Joseph Campbell was a prolific comparative mythology writer and lecturer of the twentieth century. Some of his works include The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, Historical Atlas of World Mythology, and The Power of Myth.
What I’m going to focus on in this article is often referred to as The Hero’s Journey and it comes from Campbell’s first venture into writing, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book, in essence, looks at the underlying structure of myth that has been pervasive in cultures around the world for thousands of years. In his studies, he found parallel structure and breaks the hero’s journey down into steps that the hero takes and the options he has along the way.
What is surprising is how many of our modern day literary and movie heroes follow much of the same structure. Take, for example, Bilbo and Frodo from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien. These two heroes follow much of the hero’s journey Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces laid out.
Step 1: The Ordinary World
This is the normal world we all live in, or at least, the world that is normal for the character. Often, our hero will stick out, or he’ll have something going on in his life that is pulling him in different directions. More likely than not, our hero will have some notable background as well and can also be an orphan of some sort with his origins unknown to him.
Bilbo: Bilbo does his best to fit in with other hobbits. He doesn’t really want an adventure nor to leave his lovely Shire, but he gets talked into it. He’s of, what I like to think of, a middle-Hobbit-class family with a comfortable life. He doesn’t stick out too much from the ordinary world.
Frodo: Frodo fits with Campbell’s description a bit better than Bilbo. Not only is Frodo an orphan, raised by his odd uncle Bilbo who is rich, loves adventure, and slew a dragon, but he’s restless and wanting adventure even before the ring is thrust upon him.
Step 2: The Call to Adventure
Something comes along that changes the ordinary world for the hero. This can be something external or internal—either way, the hero must face change.
Bilbo: Uh, like, thirteen dwarves, including their king and a wizard knock down his door. That’s a pretty big change.
Frodo: Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo, leaves him a ring after running off without telling him. That’s the beginning of Frodo’s internal change, I think, and then when the Nazgûl, or ringwraiths come to the Shire, Frodo and his crew have to leave their physical location to get away.
Step 3: Refusal of the Call
The hero is scared of the unknown waiting for him. He’ll try to turn away from the journey, albeit briefly. This can also manifest as the hero being uncertain toward the danger ahead.
Bilbo: He flat out refuses and tries to get the dwarves and wizard to leave before his journey even begins. Then, on the journey, he’s tempted to leave again. All this poor Hobbit wants is his pipe of weed and some supper.
Frodo: Frodo is definitely afraid once his journey begins. Even though he volunteers to take the ring into Mordor, he still tells his faithful sidekick Sam that he can’t carry it (the ring) any longer.
Step 4: Meeting with the Mentor
A seasoned world traveler, usually in the form of an old wise man, comes along to aid the hero with his wisdom.
Bilbo: Gandalf the Grey.
Frodo: Gandalf the Grey AND Gandalf the White.
Step 5: Crossing the Threshold
By the end of the first part of the hero’s journey, he is leaving the ordinary world and is heading off into the a new region, or a new condition, or just an unknown places with unfamiliar rules, customs, and values.
Bilbo: He’s off into the wilderness on a journey with thirteen dwarves. He isn’t much for camping, nor at thieving, nor at not being eaten by trolls. He’s pretty unfamiliar with everything once they leave the Shire.
Frodo: He’s also unfamiliar with the world outside of the Shire. If it weren’t for Aragorn watching out for the Hobbits at the Prancing Pony Inn, the pint-guzzling foursome wouldn’t have made it out of their beds and onto the rest of their journey.
Step 6: Tests, Allies, and Enemies
This one is pretty straightforward—the hero is tested out in this new world. He also figures out who his allies are and who his enemies are during this period.
Bilbo: The dwarves are friends. Trolls are not friends. Goblins are pretty much always the enemy too. Gollum, or Smeagol, is really also foe. Dragons are also really not the buddy type. Gandalf is both a savior and a friend.
Frodo: The Fellowship are sort of friends. The ring corrupts friends, though. Orcs and Goblins are awful still. Slowly, actually, Frodo loses trust in all of his allies except for Sam, because the ring seems to corrupt all except for Sam’s loyalty.
Step 7: Approach
Once the hero sorts out who’s a bro and who’s not a bro, the hero and his bros plan for the big challenge to come in the special world.
