There may not literally be a Bat-signal projected into the night sky, but young people, more than ever, are in need of hope. The statistics are sobering: In the past ten years suicide rates among 15-17 year-olds have risen over 76% while rates among 10-14-year-olds have tripled (CDC cited in Education Week [I am unsure of how you would like me to cite this in an article.]). In response to this rising trend, coping skills have become a larger part of school curriculum and rightly so! Navigating the journey of life is tough, and students need to be prepared. As schools build up their support systems, there is an additional (and perhaps unexpected) way to fortify young people against the challenges of life: teach them hero stories.
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 to get caught up in the struggles of everyday life. As our problems pile up, we forget that there is hope and help available to us. Yet when we enter the imaginary world of a story, it’s like we are healed of a sickness. The hero’s courage inspires our own; the hero’s problem of saving the whole world (or at least part of it) makes our real-life problems seem smaller. We remember to hope. Coming back from the story world, we can see the real world in a new, inspired way. Lewis said that in imaginary stories “we do not retreat from reality; we rediscover it.” It’s no coincidence that the common message in a lot of 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 pattern. The Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) is a concept first made famous by a scholar named Joseph Campbell with the publication of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Through his research, Campbell discovered that ancient hero stories from almost all cultures shared many of the same stages and character types. His findings made two interesting points: First, human experience is universal. And secondly, our stories are more than diversions—they are reflections of mankind’s shared hopes, dreams, and fears. In other words, when we tell imaginary stories, we are actually using metaphors for the struggles of real life.
Discussing the challenges of life with students is all-important, but often difficult. Teachers come off as “preachy” or worse “cheesy,” and the message is ignored. Using the Hero’s Journey as a lens for life is a non-threatening way to achieve this goal. Most students find the subject matter interesting and entertaining. After all, a quick glance at pop culture will show you that hero stories are popular—in films, books, TV series, and video games—all topics on which students are already experts. The pattern is easy to spot, and if applied to a story the students already love, the message is readily absorbed.
The following is a simple overview of the Hero’s Journey that you can use with your students. You can apply it to a story that you are currently studying in class. (Almost all stories, regardless of their content, match the Hero’s Journey). Or you can use an example film with which most students will be familiar. Disney and Pixar films work well; most students know them, and their plots follow the Hero’s Journey closely. The life story of a historical figure will follow the Hero’s Journey as well. Remember: The Hero’s Journey is also the pattern of life.
The Hero’s Journey
The Ordinary World Heroes begin their stories in ordinary, un-exciting places. Often heroes feel like they don’t belong in the Ordinary World. Think about Bilbo Baggins stuck in mundane Hobbiton or Dorothy Gale stuck on a black-and-white farm in Kansas. Eventually, the heroes’ journeys lead them into a Special World that is far removed from all that they have ever known. Application: Like heroes, many students see their home as boring and uneventful. They may feel like being from a certain place means they’re “going nowhere.” Teaching them that heroes have humble beginnings can inspire your students to think big and dream of going far.
The Call to Adventure While living in the Ordinary World, an event happens that invites (or sometimes forces) heroes to leave everything they know behind. Think about Harry Potter receiving an invitation to Hogwarts or Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider. Just like a phone call, the Call to Adventure can be accepted or refused. Many heroes, choosing to stick to the status quo, initially refuse the Call to Adventure—only to accept it later on (somewhat reluctantly). Application: Like heroes students often refuse opportunities that are outside their comfort zones. They stick to the “known” in fear of embarrassment or failure; however, when opportunities for growth present themselves, students should accept them. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Meeting with the Mentor In order for heroes to succeed, they must have training. All heroes receive aid (which is sometimes supernatural) from an older and wiser source. This wisdom-dispensing character is called the Mentor. Think of Professor Dumbledore from Harry Potter or Yoda from Star Wars. Mentors teach heroes how to develop their skills to prepare for the journey ahead. Application: Like heroes students should recognize the value of mentors. If they can value their training (education), it will take them much further.
Talisman All heroes have a special skill, item, or personality trait that sets them apart from others. This “talisman” assists them on their journey and is key to their success. Think of Spider-man’s web-slinging ability or Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Often the Mentor further helps the heroes by teaching them to use their talisman wisely. Application Many students feel like they don’t have any special skills or talents. Nothing could be further from the truth! Mentors, such as teachers, can help them identify and hone these special skills to prepare them for future challenges.
Crossing the Threshold With their training completed, it is time for heroes to leave the Ordinary World behind. This is often a challenge for the heroes; their fear of the unknown is almost overpowering. Often there is a Threshold Guardian as well—an opponent who presents an early threat to their journey. Yet when this opponent is faced and conquered, the resulting victory emboldens the heroes. Application: Like heroes students will face obstacles when they step out of their comfort zones. Most people retreat once they face the least little problem. But if students can learn to push past obstacles, they are more likely to grow in their skills.
The Road of Trials If you think of any hero story, you will see that the hero moves from one obstacle to another—confronting a seemingly endless stream of difficulties. Although this might seem disheartening, each new obstacle tests the heroes in a new way—forcing them to develop new skills. Application: Like heroes students must understand that each challenge they face strengthens them in some way. At each stage of the journey they become stronger than they were before.
Allies and Enemies Heroes never complete their quests without a bit of help. Where would Robin Hood be without his merry men? Or a Disney princess without a few talking critters to assist her? In hero stories it’s obvious that success is a group effort—especially when an endless wave of enemies rises up in the hero’s pathway. Only through teamwork can this enemy horde fall. Application: Although the importance of allies is obvious in hero stories, students may think they have to go through their real-life problems alone. Encourage them to confide in others. Stress the importance of choosing good friends with similar values. This will assist them immensely when they come up against an inevitable wave of challenges.
The Supreme Ordeal After many struggles, heroes finally near their ultimate goal—resulting in an epic showdown between the forces of good and evil. This event, called the Supreme Ordeal, tests the heroes more than any other. It is here that they must face the Shadow, the character or force that opposes them. At some point it may seem that the heroes have been defeated or have even died, yet in the end they are triumphant. Application: Like heroes students must understand that their journeys may lead them into dark places, where it seems like all hope is lost. Yet if they stay true to the course and continue on the path they know to be right, they will prevail.
Restoring the World Heroes begin their journeys with a purpose. Usually there is a pressing problem that needs to be solved. The Dark Lord threatens to destroy all of Middle-Earth or the Joker holds Gotham City hostage. Through bravery, resilience, and perseverance, heroes accomplish their goals and save the world. By the end of the journey, heroes have changed the outward world, but they have changed themselves, too. They have become far more stronger and wiser than they were at the journey’s outset. Application: Likewise, students should look at their world with a hero mindset. What about the world could they change if they were only willing to accept the Call to Adventure?
Analyzing the Hero’s Journey with your students will give you an avenue to explore the deeper challenges of life. Hopefully, it will be an exercise that they find both entertaining and meaningful. In the current youth crisis any attempt to rekindle hope is noble. Students must realize that problems in life are inevitable, but will we view them as roadblocks or a call to adventure?
Want an easy-to-understand way to teach the Hero's Journey to young people? Check out The Hero's Guidebook by Zachary Hamby.
Want to teach the Hero's Journey in your classroom? Check out these classroom-tested resources available on our website.