Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
A Hero’s Journey calls one away from a comfortable, ordinary life to a challenging and unfamiliar world. The call may come in the form of solving a problem or achieving a goal. The sources of the Call to Adventure may be internal, a stirring within, or external such as a unique opportunity or difficult situation. The journey may be outward to an actual place, or an inward journey of the mind, heart, and spirit. In any case, as we discover in Don Quixote, the adventure changes the Hero, and often others, forever.
An American scholar named Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) identifies a universal pattern of storytelling known as The Hero’s Journey in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. Campbell organized the structural elements that lie behind every story ever told.
Since the publication of Campbell’s book, the stages of the Journey have been used in several versions to structure novels, films, stage plays, and ventures into the unknown by everyday people like you and me. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg follow The Hero’s Journey structure in their films like Star Wars and Jaws, which typify Hollywood’s utilization of Campbell’s work.
The English word hero comes from the Greek word hērōs, which has an original meaning of protector or defender. As used in The Hero’s Journey, Hero describes a central character who gives his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
Heroes generally don’t go about wielding superhuman powers like Superman or lead men into battle like General George Patton. Most Heroes look like everyday people who yield to an inner call and set out on a journey to change something, or themselves, for the better. Along the way, they meet obstacles, opposition, and sometimes defeat, but somehow a Hero gets up and continues the journey until they realize their goal.
The Stages of The Hero’s Journey.
The White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland furnishes us with a simple formula for telling a story.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
The Hero’s Journey begins with the Hero in an everyday setting going about life as usual. Then something happens, and the journey begins. It ends with the Hero returning as a changed person.
The everyday setting in which the Hero goes about routine activities.
The comfort of the Hero’s Ordinary World interrupted by a new event, challenge, quest, or stirring within bearing the message that it’s time for a change. The Hero might go forth of his own volition or may be carried or sent by some external agent.
Hesitancy in saying yes to the adventure for a variety of reasons such as fear, uncertainty, or any number of encumbrances.
A person or an object like a book, journal, supernatural source, or an inner mentor from which the Hero obtains confidence, incentive, and courage to accept the call.
The Hero finally commits wholeheartedly to the journey and ventures forth from The Ordinary World and passes into the unknown.
The new and sometimes frightening experience where the Hero encounters trials, competition, opposition, gains trusted allies, and sometimes further help from the mentor.
The Hero prepares for and experiences the crisis of the most difficult challenge and greatest fear while teetering on the brink of failure—sometimes referred to as the inmost cave.
Having survived the ordeal, the Hero celebrates the lessons learned and receives the spoils of victory, which may be fleeting but rewarding for now.
The time when the Hero recommits to completing the journey and faces the challenges of returning to The Ordinary World. Some Heroes elect to stay in the Special World, and others continue on the journey to a new and ultimate destination. But most take The Road Back.
A climactic event that requires the Hero to use all newly acquired abilities to survive. When triumphant, the Hero emerges as a changed person and continues the journey home.
The Return to the starting place (or for some a continuation of the journey) where the spoils of victory provide a new and improved life for the Hero and often others. Fruits of The Hero’s Journey can benefit The Ordinary World even when the quest ends tragically.
Everyone loves an underdog story like Don Quixote because we’ve all been there to varying degrees. We’ve all been told by skeptics, “You can’t do that.” But deep down, we want to believe that we can make a difference.
A country gentleman named Alonso Quixano lives with a housekeeper past forty, a niece not yet twenty, and a jack of all trades who performs various tasks around the estate. Alonso fills his time reading books on Chivalry with so much devotion that he forgets about everything else. As he becomes more and more absorbed in chivalric novels, he sells acres of land to buy more books.
At about age fifty, the books on Chivalry completely take over Alonso Quixano’s mind. He imagines no other recourse but to become a knight errant and travel the world seeking opportunities to right wrongs he encounters to achieve universal recognition and everlasting fame.
Alonso goes about the business of transforming himself into a knight errant. He cleans up some old armor, renames his decrepit horse Rocinante, gives himself the chivalric name Don Quixote of La Mancha, and creates a fictitious princess named Dulcinea of Toboso. The adventure cannot begin until Quixote makes an end of the intricate preparations.
The stories of idealistic knights with their strict rules of Chivalry that control Don Quixote’s mind convince him that further delay leaves the world in peril. “There were evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offenses to rectify.”
