become a hero himself by facing Darth Vader so the rest can escape.

Crossing the First Threshold

The hero leaves the Ordinary World and enters the Special World, committed to the journey to come.  When Luke leaves Tatooine, the journey has begun.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

This is where Vogler’s version of the quest/journey differs a lot from Campbell’s.  In this stage, the hero is tested with some minor challenges and makes friends and enemies.  Here we see the hero under some stress, testing his mettle, as they say.  Luke enters the cantina with Obi Wan and almost gets into a fight but mentor Obi Wan intercedes before we see the outcome.  A minor test occurs when Luke attempts to learn to learn the ways the force by using the light saber blindfolded.  He makes an ally out of Han and Chewbacca, and an enemy in Jabba.

The Approach to the Inmost Cave

The hero comes to the edge of a dangerous place, the enemy’s headquarters for example.  It is the most dangerous spot in the Special World, and the hero often pauses on the edge to plan and prepare.  In Star Wars the gang didn’t have time to pause and plan because they were sucked in by a tractor beam.  That shows that this archetypal structure has to be a little pliable, that not all stages are always seen.

The Supreme Ordeal

This is a “black moment” for the hero because he hits rock bottom in a direct confrontation with his greatest fear.  The enemy brings with him the possibility of death, physical or emotional.  The hero’s chances look bleak.  It sounds as if it would be the climax of the story, but it’s not.  In Star Wars, it was the trash masher scene where the gang is almost crushed to death before Luke remembers to call C3PO and R2D2 for aid.


In Campbell’s version this is the Ultimate Boon.  The hero, having survived the Supreme Ordeal, grabs the treasure.  This treasure is seldom what you might think of first: it is often simply knowledge or experience.  In early tales it might be a magic sword or elixir (healing potion).  In Star Wars it is the plans for the Death Star.

The Road Back

This sounds like the end, but it is the beginning of the third and final act in movies.  The hero is pursued by whatever foes he did not vanquish earlier as he leaves the Special World and tries to return to the Ordinary World.


The hero must be purified for return to the Ordinary World by surviving one last Ordeal of death.  Luke’s attack on the Death Star is the final step in his transformation.  Heroes transform or change as a consequence of their adventures.  Luke leaves his childhood behind because of his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

Return with the Elixir

The hero returns to the Ordinary World a changed person with something beneficial.  The elixir with its power to heal is seldom an actual potion.  A lesson learned about life if often what the hero brings back from his adventure.  

            Not all stories fit the archetypal quest/journey as well as Star Wars, but many of the best liked stories of all time do.  We are preprogrammed to like these stories primarily because they mimic real life so well.  Our childhood is our Ordinary World.  The Call to Adventure is a call to adulthood, even though it can be a scary proposition that might cause a Refusal of the Call.  We continue to get guidance from parents and from other Mentors who have made the same journey. We leave the home and enter the Special World, Crossing the First Threshold into the worlds of adults.  We make Allies and Enemies and tackle life’s Tests of our character.  Many of life’s experiences place us in a dangerous place that calls for well-laid plans and preparations.  We survive our Supreme Ordeals and come away from that experience with a Reward—being a stronger person—“what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  We continue to live and more challenges come our way as life tries to get us down or build us up, depending on our ability to withstand it.  At some point some final ordeal shows we have indeed survived what life has to offer and that our Resurrection is complete: our transformation from child to adult is unchangeable.  When we return home to our Ordinary world, it is as an adult among fellow adults, not overgrown children who have shied away from the Call to Adventure.  A life with an unanswered Call to Adventure is a wasted, boring life.

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