The Heroine’s Journey

This post is prompted by two things:

First, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say, in an interview, that according to Joseph Campbell there was no such thing as a heroine’s journey, because the heroine did not need to go on a journey: she was the home to which the hero returned. I can imagine Campbell making such a statement, but the evidence in his own book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, contradicts it: he repeatedly describes heroines on journeys, including Ishtar descending into the underworld. Some heroines have gone on journeys; therefore, the heroine’s journey must exist.

Second, I tried to do some research on the heroine’s journey, and what I found seemed too complicated: it didn’t match up with the journeys I was seeing in the fairy tales I teach.

So I decided to write out a heroine’s journey based on the fairy tales I’m most familiar with. Here’s what I came up with. I describe each step, but sometimes the steps occur in a different order, so the chronology may differ from tale to tale. And not every tale has every step. And not every tale is a journey tale! But when the heroine is on a journey of some sort, this is basically what it looks like:

1. The heroine lives in the initial home. This can be Snow White’s Castle, Cinderella’s house, or the poor cottage where we first encounter the lassie in “East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon.” It’s a place of stability, where the heroine is happy and safe. Usually, it’s the place she spends her childhood.

2. The heroine receives gifts. Sleeping Beauty receives gifts from the fairies, Cinderella from her fairy godmother or alternatively the spirit of her dead mother in a hazel tree. Donkeyskin receives dresses from her father. Sometimes receiving gifts comes before she leaves the initial home, and sometimes after.  The lassie receives the golden apple, comb, and spinning wheel after she has lost the temporary home and been left in the dark forest, so rather late in the tale.  These gifts will later help the heroine.

3. The heroine leaves her initial home. Sometimes she has to leave because she is fleeing her father, as in Donkeyskin. Sometimes she is given away, like Rapunzel. Sometimes she chooses to leave, like Beauty, to save her father and family. If the heroine stays in her home, the home itself is somehow destroyed: Cinderella’s sense of home disappears when her stepmother arrives and she is made to work as a servant.

4. The heroine enters the dark forest. Snow White and Donkeyskin go directly from their initial homes into the dark forest. The lassie enters the dark forest after losing her temporary home: when her bear husband disappears, she is left alone among the trees. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the dark forest actually grows up around the sleeping princess. Rapunzel enters the dark forest after being expelled from her tower.

5. The heroine finds a temporary home. This can be Snow White’s home with the dwarves, or Psyche’s home with Eros in the old, mythic precursor to “Beauty and the Beast.” It can even be the Beast’s castle. In Donkeyskin, it’s the castle where the heroine serves as kitchenmaid, and in Rapunzel it’s the tower. The important thing is that it’s temporary: the heroine may think she can stay there, but she will eventually have to leave again. Sometimes, in the temporary home, she finds her true partner, but not in the right form or at the right time. Rapunzel meets her prince in the temporary home, but loses him again.

6. The heroine finds friends and helpers. These are dwarves, birds, snakes . . . The heroine finds them and enlists their aid by being kind to them, giving them what they need. And they will help her later on, when she is forced to leave the temporary home and set out on her journey once again.

7. The heroine is tested. Snow White is tempted with the ribbons, comb, and apple. Sleeping Beauty’s test is brief: can she resist touching the spindle? But some heroines go through long, agonizing periods of testing. The princess in “Six Swans” can’t speak for years, and must sew shirts for her swan-brothers. Tests can involve climbing glass mountains, wearing iron shoes, and dealing with ogres.  Even Cinderella must get home by midnight.

8. The heroine dies. The tests and trials that the heroine endures include a journey into death. This is perhaps clearest in Psyche’s descent into Hades, but Snow White in her glass coffin, Sleeping Beauty in her hundred years’ sleep, are all versions of the dead heroine.

9. The heroine finds her true partner. This time, he is in his right form: the bear has been transformed into a prince, the Beast is now a man. He recognizes her, just as she recognizes him. It may not seem like much of a love story (the prince dances with her three times, and that’s it), but that’s because fairy tales are told in a kind of shorthand. It’s a convention of the fairy tale that recognition of the true partner is immediate, if he is in his true form. If he is in his false or temporary form, the heroine must learn to see him correctly first.  And sometimes he must learn to see her correctly, because she may be in disguise as well.

10. The heroine finds her true home. She had to leave her initial home and find her true partner before she could enter her true home. Now Cinderella can live in the castle, Beauty can live with her Beast, and it’s time for happily ever after.

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of the heroine finding her true partner (does she really need a man to be her partner?), you can think of it as a metaphor. The true partner is also the other side of herself, so the story shows us the integration of the feminine and masculine, human and animal, sides of the personality. I don’t know, really: I just know that the partner is usually there, that the heroine is eventually united to a prince. Perhaps it means that a union with the right other is one of the highest things we can achieve in this life, perhaps it’s about unity within the self. Either way, it seems to be part of the story.

