Although I am a teacher of typical English courses as well, it was a mythology course that gave me the biggest challenge of my life. (You can read more about that adventure here.) Teaching mythology challenged me to develop my teaching style—prompting the creation of almost all the materials you will find on this website. So, needless to say, mythology is special to me.
Beasts, quests, and monsters are all part of mythology, but at its heart is the hero. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite things to teach is heroes and the concept of the Hero’s Journey. If you teach this concept, too, I thought I would recommend a book to you. I try not to recommend a book unless I have found it to be extremely helpful. We are teachers, and most of us don’t have excess cash lying around. But one book that truly helped reshape the way I teach heroes and The Hero’s Journey is The Writer’s Journey by Chris Volger.
Now before you say, “What about Joseph Campbell?” I am aware that Joseph Campbell developed the concept of the Hero’s Journey in the first place, and I think everyone should give his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces a look. But if I was going to recommend just one book that makes the Hero’s Journey easy to understand and applicable to storytelling and even life itself, I have to recommend Volger’s The Writer’s Journey. Why recommend this book over the book that started it all? Clarity and ease-of-use.
It’s probably Volger’s background that makes his book more user-friendly. Volger brought knowledge of The Hero’s Journey and its inner-workings to Hollywood execs who wanted to tell better, more timeless stories, and Volger’s notes to this end served as the basis for his book. Volger worked with Disney during the production of The Lion King and several other successful animated features. In his book Volger directly applies Campbell’s concept of the monomyth or “The Hero’s Journey” to screenwriting and storytelling—yielding a detailed, yet easy-to-read, instruction manual for understanding and applying the Hero’s Journey.
In his text Volger beautifully sums up the Hero’s Journey: “At heart, despite its infinite variety, the hero’s story is always a journey. A hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world. It may be an outward journey to an actual place: a labyrinth, forest or cave, a strange city or country, a new locale that becomes the arena for her conflict with antagonistic, challenging forces. But there are as many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit. In any good story the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next: from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again.”
Volger’s text is especially helpful for us English teachers who are continually searching for exciting ways to teach storytelling and writing! Volger lays out the stages of the Hero’s Journey with clearer titles than appear in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (no offense to Joseph Campbell). Volger also explores and explains the archetypes found in the monomyth, giving wonderful examples from literature and film. Even though I had taught the Hero’s Journey for years, I walked away from this book with a better understanding of the whole theory. Plus, I was excited to teach it with a fresh perspective!
Perhaps my favorite thing about Volger’s book is that he applies the stage of the Hero’s Journey to life itself. Maybe I am just a little slow, but this simple leap from literature to life never occurred to me. Thanks to Volger’s influence, I now teach the Hero’s Journey to my students as a pattern for life, too. In the following quote Volger explains how the Hero’s Journey has impacted his life: “I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more: a set of principles for living. I came to believe that the Hero’s Journey is nothing less than a handbook for life, a complete instruction manual in the art of being human.” One of my goals as a teacher is use stories to teach students how to live, and this philosophical application of the Hero’s Journey reinvigorated me to teach it with purpose. In fact, the presentations available on this site for teaching the Hero’s Journey all use the “life lesson” application of the Hero’s Journey.
Chris Volger’s The Writer’s Journey has thought-provoking commentary on the Hero’s Journey, real-life application, and beautiful illustrations! I highly recommend it!
OTHER BOOKS RELATED TO THE HERO’S JOURNEY
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell This is the book that started it all, and it is definitely work a look. Campbell outlines the stages through which many heroes pass on their adventures. His highly intellectual style is fascinating but sometimes difficult to navigate for novices. To buy this book or read more about The Hero with a Thousand Faces on Amazon.com, click here.
Living the Hero’s Journey by Will Craig Although the life-application approach of the Hero’s Journey appears in Volger’s The Writer’s Journey, Will Craig takes the same concept to a whole new level in Living the Hero’s Journey. This book is more of a self-help manual than Volger’s book, so if that type of book is your style, it might be worth a look; however, if you’re looking for a more academic approach, Craig’s connections to the Hero’s Journey are less in-depth. To buy Living the Hero’s Journey by Will Craig or read more about it on Amazon.com, click here.