The Hero’s Journey. We all know it. We’ve seen it played out countless times–from the classic Greek myths to more modern stories like Star Wars, The Lord of the Ring, Eragon, and the game Journey.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell was the first to propose the archetype. Seeing a common pattern across various mythologies, he suggested the term “monomyth” and broke it down into 17 stages. The gist? Hero receives a quest (usually by some higher being) and leaves the comfort of his home to venture out into the wide world. The hero encounters a mentor and a ragtag band of companions on the way and, through a series of tests, becomes stronger. He succeeds in his goal and returns to the mundane world to share his wisdom and power.
Okay. Simple enough. But what about the Heroine’s Journey?
What about the experiences that pertain to women? Because while the hero’s journey can be undergone by anyone, it has a definite masculine taste and is most often associated with male characters. I mean, one of the stages is named “The Woman As Temptress.” (*raises eyebrow*)
Many people scoffed at the mere notion of a heroine’s journey. Campbell himself had reportedly said in an interview, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” (Which, if true, is enough to make you sprain your eyeballs from rolling them so hard).
Undeterred, women in the past couple of decades have come forward with their own model of the heroine’s journey. But my absolute favourite would have to be Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s interpretation, as outlined in her book, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.
“The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life.”
The gist of Schmidt’s version is this: the protagonist starts out living in what they believe is a perfect life. Then something, or someone, shatters their bubble. They are yanked away from their former life–either literally or metaphorically–and they realize they must take some kind of action. Trials and tribulations follow and they fall into some dark times but crawl out of it in the end with the help of others. Fears and baddies are faced, the day is won, and the heroine returns home with a better understanding of themselves and the world.
The important difference between this and the hero’s journey is that the heroine, at some point in their journey, has to fall (Stage 6 – Death). A moment where everything goes to hell and the heroine is left dejected, defeated, and lost. Then, in stage 7 (Support), they realize that they can’t do this alone, that it’s okay to accept the help of others. This is a reaffirming of bonds between the heroine and their companion(s). And with it comes newfound strength and resolve to face their fears.
Another major difference is that the ultimate goal of a Heroine’s Journey isn’t external. It’s not the search of the holy grail or the defeating of a big bad evil. It’s a wholly personal one–an exploration of the inner self; the acceptance of one’s strengths; the proving of oneself to oneself. All that happens on the way, like facing a big bad evil, are just stepping stones.
It’s a story structure that I find myself loving more and more as I grow older. So today I showcase some fantasy stories that I think are great examples of this archetype (note: as with the hero’s journey, heroine’s journey can be undergone by anyone regardless of gender):
1. The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb
The life of FitzChivalry Farseer as a whole can be seen as a heroine’s journey, but I think the structure is most easily evident in the final trilogy. In Fool’s Assassin, Fitz starts out with his loving wife and his adopted children in their beautiful country estate. But, as you learn learn throughout the course of the Realm of the Elderlings series, nothing is ever easy. Things–bad, terrible things–happen and Fitz must undertake his most harrowing journey yet. Fitz has never been able to easily accept love and help from those around him, and his struggles to find himself in a world that is so confusingly hostile has always been the main focus of the series for me. These struggles remain up until the very end of Assassin’s Fate, a point in which all truths are revealed and the circle is closed shut.
2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
Most of Juliet Marillier’s stories fit the bill, honestly, but Daughter of the Forest remains my favourite of hers. Sorcha is the only daughter in the Sevenwaters family. Though ignored by her father, she is wholly loved by her six brothers and her life at the Sevenwaters estate is more or less idyllic. Then a jealous stepmother steps into the picture and turns her brothers into swans. This curse will only be broken if Sorcha can make six shirts out of nettle plants and remain silent through the duration of the task. Thus begins her quest– an arduous one with many enemies and many friends.
It’s worth noting that while she finds love and support in Red, the British lord who finds her and takes her to Britain, at no point does he swoop in and carry her on his back. The journey is all Sorcha’s–all the pain and losses and tribulations. But while her inner strength is ultimately hers to uncover, it’s not done without the help of a warm hand holding onto hers.
3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Uprooted tells the tale of Agnieszka who is unwitting taken from the comfort of her small village to the home of the Dragon, a powerful wizard who keeps the valley safe from the dark forces of the Woods. In her journey, Agnieszka transforms from an awkward village girl who is ignorant of her magical gifts to a young woman with confidence in her abilities and the knowledge that compassion and understanding are some of the greatest weapons one can have in the face of hatred and anger.
4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
There’s no sweeping epic journey in A Monster Calls. At least, not of a physical kind–most of the story is set either in the protagonist’s house or his grandmother’s. But emotionally, it is a tale to rival any epic fantasy.
Connor is thirteen years old and dealing with the fact that his mother has terminal cancer and that a tree monster has taken to visiting him at night. The monster makes a deal: it will tell Connor three stories and at the end of the third, Connor will tell his own.
It’s a strange and sad story. And what I love most about it is that, at the end of it all, Connor’s main support comes from the unlikeliest of places.
Letting go can be a form of strength. And Connor’s journey is about realizing that.
I’m always on the lookout for stories that follow this pattern–and there are a lot of them out there–so feel free to comment with your recommendations and suggestions for other books (of any genre) that you would include on this list.