The Return: How heroes change the world
Part 6 of the Hero's Journey series
There is a statue that I admire of Shiva, an image depicting the four-armed god in the middle of his cosmic dance. He holds in his right hand the drum with which he strikes the beat of time. This represents the creation of the cosmos, which began with time, and the journey of all existence through time. In his left hand, he cups the flame of destruction, symbolising the end of all created things. Of course, endings can only occur after beginnings, and both (as well as the concept of “after”) require time; destruction is contingent on creation, there can be no fire without fuel. And from the ashes of that which has burned, new things emerge, creation begins again.
Beginnings always bring about endings. They create their own endings, as nothing is eternal, and by beginning, they change and so end what came before. So here we are, beginning again in our Hero’s Journey series, this time at the end. Endings can be as fruitful as beginnings, of course – they don’t necessitate the creation of anything, but they clear space for it and allow for something new. They can also inspire with their negation, just as nature abhors a vacuum and necessity births invention. Endings can bring about beginnings.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo finishes his journey having realised he neither needs to shun his old home altogether, nor must he embrace the Ordinary World in which he quietly avoided excitement. The French cul-de-sac (the end of a road with only one way in or out) literally translates to “bottom of bag” – or in other words “Bag End”, as Bilbo’s home is called. It has transformed from a place to stay in forever, into a place from which he can travel and to which he can return. This is captured in a song that Bilbo will later teach his nephew, Frodo, the lyrics of which also express the basic shape of the Hero’s Journey:
“Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
The world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back to home and bed.”
Bilbo has left his Ordinary World behind, travelled many paths on the Road of Trials, become a hero, and returned to his Ordinary World – though he is no longer so ordinary. In the end, the Hero’s Journey is not completed until our hero has returned in some sense to the place from which she set out. There is still work for the hero to do.
“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
~ James Baldwin
Joseph Campbell writes that the hero’s task is “to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed”. How does our hero achieve this? Campbell sums up the problem our hero faces in returning to the Ordinary World with a similar question: “How translate into terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites?” Like a sphere attempting to convince the two-dimensional citizens of Flatland of the existence of a third dimension, how do we communicate wholeness to a fractured world?
The most immediate answer is that we tell by showing. We live lives that symbolise and express the truths we are committed to. We return to our Ordinary Worlds not to proselytise but to practice, not to preach at but be an example for others. This is reflected in the words of St Francis of Assisi, who said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Writers and artists walk this way in their work. Proust once wrote:
“In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”
Joseph Campbell suggests that “if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day”. Aristotle named this reacquaintance of what was once known “anagnorisis”: the discovery of one’s own true character, which is to say the rediscovery of a truth waiting for us to catch up to it. This is that moment we have with great art, when we recognise ourselves and our world in a new way. Art does not add to reality; art allows reality to unfold.
In communicating this way to the reader, viewer of the painting, audience to the movie, listener to the music, to her child or community or the power to which she speaks truth, the hero shifts her position in the larger narrative. The hero begins as Theseus entering the labyrinth to face the minotaur at its centre; the hero finishes the journey by becoming Ariadne supplying the guiding thread to other heroes who might one day enter other labyrinths.
And there will indeed be other labyrinths, because that which our own hero traversed will be gone. The Ordinary World will have been (in obvious or in subtle ways) reconstructed by the story our hero brings, just as Christine de Pizan is told to write into existence a city of ladies, and to “mix the mortar well in [her] inkpot and set to on the masonry work with great strokes of [her] pen”. New mazes then open up in this changed landscape. As a result, there will also be new heroes.
Why do we need these future heroes? First, because there will be future people, and it will serve them well as individuals to strive to be the best version of themselves they can be. Second, because there is always more to explore, more land to discover, more dragons to be slain. We are never afforded the luxury – or at least, it is not granted for very long in the grand scheme of things – of sitting still or taking peace for granted.
As self-aware creatures thrust into a reality that does not favour good nor evil but allows both free rein, the truth of our situation is this: If we want to suffer, we need do very little. If, on the other hand, we want to flourish, we must act. As John Steinbeck once wrote, “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn’t die.” Just as heroes rise out of the ashes, so too does evil.
There is a third reason for future heroes: Those boons gifted to us by past champions will need to be recovered again. We normalise and trivialise transcendence to make it fit into society, because the mundane has a low tolerance for the sublime. In that most memorable scene from the Black Mirror episode “Ten Million Merits”, the main character becomes a kind of prophet and proclaims across a million screens that there is more to life than what consumer culture offers:
“Show us something real and free and beautiful? You couldn’t. It’d break us ... There’s only so much wonder we can bear – that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever you dole it out in meagre portions, and only when it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten-thousand pre-assigned filters, until it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights ...”
We can only stomach so much truth and only for so long, and so it must be continually refreshed. We must be reminded of it again by new heroes. Yet this is not always a task for which we will be thanked.
