March 19, 2012

back to basics: the hero's journey, stage seven

Continuing with the series on the Hero’s Journey, today we’re going to talk about stage seven of the mythic structure: the Approach to the Inmost Cave. To see all the posts I’ve done so far, check out the “writing help” navigation tab at the top of the page.

Now that the hero has made friends, ruffled a few feathers of the enemy, and has learned what exactly he needs to do, he has to go do it. Structurally, this stage comes directly after Tests, Allies, Enemies, but since the sixth stage can span several chapters or scenes, that does not mean that as soon as the hero passes through the inn, that he should dive straight into the heart of enemy territory. Oftentimes, the Approach and the previous stage mesh. The hero is on his way, and a lot can happen between here and there.

At this point, the heroes have adjusted to the Special World. They are now in between the border of the Special World and its heart. On their way to defeat the Shadow (the villain archetype), they enter another zone, filled with its own Threshold Guardians, tests, and agendas. This is where the hero makes final preparations for the central ordeal of the adventure.

As far as storytelling goes, certain special functions naturally fall into this zone of Approach. As the hero nears the realm of the Shadow, they may take time to make plans, spy on the enemy, reorganize his group of allies, train for battle, arm themselves, and have a last moment of good cheer before facing the no-man’s-land. There are different kinds of the Approach. There is the bold Approach, where the hero has what he needs and he dives headfirst into the enemy’s stronghold. Usually, this is the method of committed heroes, heroes who did not hesitate at the Call to Adventure. Then there is the preparative Approach. It is a time of further reconnaissance and information-gathering, a time for arming the hero and his allies.

In A New Hope, the Approach happens when Luke enters the Death Star with plans to rescue Princess Leia. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this stage of the Hero’s Journey is Harry’s venture into the Forbidden Forest, when as punishment for being out after hours, he must help Hagrid find the wounded unicorn. In Stardust, the Approach is the moment that Tristan realizes Yvaine cannot pass into Wall, and he takes off to keep her safely on the Stormhold side of the wall.

The idea of the Approach is that all experiences on the journey attribute to the advancement of the adventure. No conflict is wasted, and every challenge of the past strengthens and informs the hero for the present, and for what is to come. The hero has to gain the reader’s respect, and by proving himself against these obstacles, he earns it. Most of the time, the Approach to the Inmost Cave is not an easy journey. The Shadow has placed obstacles in the hero’s way, whether they are booby traps, minions, or illusions. There will be Threshold Guardians that the heroes must face. It’s tempting for the hero to think that they can just march into foreign territory, take the prize, and leave. It is never that easy. The hero is challenge the very fabric of the Special World, which does not want to be changed.

As the hero makes the Approach, he is on the edge between life and death. Things are not as simple nor as easy as he first thought. Complications arise. Disheartening setbacks threaten the hero at this stage. They tear at the hero, battling his willingness to proceed. The stakes are even higher. This stage tests the hero ruthlessly, determining if he is actually worthy of the adventure. The Approach encompasses all the final preparations for the Supreme Ordeal. It often brings heroes to a stronghold of the opposition, a defended center where every lesson and Ally of the journey so far comes into play. New perceptions are put to the test, and the final obstacles to reaching the heart of the Special World are overcome. The stakes have risen. It’s do-or-die.

If you have any questions about the Hero’s Journey, don’t hesitate to ask. I know a lot more about it than I’ve said here, and I would be happy to clear anything up, if you need me to. This is a rather general overview, since I don’t want you guys to have to read insanely long posts, but if you would like a more in depth analysis as it pertains to writing, check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. If you are just interested in the Hero’s Journey in itself, check out A Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

What other examples of Approach to the Inmost Cave can you think of from books or films you’ve experienced lately?

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