Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

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According to Sheila Schwartz (1969), “The need for heroes exists in every society and goes back as far as written records”. Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ (1949) suggests that the mythic hero appears across world mythology often in identical narrative patterns, all with effectively the same structure. Campbell uses the term ‘monomyth’. This is the idea that all heroes represented throughout world mythology have the same structure and narrative and one manifests itself in a number of different forms. These myths give us a pattern of how to live our lives. The mythic hero often embodies sacred values about society. There are three stages to Campbell’s hero’s journey. According to Diogo Goncalves, “Bravery, loyalty, strength, eloquence and shrewdness. These are some of the main characteristics we hope to find in a hero of an epic narrative”. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012) has a very prevalent hero, Bilbo Baggins. The film is a sequel to the Lord of The Rings saga and the first part of an adaptation of the Tolkien novel.

The first stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey is separation/departure, which is symbolic of birth. First comes the call to adventure. These are signs that indicate that the hero must start their adventure. According to Campbell (1949; 51), the hero’s call to adventure “signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual centre of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown”. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this occurs when Gandalf shows up and asks Bilbo to join him on an adventure. Bilbo is reluctant to take this offer and Gandalf proclaims that there is no guarantee he will return and that if he did he would not be the same, reinforcing Bilbo’s hesitation. Andrew R. Jones (2015; 171) compares this part of the film to his own missionary service, claiming, “Missionary involves risk, no matter where a person serves. If you are sent, you may not come back…And if you go, you will certainly not be the same. It is impossible to experience the depth of another culture and remain unchanged. Your perspectives broaden. Your care for people expands. You change.” This encapsulates the risks that Bilbo would face if he accepted Gandalf’s call to adventure. Bilbo refuses this request which brings the second step, refusal of the call. Campbell sees this as the hero trying to flee from God’s command. Bilbo ends up involuntarily hosting a party for Thorin and his dwarves who want to recruit him as their ‘burglar’ in their quest to go retrieve the treasure from Smaug the dragon. Bilbo refuses his call to adventure and tells them they have got the wrong hobbit and he is uncomfortable leaving his home in The Shire. He believes he is too ordinary to go on this adventure, which is a common trait in mythic heroes as it makes them relatable to audiences.

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According to James L. Hodge (1986; 212), about the novel, “Like the fairy tale youth, Bilbo receives help from magical figures, even when he hasn’t ‘earned’ it”. Bilbo experiences supernatural aid from Gandalf to sway his decision. This is unexpected assistance provided by someone who can supposedly use magic, and this helps the hero to start their journey. In this instance, Gandalf, who happens to be a wizard, writes on Bilbo’s door with an enchanted object, calling for the dwarves to come. Bilbo wakes up the next morning and has miraculously changed his mind about the adventure after seeing them leave without him. This is thanks to supernatural aid from Gandalf. The crossing of the first threshold is when the adventure really begins. In this case it occurs when bilbo leaves the shire in a rush to catch up with the dwarves to join them on their adventure. The last part of this stage is the belly of the whale. According to Campbell (81), “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died”. In other world, the hero must experience a symbolic death before they emerge as a hero. Bilbo and the dwarves are faced with a group of trolls when bilbo attempts and fails to burgle from them. The trolls attempt to cook and eat the dwarves, but Bilbo distracts them until dawn before they are all saved by Gandalf turning the trolls into stone by exposing them to sunlight. According to F.P. Riga (2014; 113), “it is a tenacious and brave Bilbo who actually rescues everyone. Terrified though he might be, he persists in cutting the ponies free and he shrewdly turns the Trolls against themselves. By giving Bilbo an active role during this incident, Jackson establishes Bilbo’s credibility”. They find treasure in the trolls’ cave Gandalf gifts bilbo an elven dagger that he finds, indicating Bilbo’s newfound hero status.

The second stage is trials and victories, symbolic of initiation into a new world. The first part is the road of trials. The hero must negotiate with several dangerous elements. Campbell (89) describes this stage as “Once having traversed the return threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiosity fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials”. Bilbo battles with trolls, giant wolves, stone giants and goblins in this film. Next, the hero must meet with the goddess. At this point, the hero usually meets the source of life or the thing that he is fighting for. There is no clear goddess in this film. However, after the dwarves are attacked by orcs, Gandalf guides them to Rivendell, where Bilbo meets Elrond, Lord of Rivendell. He supports and encourages Bilbo and gives permission to stay in Rivendell as he wishes. The next step is woman as temptress. Although Bilbo is not tempted by a woman as such as there are few significant female characters in this film, he experiences a level of temptation towards the end of the film when he decides to keep the ring that Gollum dropped after he realises the power it holds. The temptation Bilbo faces puts him in great danger but also possesses him with the power he needs to survive this stage as it gives him invisibility to escape from Gollum. After this comes atonement with the father. A father figure must be met, old wounds must be healed and loss must be accepted. According to Campbell (120), the hero “is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation”. We do not meet Bilbo’s actual father in this film but in this case it would be Gandalf. Gandalf helps Bilbo to navigate this new world as well as being the reason he is on the adventure in the first place, also giving a sword for protection. The apotheosis is essentially the climax the hero faces. Here, it would be when he falls from a cliff and discovers Gollum and the ring. He comes close to death in a disorienting dream sequence and the dwarves and Gandalf presume him to be dead. The ultimate boon is what the hero has achieved on their journey. Bilbo discovered the ring and became fully initiated with the dwarves. According to Volger (1985), ““A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”

The final stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey is return/reintegration with society which could also be symbolic with resurrection. According to Campbell (179), “When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer must still return with his life-transmuting trophy”. The first phase of this stage is the refusal to return. Bilbo refuses to return to his home The Shire and instead decides to stick with the company. The next step is the magic flight. According to Campbell (12), “if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the hero’s wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons, then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit. This flight may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasion’. The company find refuge in trees but are targeted by the wargs and Gandalf sends eagles to save them. Next comes the rescue from without. While the hero is in the final task, he will be assisted or saved by someone coming in at the right moment. According to Campbell (192), “The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. This is to say, the world may have to come and get him”. Bilbo saves Thorin from the orcs that try to kill him and is then attacked by wargs. However, unexpectedly, the eagles, that were summoned by Gandalf and brought them to a safe place. Bilbo crosses the return threshold when Bilbo refuses to return to his home and decided to continue his journey. Although we don’t literally see him return to the shire in this part, his symbolic return is when him and the dwarves spot the lonely mountain in the distance and he is now somewhat at home with them. Bilbo becomes the master of two worlds when Thorin finally accepts him as a member of the companion. He gained respect from Thorin and was accepted by the dwarves despite being a hobbit. According to Janet Brennan Croft (2015; 8), “Bilbo’s sympathetic motivation for helping the dwarves regain their home is brought to the fore and more clearly articulated” than in the novel. This suggests that Jackson intended to present Bilbo as a hero early on in the trilogy. Janet Brennan Croft goes on to say, “the breaking of the story into three meant that Jackson needed a major heroic finish to the first film”. The final step is freedom to live. The journey didn’t end and Bilbo didn’t finish his task. Though he could return home instead of the dangerous journey, he was determined to continue on his journey and help his friends, using the One Ring on the next part of their journey. Campbell (30) writes, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”

In conclusion, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins, although not every single step applies, fits in with Joseph Campbell’s framework of the hero of tradition. He represents an ordinary man in society which is why we are so drawn to him as a hero.

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity. (Lawrence and Jewett 6) 


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