One morning before dawn on a hot day in July, armed and mounted on Rocinante, Don Quixote de La Mancha rides out the side door of the corral into the countryside without telling a soul. He rides “with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.”
Roberto González Echevarría, in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, writes an eloquent description of Quixote’s departure:
This is one of the most remarkable moments in all of literature. The protagonist has created himself, and he leaves at dawn, the beginning of a new day, a new life, and sets out on the Montiel Plain alone riding Rocinante. It is a beginning from zero, from a voluntary severing of ties with any possible determining force except Chivalry and literature. It is a moment of freedom, of freedom achieved, freedom from the past.
Now that’s how one crosses the threshold.
Quixote convinces a dull-witted peasant named Sancho Panza to accompany him to serve as a squire. Over time, Sancho grows into a trusted ally whose realistic outlook often counterbalances his master’s active imagination. Quixote’s fantasies lead him into all kinds of altercations that leave him and his sidekick sorely wounded. Sancho Panza observes his master’s sorry appearance and describes him to others as the Knight of the Sad Countenance.
Thoughts of Dulcinea El Toboso, Quixote’s fabricated lover, inspire him to pursue his dangerous ventures regardless of the cost.
Back home, his niece, housekeeper, priest, and barber believe it’s in Quixote’s best interest to put an end to his foolishness and bring him back by any means. The niece and the housekeeper persuade a university graduate, Sansón Carrasco, their master’s latest friend, to convince Quixote to discontinue his adventures. This doesn’t end well for Don Quixote.
When beaten, kicked, and ridiculed, Quixote rises, mounts his old nag, and carries on. Meanwhile, Sansón Carrasco devises a plan to help Don Quixote regain his mental balance. But Sansón displays “all the signs of a mischievous nature and a fondness for tricks and jokes.”
Sansón dresses as a knight and challenges Quixote to a joust in hopes of defeating him and ending his fantasy. However, when they charge at one another, Quixote, quite by accident, manages to knock his opponent to the ground. But that’s not the end of Sanson Carrasco.
After sparing Carrasco’s life, “Don Quixote rode along happy, proud and full of himself at having won his victory over such a brave adversary.” Sansón Carrasco doesn’t share Quixote’s joy. He vows that he’s no longer moved by a desire to help Quixote, “but by the desire for revenge.” He now comes to be the closest person to an antagonist found in the story.
After many more adventures, Don Quixote again encounters Sansón Carrasco. This time he appears as a real adversary under the guise of the Knight of the White Moon. Miguel de Cervantes titles this chapter as “the adventure that caused Don Quixote more grief than any of the previous ones.”
Sansón Carrasco, The Knight of the White Moon, goads Don Quixote into a joust. Carrasco also tricks Quixote into agreeing to give up his knighthood and return to his village and stay there in peace and tranquility for a year. The adversaries clash, and the Knight of the White moon sends Rocinante and Don Quixote “toppling over in an alarming fall.”
Following his defeat, Don Quixote speaks as if he’s already dead. Lying on the ground, “Don Quixote, battered and stunned, did not raise the visor but spoke as from inside a grave, in a feeble, faltering voice.”
Whether Sansón Carrasco’s motives were pure or mixed with revenge, the ploy succeeds. After recovering and leaving the place of his defeat, Don Quixote sets out on the road home—and the road back to sanity.
Quixote contemplates his loss but counts it as gain. He tells Sancho, “I was overthrown and although I lost my honour I did not lose, nor can I lose, the virtue of having kept my word. When I was a knight errant, brave and bold, my acts and my hands brought credit to my deeds, and now, when I am an ordinary gentleman, I shall bring credit to my words by keeping the promise I made.”
As Quixote and Sancho Panza approached their village, Sancho drops to his knees and says:
Open your eyes, my beloved country, and see that your son Sancho Panza has come back to you, if not very rich, at least well-flogged. Open your arms and receive as well your son Don Quixote, who, though he returns conquered by another, returns the conqueror of himself; and, as he has told me, that is the greatest conquest anyone can desire.
Don Quixote lies dying on his bed, suffering from a feverish sickness. He confesses to those gathered around, “I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quijano the Good.”
