Transformation in the Hero’s Journey – Part One

Since the New Year is nearly upon us, it seems appropriate that I write about “Transformation” in the Hero’s Journey. After all, many of us are looking to change ourselves in the New Year.

The most important aspect of the Hero’s Journey is that the Hero must change during it. The hero’s transformation is the central storyline. Because he experiences new things, meets new people, and is introduced to new ideas, he will come out of the journey a different person than he was at the start. Often the change is gradual and is a natural occurrence given all that he goes through. However, sometimes the change is sudden and dramatic–as when there is a literal physical transformation. However, even when there is a physical transformation, the more significant transformation is still psychological or spiritual. The physical change is merely a way of showing the overall change. EXAMPLE: Peter Parker gets bitten by a spider and physically changes, gaining the powers of a spider and becoming Spider-Man. However, the more important psychological change is that he realizes that “with great power, comes great responsibility” and that he must use his powers to help others, even if that means making some pretty important personal sacrifices.

The change must be significant (deciding to give a one-time donation to the poor does not count). The transformation is a total change of lifestyle and values that may cause change in others or the world/universe as well. Stagnation is a terrible thing in stories and in life. We all feel the call to become something individual, new, and try something dangerous. This is why these stories are so popular, widespread, and appealing.

In any case, the hero learns about himself and the world. This knowledge usually aids him or enables him to succeed in the end. For instance, the hero may use a new trick he’s learned in order to win the battle, may use his new insight about people and the world to beat his enemies, etc.

In many stories, the hero’s change is represented by a death and rebirth sequence that signifies the new person who emerges. The death and rebirth can happen anywhere in the story and is usually symbolic (though it can be literal). How many can you think of?

EXAMPLES:

  • Major League: Taylor (the catcher) makes the conscious decision to mature and change as he tries to win back his ex-girlfriend. He reads (for her approval) and becomes a mentor for the younger players. Vaughn changes by improving his control over his pitches (the glasses helped). Pedro Cerrano realizes that he must stop putting faith in Jo-bu and believe in himself.
  • Stand By Me: The boys grow up, each having faced (or at least voiced) his fears. By the time they find the body at the end of the film, they have matured enough to know that finding the body of a young boy is no way to gain fame. They place an anonymous call to the authorities instead.
  • Harry Potter: Young Harry changes in multiple ways in book one and by the end of the series he is a far more mature person (and quite a bit darker). In the first story, he is introduced to the world of magic and begins his education. He learns a lot about potions, spells, etc. but more importantly for Harry, he gains friends and faith in himself. He has people who genuinely care about him (his step parents do not care about him). He gains mentors in his teachers. He is told that he has value and that he is important . . . even that he is loved (though I don’t know that this is actually stated, he certainly knows it is true). As a result, he gains enough confidence in himself that he is able to win the final battle.
  • The Godfather: Michael starts off as a “good guy” who is honest with Kay (his girlfriend). By the end of the story, he is definitely a “bad guy” who lies to her face (that’s actually how the film ends—with Michael lying to her, then shutting the door, closing her off from the reality of what he is doing). Michael’s change is a fall. He becomes a murderer to avenge his family but later kills his own brother-in-law and in The Godfather Part II, Michael kills his actual brother who has always loved him. Michael’s evil is best shown in the first film’s montage baptism scene in which Michael’s henchmen go all around town murdering people while Michael baptizes his child and “renounces” Satan, Sin, and Evil.
  • Batman: Bruce Wayne learns about fear and conquers his own fear of bats. More importantly, he transforms himself into a weapon against crime. As Batman, he is a new man, having transformed into an incorruptible symbol of justice.
  • Lord of the Rings: All of the major characters go through changes, but the most dramatic is probably Frodo’s transformation. He begins as a happy & simple Hobbit with no real ambition to become anything more than that. However, his journey (and the evil ring of power that seeks to corrupt him) takes its toll. By the time Frodo and Sam make it to the volcano where they can destroy the ring, Frodo reveals that he has changed and no longer wants to destroy it. The evil ring has possessed him and he has become evil. It is only due to the intervention of Sam and Golum that the ring is destroyed. Yet even this isn’t enough to return Frodo to the happy fellow he was in the beginning. He returns to the Shire hopelessly depressed. His experience has corrupted him and he can no longer find meaning or happiness in his simple life there. So he leaves.
  • Star Wars: Luke begins to learn the force and joins the rebellion against the evil Empire. He grows up a bit, though he matures even more in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as he learns a lot more about himself, his heritage, and his destiny. In A New Hope, Han Solo has the more dramatic transformation: he goes from being a money loving mercenary to someone who willingly endangers himself for the sake of his friend.
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3 thoughts on “Transformation in the Hero’s Journey – Part One

  1. That was very interesting about the hero’s transformation. You called it a psychological change; I would have called it a spiritual change. Those two words are closely related, *psyche* being the Greek word for soul.

    • Good point. I will actually change that and add in “psychological or spiritual change.” By the time you look at this again, the blog post will have had its own minor transformation.

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