When Dorothy embarks on a quest along the Yellow Brick Road, vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water and taps her heels together to be transported home in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the reader, her family and friends all celebrate their heroine.
Dorothy’s mission, and the growth of her character as a result, followed the Hero’s Journey, a plot outline developed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. This structure appears as the plot in many of our beloved books from childhood onwards, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, with readers subconsciously following the cues throughout the protagonist’s journey.
There are 12 steps in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey outline:
- The call to adventure – something forces the hero to face change
- Refusal of the call – the hero is scared and tries to avoid the adventure
- Meeting with the mentor – the hero meets someone wise and courageous who will train him or her or offer advice
- Crossing the threshold – the hero leaves their ordinary world and enters a new region or condition (special world) with different rules
- Tests, allies and enemies – the hero is tested and makes alliances in the special world
- Approach – the hero and allies prepare for a major challenge
- The ordeal – the hero confronts death or faces their biggest fear
- The reward – the hero is rewarded for facing death
- The road back – the hero leaves the special world to ensure the treasure is safe
- The resurrection – the point where the hero is tested once more (and the climax of the story) through sacrifice and facing death again, with their success ensuring resolution of the conflicting factors within the store
- Return with the elixir – the hero has been transformed by the experience and returns home with the treasure that has the power to transform the world.
The Hero’s Journey also features prominently in superhero comics, with the characters concurrently battling against a nemesis and struggling with the secrets of their alter egos. This battle is highlighted in LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick: DCComics exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. This exhibition was a huge hit with my two sons, as well as the big kids in my family (my husband and father), during our recent visit to Sydney. After all, who doesn’t love a good hero story?
Sawaya used thousands of LEGO bricks to recreate his favourite superheroes and supervillains to explore the themes of strength and weakness, transformation, reinvention and good versus evil. The characters Sawaya created were incredible, but my favourite part of the exhibition was when he drew on Campbell’s words to inspire the hero within us all. The quote, “The godly powers sought, and dangerously won, are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time,” resonated with me because we can always see bits of ourselves in the characters we love in books.
The final LEGO character was a boy wearing a cape and standing in a power pose opposite a LEGO-framed mirror in which exhibition visitors could view themselves. I asked my boys to look into the mirror and tell me which hero they saw, to which they both replied “me”.
There’s a hero in us all.
Johanna Baker-Dowdell is a freelance journalist and author of the book Business & Baby on Board.