The following is an excerpt from The Hero's Guidebook, which discusses mankind's love and need for hero stories.
Have you ever noticed that people love stories about heroes? Movies about Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man pack the theaters. Books that take readers to far-off lands and let them experience epic quests are bestsellers. Even popular video games give players a chance to control a heroic character. This love of heroes isn’t just a phenomenon in our culture either. Hero stories are popular all over the world— and all throughout history, too. People 3,000 years ago liked hero stories just as much as we do—maybe even more so. So what is it about hero stories that make them so timelessly beloved?
Exciting, far-off places might have something to do with it. We like hero stories because they transport us out of the real world. Taking out the garbage, babysitting your little sister, studying for the math test—sometimes you just have to escape. Hero stories take you to new and exciting places full of creatures and adventures that you could never see in real life. (I’m still waiting to see a real-life hippogriff, but it just hasn’t happened yet.) In stories you see heroes completing mighty, impossible-looking quests that you secretly wish you could be a part of. Since hero stories are so different from real life, they allow us to escape from our real-life problems, and we all need that every once in a while (even we adults).
We also love hero stories because of what they can teach us about real life. You may think: I don’t buy it. I don’t have superpowers. I’ve never pulled a sword out of a stone. All of these statements are true, but stories are sneaky. While you may be experiencing imaginary adventures, you’re learning real-life lessons. By being there with heroes as they face their struggles and seeing how they react to their problems, stories teach us how we should act when we come up against our own obstacles. You may never literally slay a dragon or defeat a supervillain, but you will encounter your own problems, which will seem just as terrifying and impossible.
Two of the greatest storytellers of all-time, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, said that stories have a special power—a healing power. It’s easy for us to get caught up in the struggles of everyday life. We see our problems piling up, and we forget that there is hope and help available to us. But when we enter the imaginary world of a story, it’s like we are healed of a sickness. The attitude of the story’s hero reminds us that we need to have courage, too. The hero’s problem of saving the whole world makes our real-life problems seem smaller. We remember to hope. Imaginary stories help us see the true reality of life again. Coming back from the story world, we can see the real world in a new, inspired way. Lewis said that in stories “we do not retreat from reality; we rediscover it.” It’s no coincidence that the common message in a lot of famous hero stories is having hope in even the darkest of times. In stories obstacles are never as impossible as they seem. All giants can fall, and all dragons have a weak spot. If that theme of hope can spill over into real life, it can change everything.
Just like many hero stories have a similar message, they also have a similar hero-story pattern. The Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) is a story-pattern first made famous by a scholar named Joseph Campbell. He discovered that hero stories from all over the world had many of the same stages and characters. This was an exciting discovery because hero stories come from vastly different times and places. How was it possible that they could be so similar? Well, since stories are a reflection of real life, the human experience is universal. Underneath our superficial differences, we are all human. We have the same hopes, dreams, and fears, and these are reflected in our stories.
Because the Hero’s Journey is rooted in the human experience, its storytelling pattern can also serve as a way of looking at life. In history books you will find many real-life heroes who have done amazing deeds. In a way they went on their own hero quests. Their accomplishments required just as much bravery and sacrifice from them as the heroes you find in storybooks. In fact, their life-stories even have some of the same stages as a hero’s journey. This is because the pattern of the Hero’s Journey is also the pattern of life.