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Reply To: 17 Hero’s Journey and the 4th dimension


No, he didn’t (but your question does make me want to delve deeper into the geometry of dimensions beyond the three we perceive).

Joseph Campbell believed there are only three steps that are essential to the Hero’s Journey: Separation, Initiation, and Return (as David Kudler, Managing Editor of The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell, explains better here). Campbell sets it out upfront in the third section of his prologue to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, entitled “The Hero and the God,” describing these as the “nuclear unit of the the monomyth” (and as a formula common to rites of passage).

Here is Campbell addressing the same in a recorded Q & A session at the end of a lecture on the work of Thomas Mann:



There are three steps. One is leaving the Waste Land and going to the place of initiation. The next is experiencing the initiation, which may be an experience of death. The third is coming back with an amplified consciousness and addressing life, the life of the Waste Land, which is no longer the Waste Land, in those terms⁠.”


Many bright, well-meaning people unintentionally mis-state what Campbell presented on this subject, generally mistaking as steps essential to the completion of the journey the many different elements Campbell describes that can be, but may or may not actually be present. Though Campbell details 17 elements that can appear, he isn’t wedded to that number, as he notes they never all appear.

For example, though the journey always begins with “The Call,”, the next element Campbell describes, “The Refusal of the Call” is sometimes present (e.g., Jonah refusing God’s instruction to travel to Ninevah, so God sends that whale to get him there, or Luke Skywalker initially declining Obi-Wan Kenobi’s invitation to join him in rescuing the princess because his aunt and uncle rely on him),

and sometimes not (e.g., myths where a hero out hunting follows a magnificent stag –”the Call” – deep into the woods, until he finds himself in an ancient grove he’s never seen before, and suddenly is already deep into an adventure before there’s any opportunity to refuse the call).

And then there is the climax of the journey, which can take one of four forms (but never all in one tale): The Sacred Marriage (or Hieros Gamos)Atonement with the Father; Apotheosis; or the Elixir-Theft (or Fire-theft, or Bride-theft).

In Campbell’s own words:

Those are the four ways of experiencing fulfillment: one in the way of the male-female relationship, another in the way of child-parent relationships, another in the way of realizing it’s all yours, and the fourth way of the fire theft. Or bride theft. Or LSD trip—a situation where you go like a thunderbolt with violence to get down there and draw this out, without having prepared yourself. You have the high experience and then, boy, you gotta take it.⁠


There’s a saying in the Catholic church—when you’ve committed one mortal sin, you’ve committed them all. (Laughter) There are four doors by which you can come into the room and find fulfillment. And when you are fulfilled, all the doors are yours.


One finds different orders of story. For example, in the fairy tales it’s usually the finding of the bride—or sometimes stealing the bride—and the sacred marriage motif. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s the atonement with the father motif—and there the woman becomes either the guide to the father in the form of Mary, or seductress in the form of Eve and her children. In the Christian tradition one is not to experience the apotheosis. You are not to think of yourself as the Christ, whereas in the Buddhist tradition that’s the way⁠.” (from the draft of a manuscript currently being prepared for publication)

That’s a large reason why writers, filmmakers, and game-makers find the Hero’s Journey so compelling: the possibilities are endless. In a video game you might “hear the Call” and be presented with a choice right off the bat – follow the Call, or refuse the Call – and the choice you make changes some of the details you experience – and so on at every fork in the road, until you either fail, or successfully complete that arc and move up to the next level. If you make a different choice the next time around, you have a different experience.

In my role with JCF I have occasionally received manuscripts from aspiring novelists or screenwriters who believe they need to include every single one of the “17 steps” they think Campbell  demands, which unfortunately creates a bloated, cumbersome, unsatisfying tale. Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, recognizes how unwieldy that can be, so collapses the hero’s journey down to a 12 step formula in three acts – each act representing each of the three steps Campbell considered essential – but even that can become a bit of a procrustean bed that leads to lifeless, formulaic productions.

Plugging in the Hero’s Journey, ticking off each of 12 or 17 or more “steps” in the journey (I once received a lengthy email from an individual who was convinced he had identified 1,000 distinct steps!) is no substitute for talent.

You don’t start with the formula and build a tale from there; Joseph Campbell believes the hero’s journey emerges naturally from a tale well-told. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t consult his pocket edition of Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and build The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings around that (especially considering Joe hadn’t written his masterpiece when Tolkien started writing), but the HJ arc nevertheless appears throughout his work. And even George R.R. Martin, who intentionally tried to counter the HJ trajectory by letting his heroes fail and killing them off, still wasn’t able to completely escape this dynamic in Game of Thrones.

Similarly, George Lucas didn’t start with Campbell’s work and build Star Wars from that; rather, he started with a story of his own – but Lucas’ experience does indicate the value in an awareness of the hero’s journey trajectory, for when he stumbled across Campbell’s work he could see those areas where he had gotten stuck and painted himself into a corner; Joe’s work helped him figure out where he needed to go.

I do ramble on! Sorry about my extended response to a simple question (ask me what time it is, and odds are I’ll tell you how to build a watch), but I thought I’d take this opportunity to expand on the all-too-common misconception that Campbell is wedded to the number 17 . . .