Those who look for constant connection to the sublime were once revered as great mystics, shamans, and other spiritual devotees. Part of the awe in which they were held had to do with their dedication; we cannot sustain such intensity in our daily lives. Today, such people are either ignored, dismissed as absurd, or are absurd, having confused the search for truth with fundamentalism. Nietzsche was right to make his bell ringer at God’s funeral a madman. The prophet who sees beneath the surface or behind the veil and announces what we most need to know can, as Joseph Campbell writes, “discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes”.
In “Ten Million Merits”, the main character appears to his audience as a crazed, delusional figure pressing broken glass against his own throat. However, this is not a sign of having lost his grip on sanity but a carefully calculated gesture that in itself says much: People will pay attention if they are teased and titillated with the possibility of violence. He says as much in his speech, that “real pain, real viciousness, that we can take”.
Unfortunately, diagnoses like this can too easily become nihilistic creeds that lead to despondency. Like too many of our contemporaries who have faced the facts of our climate crisis and, in taking it seriously, have become overwhelmed by it, we can end up marching nowhere against everything to the rallying call that there’s nothing to be done. The hero instead picks up the burden of knowledge – in this case, that the message will often be filtered and fractured – and seeks new ways to reinvest truth with the shock of the new.
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”
~ James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
As seen in Part Three of this series, the beast of the sea that Heracles fought was Poseidon’s vengeance against Laomedon’s arrogance. The Trojan king had reneged on his promise to pay the gods for their work. In not giving up what was due, Laomedon was like King Minos, who refused to sacrifice the promised bull to Poseidon, an act of ego that put personal gain before personal responsibility. Joseph Campbell writes that, as a king, Minos “was no longer a private person”, which holds true for the hero too. “The return of the bull”, or the hero imbuing the Ordinary World with the gifts earned on the journey, “should have symbolised his absolutely selfless submission to the function of his role”. Laomedon and Minos refused to be consumed, and as such were no heroes.
In The Hobbit, Thorin is like those kings, proudly refusing to serve the community. He hoards his newly won treasure in the mountain, refusing to submit any of it to anyone else, even those to whom it is owed. Like Minos and Laomedon, it could easily be his downfall. “I declare your mountain besieged,” a messenger announces to stubborn Thorin. “... we will leave you to your gold. You may eat that, if you will!” Determined not to part with his treasure, Thorin is now forced to have nothing but his riches. A raven warns Thorin, “The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!”
In the end, it is our hobbit-hero Bilbo Baggins who saves the day. He already understands what the raven added in his warning to Thorin: “How shall you be fed without the friendship and goodwill of the lands about you?” Risking much, Bilbo reflects the proper behaviour of the hero by submitting what he earned in the Temple – the Arkenstone from Smaug’s cave – to the wider world for the common good.
At the end of this adventure, Bilbo and Gandalf discuss all that has happened from the comfort of Bag End. In case Bilbo should take a parochial view of their journey as being primarily about the hobbit, Gandalf says, “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” Still, while the benefits of the adventure itself are seen in the flourishing of Lake-town from Smaug’s desolation, in Bard’s rightful rise to success, and in the deserving downfall of wicked foes, it is not yet clear what good Bilbo’s return to the Shire holds – apart from allowing Bilbo’s weary feet to rest.
It will not be until we meet Frodo in The Lord of the Rings that we understand what Bilbo’s return has brought to his Ordinary World. It transpires that Bilbo has become something of an archetype of the adventurer for young Frodo, his quest to the Lonely Mountain a blueprint for heroic journeys. Frodo’s own exploration of the wider world and setting out on a Hero’s Journey are inspired by feeling “a great desire ... to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again”.
We may not immediately or possibly even everknow what impact our journey has had on others. We can try to ensure a positive effect is felt rippling out from the small stone we have dropped into the stillness of existence, but sometimes those ripples reach far off shores that we cannot see for ourselves. Our contributions may be felt in distant places geographically, or they may be felt in distant times as we benefit future generations.
Homer tells us in The Odyssey that the gods “spun out that destructive thread for men, / to weave a song for those as yet unborn”. (I’ve always found this reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s observation that each time we tell the poet, whose pain sounds like lovely music, to please sing again, we are in fact saying, “May new sufferings torment you”.) It might sometimes be that the essential meaning in our own trials is to bear them as well as we can, so as to give meaning to the future trials of others.
The pay-off for such selfless suffering is that, in becoming heroes, we have learned to find joy in the meaningful adoption of responsibility. In Lost, Jack finds salvation, redemption, and freedom in wilfully sacrificing himself for the greater good, and he does so twice, in two different ways. First, in “our reality”, he goes knowingly to his death in the cave at the heart of the island, knowing that someone must do so in order to protect the island and for the other survivors to make it home safely. Then, in the “sideways reality”, he must remember who he is and what has happened in his life, so that he can at last let go. Once he has, he is able to take his place amongst the community of those he spent time with on the island and lead them to whatever comes next in the afterlife.