Bilbo: Bilbo gets some cool armor and a sword that lights up around Goblins. It’s useful, but maybe not that useful around dragons. He and the dwarves also hatch a plan for Bilbo to steal the gem from the dragon. And nothing really goes according to plan, but they did at least have a plan.
Frodo: His approach had been set from the beginning of his journey with the fellowship from Rivendell: to throw the ring into the volcanic fire at the heart of Mordor. How he gets to this point, though, changes. First it was as part of the fellowship, then it was with Sam and the with the navigation of Gollum, and when standing at the fiery pits of Mordor, well…
Step 8: The Ordeal
This is towards the middle of the hero’s journey, generally. This is where the hero must confront death or one of his greatest fears. This is also where the hero finds new life.
Bilbo: Being stuck in the cave with Gollum is his fear, but his rebirth comes in the form of a little golden ring.
Frodo: Being stabbed by a ringwraith in the first book, or like, attacked by a huge spider in the third book, or, well, Frodo gets almost killed a lot. His rebirths don’t seem to make him stronger, however, but more dependent on his friend Sam.
Step 9: The Reward
Treasure! Or something like that. There can also be a celebration but this celebration and claim of treasure can be premature, and often is, premature at this point.
Bilbo: Yeah, so, the dragon is still alive. Smaug smells you and knows you’re there, Bilbo, even with your magic ring. Don’t go celebrating the return of the dwarf king yet.
Frodo: Frodo doesn’t really want treasure, he wants to be rid of a little piece of super evil treasure.
Step 10: The Road Back
This is where the hero takes his treasure and starts to leave the special world for the ordinary world. This is often where a fight scene or a chase scene happens to signal some sort of urgency to leave the special place to keep the rewards.
Bilbo: So, there’s a fight with a dragon and the human town of Lake Town and the elves of Mirkwood all get involved. I’d say that counts as a conflict over treasure before the road back can be taken.
Frodo: Sam and Frodo make their way into the heart of Mordor, only to have Frodo be corrupted by the ring before he throws it into the mountain’s lava pits. So when the treasure is about to be destroyed, it’s not. All Frodo had to do was toss that little ring in and he could have turned around and walked back to the Shire. Instead, Gollum attacks Frodo to try to reclaim his “precious.”
Step 11: The Resurrection
After the hero is tested once more, he makes a final sacrifice and is able to then return home. Any conflicts that were in the ordinary world are now solved, either internal or external. The hero is reborn and is a person with a deeper knowledge or understanding in comparison to the hero that set off in the beginning of the story.
Bilbo: Bilbo leaves his dwarf friends to aid the humans and elves in the fight against Smaug. Bilbo could have been safe, as he’d wanted to be all along (albeit at his home, not in the Lonely Mountain with the king of the dwarves, Thorin), but instead he learns to do what is right and battles with goblins, wargs, and the dragon without thinking of his own safety. After the battle, Bilbo is reborn as a more confident Hobbit who no longer cares for “respectable” appearances. He often dreams of returning to the land of the elves and living among them, or smoking weed from his pipe with his wizard pal.
Frodo: Frodo loses his fingers. He also loses Gollum, a conflicted creature that Frodo felt connected to because of the ring. He is no longer the innocent, wide-eyed Hobbit boy that left the Shire on a frightening journey. He is a Hobbit man that survived the most horrid evils the world had to offer, and now he has to find a way to live in peace with his heart that gave into temptation.
Step 12: Return with the Elixir
This is when the hero is home. The hero carries with him something that can transform the ordinary world he is returning to with something from the special world. Sometimes, the hero continues his journey. This can also be where the hero dies or finds he is unfit for the ordinary world once he has come back from the special world, somehow not fitting into one or the other or either anymore.
Bilbo: Actual treasure. And the ring. Plus, he is now the oddball of his society, for it is very odd to have a Hobbit that likes to go on adventures and readily brags about them.
Frodo: His treasure is more internal. It’s an understanding of the darkness of the world outside of the Shire. Instead of sharing this with his fellow Hobbits, he leaves for The Havens with the elves.
You can really break down many epic stories, novels, and even movies into these twelve steps. Bilbo and Frodo are just two of the thousand heroes who wear this mask.