Alonso Quixano dictates his last will and testament to a scribe, and then he dies in his bed, “tranquil and Christian,” surrounded by “the sympathy and tears of those present.”
Roberto González Echevarría, in his lectures on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, proposes that Quixote’s death, within the plot of the novel, embodies a kind of ultimate Return. According to Echevarría, death in the story provides an end toward which everything seems to have pointed.
Does this mean all the misguided adventures of Don Quixote failed to achieve anything worthwhile? Sometimes a Hero’s journey begins in search of a want but ends with the discovery of a need. Quixote crosses the threshold to conquer the world but returns having conquered himself. And, as he admits to his trusted squire, “That is the greatest conquest of all.” Perhaps he recalls from his books the words of Plato, “To conquer oneself is the best and noblest victory.” It was for Don Quixote, and it is for you.
Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1584—1618) writes in an essay that the journeys of Quixote and Sancho extend to aspects of the human journey. Even though Quixote’s illusions lead him into endless trouble, he, nonetheless, leaves everything to dedicate his life to a noble cause—a cause in which he thoroughly believed. His journey highlights both the rewards and defeats that an idealistic venture suffers upon us.
But still, we try. You might experiment with applying The Hero’s Journey template to a new venture in your life. Maybe take a trip, enroll in a college course, write a book, start a new job or business—or begin the adventure of faith.
Sir Raleigh examines the spiritual aspect of Quixote and Sancho’s journey and applies the words of Jesus to their quest. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew16:24-27).
Christianity is a journey—a Hero’s Journey. (Remember, a Hero pursues a self-sacrificing cause on his or her behalf or for the sake of others.)
The adventure of faith begins with a call to, “Come after me.” It culminates with life everlasting. Those who set out on the journey must leave all behind and follow the precepts prescribed not in a book of Chivalry, but the Book of God’s Holy Word.
The Christian walk leads into regions unknown beforehand, where the only guide is faith. God called Abraham to go out to a place he’d never been, and by faith, “he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). True believers continue the journey to the end, seeing the things promised from afar and acknowledging that they are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 8:13).
As Quixote’s books on Chivalry took control of his mind and heart and guided him throughout his exploits, a Christian pilgrim absorbs the Word of God, which transforms the mind (Romans 12:2) and becomes a lamp to the feet and a light to the path (Psalm 119:105).
A Christian even wears armor and carries a weapon, as did Don Quixote on his Hero’s Journey. “Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand… And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13, 17).
The Pilgrims of God may face reproach and ridicule like Quixote and Sancho. Sir Raleigh writes that some may “find it difficult to understand how Don Quixote, and, in his own degree, Sancho, was willing to be a fool, that he, and the world with him, might be made wise.” The Apostle Paul declared, “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10) and proclaim a message the world views as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Examine your adventure of faith, bearing in mind The Hero’s Journey. Such an exercise helps to understand and perhaps improve the external and internal spiritual pilgrimage. A Resurrection and Homecoming (Return) belongs to all who, by God’s grace, persevere to the end.
Cervantes leaves little doubt that Don Quixote’s travels end with a spiritual guide that infinitely surpasses the books of Chivalry. The scribe at the Gentleman of La Mancha’s bedside declares he has, “never read in any book of Chivalry of a knight errant dying in his bed in so tranquil and Christian manner as Don Quixote, who, surrounded by the sympathy and tears of those present, gave up the ghost, I mean to say, he died.”
A philosophical conversation between Quixote and his squire may well have foreshadowed the Gentleman of La Mancha’s demise. As they discuss the virtues of the theater, Quixote describes a play and the actors as a metaphor for life.
One plays the scoundrel, another the liar, this one the merchant, that one the soldier, another the wise fool, yet another the foolish lover, but when the play is over and they have taken off their costumes, all the actors are equal… The same thing happens in the drama and business of this world… at the end, which is when life is over, death removes all the clothing that differentiated them, and all are equal in the grave.
In the end, death strips away the weathered, scrawny aspect and tattered costume of the adventurous Hero of La Mancha as he joins the intrepid knights of his dreams, now as their equal.
The life of a true Christian ends in such a manner. A tranquil passing from this world to the next. In this world, they don’t receive the things promised, but see them from afar, until the homeland they seek by faith becomes a reality (Hebrews 11:13-16).
[Click HERE to read “The Hero’s Journey and Moses.”]