Miaoshan, who was expelled from the underworld for turning it into a paradise, lived out her life in monastic pursuit of holiness. She was finally rewarded for her commitment and sacrifices (she gave up her eyes and arms to cure her cruel father of jaundice) by being permitted to enter heaven. But as she began to cross the boundary between this world and paradise, she heard cries of suffering below. Seeing the misery and pain of humanity, she returned to Earth, vowing not to leave until all suffering had ended for all people. She returned to the Ordinary World rather than selfishly accept a reward only for herself. It is said that Miaoshan remains with us in our trials and torments today.
This is not to say that the hero can only expect to sacrifice herself at the end of her journey. Many heroes are embraced, for a time at least, by the world to which she returns. Many are lauded and held in high esteem as writers, painters, guides, leaders, parents, teachers, philosophers, or whatever other form they take to manifest what they have earned and learned on their quest. Others live quietly, unrecognised except in the few intimate relationships they form and influence with friends and loved ones.
Whatever the outcome of our heroic journeys, it is as well to remember what Gandalf tells Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit: “You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
“Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come ...”
~ Joseph Campbell
We began this series with the myth of Adam and Eve coming to fractured consciousness and leaving Eden for the world of duality. Let’s imagine a return to the garden with them, as our Hero’s Journey comes full circle. Man and woman, dressed to disguise and draw attention to their differences, pass by the guardian at the entrance to the garden. He brandishes his flaming sword but allows them to pass. Here in this sacred place, they are tempted with the apple but rather than eating it, they place it back on the tree. Having passed this trial, they confront the perceived division between them and see that they are actually one. Reconciled, they are able to do good work in tending the garden. As a result, they reach ultimate unification, returning into the transcendent wholeness from which they came.
The Genesis myth is the story of The Fall; the Hero’s Journey is the story of a rise. From fallen people to heroes. There is much more to the Hero’s Journey than a reductive formula for Disney movies, just as there is much more to myth than mere entertainment. Narratives are not an optional add-on or decorative bow to the functionality of everyday life; they are life’s fabric. Stories provide the structures by which we live, maps to the best ways we might proceed, and histories of where we have been. Most importantly, they flesh out our actions and choices with meaning.
The Hero’s Journey is not intended to be a catch-all, a prescriptive way of interpreting all stories. It is not the only or the best way to approach how we live our lives. It is a tried-and-tested way that many have successfully lived by. As Joseph Campbell wrote of his own monomyth, “Without regarding this as the last word on the subject, one can nevertheless permit it to serve as an approach.”
Even its constituent elements can be useful on their own. I find myself conceptualising high-risk high-reward choices as dives into the Belly of the Best, even when they do not follow a specific Call to Adventure or lead to a Road of Trials. And I am happy for the majority of what I have written on the Hero’s Journey to be thrown out if all that is salvaged, in our times of political extremes, is the message of rejecting dichotomous absolutes.
In the end, there is simply a hope that we, as communities and as individuals, can aspire to the best, however we imagine that. “We are all in the gutter,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” For too long our culture and art has acknowledged and focused its attentions on the qualities of the mud in this gutter, the stench we are surrounded by, the depth to which we have sunk. Artists throughout the twentieth century and increasingly pop-culture have been telling its audiences, “Everything is shit, and we all know it.”
But we can look to the heroes of Homer, the sages of the spiritual and secular worlds, and the profound questions and answers of great novels, paintings, and music for inspiration and aspiration. Dante began his Divine Comedy in the depths of Hell, but he looked upward and made an ascent. Each of the books in his triptych ends with the word “stars”. He didn’t simply write a religious screed about the heaven he believed in – he wrote his way up towards that transcendence by engaging fully with the depths in which we find ourselves. We too can look for something greater while acknowledging the truth of our situation. There is no need to be simplistic or saccharine about these things.
So here we are, at the end. Whatever we have been and whatever we are now, we can become something more – and why not call that heroic? Given how terrible we are constantly told things are, it follows that to pick ourselves up in the midst of that gutter and to carry our responsibilities toward some useful goal in spite of the mud should be seen as a form of heroism.
The Call to Adventure might confuse us, the Beast into whose belly we dive might be terrifying, the Road of Trials will be long and difficult, and there is no guarantee that we will ever reach a Temple at the end of it all. But there is a chance of something better, so long as we keep looking at the stars.
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• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
• The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers (1988)
• Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (1939)
• Black Mirror, “Ten Million Merits”, created by Charlie Brooker (2011)
• The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin (1985)
• Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (2011)
• The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (1937)
• The Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the ring, JRR Tolkien (1954)
• The Odyssey, Homer (circa 8thcentury BC)
• Lost, created by JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Jeffrey Lieber (2004 – 2010)
• Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde (1892)