A Simplified, Literature-based Version of Campbell’s Quest 

from Discoveries:  Fifty Stories of the Quest by Schechter and Semeiks

Back to Literature Home Page
Based on Campbell’s description but user-friendly, this text does a good job of describing the hero’s quest and gives modern short story examples of each step.  I recommend it highly to those of you with the aspirations to write a bestseller.

The Call

Heroes are on the brink of a great change.  Some are desperately unhappy while other are okay with their surroundings even though they are a wasteland.  The hero may blunder into the quest, but usually they are called to it by a herald—a friend, relative, stranger, event, object, or even himself. In myth the romantic hero has qualities beyond the normal human, but in literature, the hero who undertakes a journey can be quite average.  The hero sees the danger in not answering the call to adventure and realizes change is an unavoidable part of life necessary for enjoying it or sometimes surviving.  

The Other

This double or alter ego is a man or woman who may be the hero’s best friend or a complete though oddly familiar stranger.  The other has a personality that is completely the opposite of the hero’s, but in time similarities are found.  The “evil twin” episodes on TV shows provide trite examples. He or she embodies the hidden shadow side of the hero’s personality.  The meeting with the other always symbolizes the possibility of increased self-awareness, and even though the hero may shun the other initially, the reader becomes aware that the two characters cannot exist without the other.  When the hero cannot accept what they have in common with the other, they suffer.  Conversely, when they do, they gain understanding of themselves and benefit from it armed with self-awareness on the dangerous path ahead.  They must accept or make friends with their shadow to succeed.  If they can’t, they self-destruct.

The Journey

The journey centers on the struggle the hero experiences once he has left his familiar surroundings and entered the mysterious world where he must survive a series of ordeals Campbell calls the “road of trials.”   As in myths, the setting for the journey often has a mildly nightmarish element in it and is at least a symbolic “voyage to hell.”  The hero’s capacity for heroic action is tested as he learns important truths about himself, his society, and human nature.  To do this the hero must shed his old ideas and adopt new ones, making the quest a form of initiation, an initiation into a new life.  Consequently, a symbolic death often takes place.  Sometimes the knowledge the hero gains is representative a psychological journey into his own heart and soul.  As in life, since the journey is so hard, the victory can be huge.


Helpers and Guides

These assist the hero materially or spiritually.  Whereas in myth, the helpers could be talking animals or human, in literature are usually older, more experienced people, often archetypes known as the Good Mother and the Wise Old Man.  The Good Mother can be an actual mother or a female of any age that offers motherly support and material aid like the Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz.  The Wise Old Man, conversely, is a father figure with special knowledge and skills. He goes with the hero on the journey or simply appears when needed.  The Wise Old Man sets the hero on the road to becoming all he can be.

The Treasure 

The treasure may be monetarily valuable, sentimentally valuable, or spiritually valuable—like gold, a cheap bracelet, knowledge or even a person.   The treasure is never easily obtained and always valuable to the quester.  It can improve their economic life, their position in society, their inner self.  Although sometimes the treasure changes the hero’s life in unsuspected ways, the treasure remains an irresistible challenge for the true hero.

The Transformation

In order to gain the treasure, the hero changes or is “reborn.”  By gaining it, the hero has changed his life and himself forever.  Often the transformation is one of initiation—a passage from childhood to adulthood.  Some heroes, like some people, fight this transformation and some welcome it and fight for it.  By accepting the “treasure,” the hero is reborn.

Back to Literature Home Page