Recently I started a creative writing course and I’m currently studying storytelling. The earliest stories predate writing and were told in mnemonic ways.
As researchers and historians have studied these ancient stories, they have discovered a common theme that occurs across cultures and geographical settings. The theme is particularly strong in ancient stories of dragons and mythical monsters. A brave young man, or more rarely a brave young woman, confronts a fantastical dragon and achieves freedom for themselves and their community by slaying the dragon.
The theme also appears in contemporary stories, including science fiction and fantasy. It has been termed, ‘the hero’s journey.’
The hero’s journey
While the hero’s journey has many variations, generally it goes something like this: An ordinary person lives an ordinary life, somewhere in this world or a fantasy world. Something happens, a problem arises, an opportunity for adventure presents itself or perhaps a new relationship develops, and the person (our hero) must make a decision. Will they engage in this new thing that has happened which will, no doubt, change them forever or will they ignore it?
Often, they will initially ignore this new thing or try to delegate it to someone else, but generally, the situation gets worse so ultimately our hero chooses to engage.
Our hero then meets a number of obstacles. They may be physical, emotional or psychological. They also meet many, or one friend, who helps in unexpected ways. There are also other allies as well as enemies.
Usually, the story continues until there is a final conflict where the hero is triumphant after much difficulty and soul-searching. Our hero is then rewarded. They have defeated the dragon, whether real or metaphorical, or they have discovered the treasure, which may not be riches, or perhaps they have married against all expectation.
Whatever the happenings, they have positively changed our hero. They return to an ordinary life a better person for having gone through the experience.
The reason the hero’s journey appeals to us is it’s also our journey and the journey of everyone who has ever lived. We relate to the hero because we sense something of our journey in theirs.
We all face challenges and opportunities and if we deal with them well there will be a positive outcome, a reward. We will be better people for having gone through the experience.
But what if we don’t handle the challenge or opportunity well? What if we decide to ignore the problem or refuse the opportunity? Or allow it to harden our hearts?
As time passes, hanging on to our existing situation becomes exhausting. Our world becomes smaller and more confined. Our choices become harder to explain to ourselves and others and therefore become isolating. The experience doesn’t make a good story.
Where is God in the hero’s journey?
For the hero’s journey to be such a strong theme over millennia and cultures suggests this idea is hard-wired into humans by God.
God presents us with problems to solve, opportunities for adventure or new relationships, and we are faced with a choice. Will we engage or are we unmoved?
God will not override our free will, yet he will give us every encouragement to accept his mission. Often when we sense a mission coming from the hand of God we expect a smooth path, but the hero’s journey tells us this won’t be the case. We will face dragons, that is obstacles and difficulties. We will have to slay those dragons. We will meet friends and foes along the way, who will help and hinder and the final obstacle will be death.
Yet beyond death, there is resurrection and reward for God’s people.
God wants us to engage in his journey so that we grow into the people he wants us to be. He’s planning positive outcomes and promises to reward his people. Yet the choice is ours.
Susan Barnes has been involved in pastoral ministry for over twenty years with her husband, Ross. They are now semi-retired and enjoy supporting a number of churches in north-east Victoria. You can find more of Susan’s articles at: https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/susan-barnes.html