Kelli McBride


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Epic Terms and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey

ENG/HUM 2433: World Literature I

The Epic


The epic is a long narrative poem recounting actions, travels, adventures, and heroic episodes and written in a high style (with ennobled diction, for example). It may be written in hexameter verse, especially dactylic hexameter, and it may have twelve books or twenty four books.


Characteristics of the classical epic include these:

  1. The main character or protagonist is heroically larger than life, often the source and subject of legend or a national hero

  2. The setting covers several nations, the whole world, or even the universe

  3. The episodes, even though they may be fictional, provide an explanation for some of the circumstances or events in the history of a nation or people

  4. The action, often in battle, consists of courageous and heroic deeds, often revealing the superhuman strength of the heroes

  5. The gods and lesser divinities take an active interest in the outcome of actions and sometimes intervene

  6. All of the various adventures form an organic whole, where each event relates in some way to the central theme

  7. The narrative presents the deeds of the hero objectively, revealing his failings as well as his virtues


Typical in epics is a set of conventions (or epic machinery). Among them are these:

  1. Poem begins with a statement of the theme ("Arms and the man I sing")

  2. Invocation to the muse or other deity ("Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles")

  3. Begins in medias res (in the middle of things)

  4. Catalogs (of participants on each side, ships, sacrifices)

  5. Long, formal speeches by main characters

  6. Histories and descriptions of significant items (who made a sword or shield, how it was decorated, who owned it from generation to generation)

  7. Frequent use of epic simile (a long simile where the image becomes an object of art in its own right as well as serving to clarify the subject).

  8. Frequent use of epithets ("Aeneas the true"; "rosy-fingered Dawn"; "tall-masted ship")

  9. Use of patronymics (calling son by father's name): "Anchises' son"

  10. Journey to the underworld

  11. Use of the number three (attempts are made three times, etc.)

  12. Previous episodes in the story are later recounted



ENG/HUM 2433: The Epic Hero and His Journey

From Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth


The usual hero is someone:

  • from whom something has been taken

  • who feels something is lacking from the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society

The Hero’s Journey/Adventure:  

The Call to Adventure: Some heroes set out responsibly and intentionally to perform the deed prescribed by the journey. Other heroes are thrown into the adventure.  There are still other heroes who initially refuse the call to adventure, but eventually change their minds (if they didn't, there wouldn't be a story). No matter why the journey was undertaken, the hero is always prepared for the trials he faces.

The hero takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving idea/potion/remedy.  The journey is a cycle of going and returning.  The hero must move beyond known, conventional safety in order to undertake this journey.  

Supernatural Aid: Although the hero is ultimately the one who must face the challenges, he/she generally does not do so alone. In most stories, the hero will have a guide, someone who is wise in the ways of the world, and someone who will offer the hero guidance and wisdom as he/she progresses through the journey.

In addition to the guide, the hero will often have some kind of a talisman, some symbolic item that offers power or strength to the hero. 

Most heroes also have companions on their journey. The companions can serve a variety of functions. They may offer balance for the hero, they may help the hero in battle, they may help the hero learn valuable lessons. 

Crossing the Threshold: Early on in the journey, the hero will leave the world he/she has always known. The hero will leave what is familiar and venture into the unknown. As the hero leaves his/her familiar world, the hero will cross a threshold. Sometimes this is simply symbolic, but other times there will be some kind of physical barrier that the hero must get through.

Threshold Guardians are those who would prevent those who are not ready for the journey from beginning. They may try to prevent the hero from leaving, or they may try to prevent the hero from entering into the new realm. Whatever side they are on, they will not let anyone pass who is not up to the task at hand,

The Initiation: The hero must prove to be worthy of hero status, and to prove this the hero will face a series of challenges or trials while on the journey. The trials fall into two main categories.

  • Two types of hero deeds:
    1.  The Physical Deed: The hero performs a courageous act in battle or saves lives.
    2.  The Spiritual Deed:
    The hero learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message.

