What Is a Journey Narrative?

Statue of Ancient Greek hero Odysseus

A journey narrative is typically centered on one hero. The hero’s journey begins in one world and travels to another, where he encounters a series of strange and dangerous events. These encounters and adventures challenge the hero, occasionally give him perspective on his life and the world in which he lives. The hero's journey format, taken from ancient Homeric hymns, is used in crafting novels, movies and television dramas today.

Journey Narratives

The most famous and influential academic work on journey narratives is Joseph Campbell’s idea of a monomyth, the hero’s journey, as described in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” In a monomyth, a hero is called to go on a journey in which he faces numerous trials. After overcoming a series of challenges, he receives a gift and must decide whether or not to return to his old world with it. To return, he faces additional challenges and tests, is ultimately successful and uses the gift to improve his world. Campbell argues that the monomyth, the basic pattern of the hero narrative, is the same throughout the world.

17 Stages

Campbell breaks down the story of a hero’s journey into 17 stages, arguing that certain myths contain many stages of a hero’s journey, while others contain only a few. He places them into three main categories, departure, initiation and return. The departure or separation stage deals with the hero’s story prior to the main quest; initiation tells the hero’s story during the adventure; return desribes the hero’s return to his old world.


The call to adventure is the point in the hero’s life when he is given notice that his life is about to change. The refusal of the call involves the hero refusing to accept his circumstances, whether out of fear, insecurity or a sense of obligation. Once the hero has accepted his quest, he receives some sort of supernatural aid and crosses over into a field of adventure, also known as crossing the first threshold. The final stage here, often called the belly of the whale, represents the hero’s departure from his old world.


On the road of trials, the hero faces ordeals and tests. He meets a goddess, which represents a meeting with an all-powerful and unconditional kind of love. After the goddess, the hero meets a woman, a temptress who leads the hero astray from his quest. The hero then atones with his father or another figure who holds the ultimate power in his life. After entering a state of apotheosis, or a god-like state, the hero finally achieves the goal of his quest. This final step is called the ultimate boon.


The first stage of the return journey is the refusal, in which the hero refuses to return to his old life. Once the hero agrees to return, he sometimes has to escape with the boon on a magic flight. If the hero is wounded, he might need to be rescued. Crossing the return threshold is often quite difficult, but is an important stage for heroes to achieve a balance between existing in two worlds. The final stage is the freedom to live, which is the freedom from the fear of death.

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