In my last post, I talked about my approach to writing the final step of the Hero’s Journey, The Return. This is where the protagonist arrives home after a great adventure with some knowledge or treasure. In stories, this is often portrayed as a ceremony or celebration. Take, for example, the famous Throne Room scene in Star Wars: A New Hope.
It’s easy to look at a moment like this and think that it only exists to please the audience since they get to see the hero live happily ever after. In some respects, this is true, but recently I’ve realized that The Return serves a much deeper and important role in stories and our lives.
To understand the significance of this step, we must look back at where the Hero’s Journey came from. It emerged from work done by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell , who studied ancient myths from around the world and identified patterns that appeared repeatedly. At its very essence, the Hero’s journey is about leaving the safety of a village and traveling into the world of the unknown to save the tribe. Hero’s or Heroines might leave to fight in a war or to find food.
In today’s society, it’s easy to underestimate just how dangerous and traumatizing these excursions could be. Returning home from such adventures must have been extremely difficult, which could be the reason for the celebrations at the end of the Hero’s Journey.
In his fabulous book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger describes the role ceremonies play in all cultures, old and modern.
Ceremonies are designed to communicate the experience of one group of people to the wider community. When people bury loved ones, when they wed, when they graduate from college, the respective ceremonies communicate something essential to the people who are watching.
Junger’s book focuses on the way that modern-day veterans struggle when they return home from war because of the way our society isolates them and makes them feel useless. He compares this to how many “American Indian” cultures had elaborate rituals around reintegrated warriors back into the tribe.
The sedentary Papago, whose economy was based largely on agriculture, considered war to be a form of insanity. Men who were forced into combat by attacks from other tribes had to undergo a sixteen-day purification ritual before they could reenter society.
He argues that these ceremonies allowed these individuals to share their experiences with the people they were fighting to protect.
Certainly, some Iroquois warriors must have been traumatized by the warfare they were engaged in—much of it was conducted at close quarters with clubs and hatchets—but they didn’t have to contain that trauma within themselves. The entire society was undergoing wartime trauma, so it was a collective experience—and therefore an easier one.
To me, this reintegration and sharing of hardships is the real purpose of The Return.
In many ways, I see my autobiographical novel as completing a hero’s journey that started when I was 16. Reuniting with my birth family was a miraculous event, but it also changed the course of my life and thrust me into the unknown. While my journey didn’t involve fighting in a war or great physical danger, it was incredibly challenging and made it hard to connect with the people around me.
As I get closer to finishing this project, it’s not the book’s publication which I am most excited about, but rather readings and discussions that I hope will follow. To me, these events mirror the celebrations at the hero’s journey and ceremonies that Sebastian Junger writes about in his book because they are opportunities to share my experiences with the tribe and restore my sense of belonging.