The trials the hero faces are designed to see if the intending hero should really be a hero.  Is he really a match for the task?  Can he overcome the dangers?  Does he have the courage, the knowledge, the capacity to enable him to serve?  In addition, the hero learns something about his own character through his adventures.  

There are several different challenges the hero might face:

  • Brother Battle: Many heroes find themselves locked in battle, either physical or psychological with someone who is a "brother" whether a blood relation or a symbolic brother. 

  • Dragon Battle: Some heroes will battle literal dragons guarding their treasure, but other heroes will battle their inner dragons, the doubts and fears they have about their own ability. Whether literal or figurative, the dragons must be slain in order for the hero to complete the journey.

  • Abduction / Sea Journey / Night Journey: Often in the hero's journey, either the hero or someone close to the hero will be abducted and taken away. As the hero is transported elsewhere, or as the hero chases after the captors, the journey may take the hero over the sea or on a long night journey. Even if there is no abduction involved, most hero's are traveling great distances, so a sea journey or night journey is not uncommon.

  • Entering the Belly of the Whale: This is a reference to the story of Jonah and the Whale. When the hero is drawn deep into the journey and must face his/her greatest fear or the greatest evil, the hero is in the belly of the whale. For some heroes, they are literally in the belly of the whale, like Pinocchio, but for most this is symbolic.

  • Meeting with the Goddess: Many heroes will meet a woman of great power while on the journey. The Goddess may offer the hero wisdom, or she may offer a supernatural aid that will assist the hero has he/she faces the greatest challenges on the journey.

  • Sacred Marriage: The hero will often have a special connection with one character in the story, and this connection can serve as a motivation to the hero to continue the journey when all else seems hopeless. Sometimes the sacred marriage is literally a marriage, but often it is a symbolic union of two souls. 

  • Ritual Death or Dismemberment: In order for the hero to be transformed, he/she must give up his/her old life. Many times this is done through a symbolic death. In other stories, the hero will lose a limb, which will signify the loss of the old self. 

  • Atonement with Father: Many hero's have been separated from their fathers or do not know their fathers. The "father quest" is one motivation for a hero to begin the journey. One easy way to remember "atonement" is to think "at one," when the hero is "at one" with the father or the father figure. This often comes at the end of the hero's journey and is the stepping stone that helps the hero take his/her rightful place as leader in the society.

  • Apotheosis: This literally means the elevation of a person to the rank of a god or the glorification of a person as an ideal. After completing the difficult challenges, the hero is idealized or worshipped in some way.

  • Ultimate Boon or Magic Elixir: When the hero set out on the journey, it was because there was some problem. The Ultimate Boon or Magic Elixir is the solution to the problem. The hero is able, through brave deeds to procure this magic remedy and to solve the problem.

The Return: The hero's journey is a cycle that include a going and a return. However, the return is not always each. There still may be some challenges.

  • Refusal of Return: Sometimes the hero is content in the new world and does not want return to the old world. However, if the hero is to reach his/her destiny and take his/her place as leader, there must be a return.

  • Rescue from Without: As the hero tries to return the hero may find him/herself in a difficult situation that looks like the end of the hero's quest. Just when things look bleak, someone come to rescue the hero so he/she can finish the journey.

  • Magic Flight / Pursuit: Sometimes the hero wants to return home, but there are forces that would like to prevent him/her from doing that. 

  • Crossing the Return Threshold: While usually not as involved as crossing the initial threshold, the hero must still return to the old familiar world.

  • Master of Two Worlds: As the hero completes the challenges, the hero's bravery is noted by those around. As a result, the hero is often looked up to in the new world as well as in the new world. There are times when the hero returns to the old world and his/her message is unheard (especially if it is not what the society was expecting) or the achievements unrecognized. In this case, the hero may die or be killed, or sometimes returns to the other world.

  • Freedom to Live: If the hero is successful on the journey, and if the hero is accepted back into the old world, the hero will have the freedom to live. Such heroes are generally great leaders of their people.