I do think, looking over this list, that it’s an interesting model for looking at a woman’s life. I know that I’ve been into the dark forest, and through times of trial. I’ve found friends and helpers, as well as temporary homes. But I’ll have to think some more about whether and how this model is useful . . .

Snow White

This image from the 1920s shows Snow White entering her temporary home (the dwarves’ cottage).

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29 Responses to The Heroine’s Journey

  1. Kate Winter says:

    You’ve distilled an interesting storyline here. I have another one – found in some myths and fairytales, but even more so in modern young adult fantasy – I call it Girls Underground. It’s a bit more specific, but it does give another option for girls/women looking for a sort of archetypal story to relate to.

    • Kate, I love that! It’s like the step I call The Heroine Dies, but it’s about that death as a journey–sort of Ishtar’s or Psyche’s journey into the underworld writ large. How interesting that it should become a focus in YA fiction! 🙂

    • Grace says:

      Super, rounding out your cast of characters with Vasilisa the Brave and Baba Yaga would be great. Baba Yaga, the crone, presents formidable tests but is not an enemy. Vasilisa triumps by the little doll, some say, intution, agift from her mother which she carries in her pocket.

  2. sarah says:

    This is wonderful, and I see it in so many stories of different genres. I think the importance of the home is so interesting here (and true). You don’t find that quite so much in men’s stories. I’d love to write more about my thoughts on this, but I am always hopelessly inarticulate in comment boxes. I am always a little sad when people have trouble with the ideas of “true partner” and “being rescued” in fairytales, as if the stories aren’t talking about soul-things that go far deeper than gender.

    • That’s an interesting contrast, and I think you’re right–men’s stories aren’t as focused on the home, the issue of finding a true home. I think the women’s stories really are . . . Or making a true home! And I totally agree that the stories are BOTH about our relationships with the world and our relationships with ourselves: they are always both inner and outer journeys . . .

  3. Jon Awbrey says:

    Pyramus & Thisbe …

  4. Jon Awbrey says:

    Märchen Convention : 3 = ∞

  5. A very useful thing I’ve done for myself in the past year is to write a mythic journey of my own life, which has been full of obstacles to overcome, riddles to solve and losses to accept. As long as I am alive the story does not end. The act of writing it has given me insights, and helped me keep courage in the face of sorrow, reminding me that I have already traveled far and survived much.

  6. This is so useful I’ll copy it. Since I was very young I wanted to find more stories of brave, adventurous girls and women. Also, I wanted to write them. I’m working on
    such an adventure now. So far my heroine seems to follow these ‘rules,’ without
    any prompts. Most of my stories seem to come from a distant wordhoard and ancient myth dreams come from. But if I get stuck….presto! A guide! Thank you so much.

  7. This is wonderful! I am in the midst of a research project with a friend on the Heroine’s Journey, and one of the things we are exploring is the difference between what motivates a hero’s journey and a heroine’s. It seems that much of the current discussion on the Heroine’s Journey merely plugs a female character into the male experience, but we believe (as you have delineated here) that it is a different journey altogether.

    • That’s interesting, Kate! My hypothesis so far is that this particular journey takes the shape it does because it was shaped partly by women tale-tellers, both oral tale-tellers and French women writers of the early 18th century. So it’s ultimately based on women’s actual lives, on their lived experiences. There’s an interplay between fantastical narrative and real-world experience. Your comment is very helpful . . .

  8. Very useful! I like the way of looking at finding the prince as finding a part of oneself but only when he is in the right form. This is reminiscent of Jung’s theory of anima and animus and the unconscious.

  9. You have an interesting approach–something for me to ponder. So much of the online heroine’s journey makes the mistake of trying to alter Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey to make it work for women. Personally, I see Inanna (see Descent to the Goddess by Perera) as a model, possibly with a bit of Murdock thrown into the mix. When I researched heroine;s journey, I found a lot of people using the term when what they were teaching was feminine empowerment from a non-Jungian psychologist’s perspective rather than teaching a journey leading to figurative death and transformation. I’m glad your teaching led you to explore this subject.

    • Yes, I want to come at it from a totally different perspective, not an idea of deep mythic structures that show up in stories all over the world. Fairy tales were told and written down at specific times, and they relate very much to the real world, to people’s actual experiences. They turn those experiences into narratives. For me, Inanna’s story is fascinating, but ultimately different–she’s a goddess, not a heroine. There is a real difference between myth and fairy tale. I’m concerned with how one literary form, the fairy tale, which developed at a particular time period and in a particular place, gives us a journey that describes women’s lives.

      • I like your point. I almost asked if the heroine’s journey theme was a bit much for a fairy tale application. Very definitely, these stories (as I read Zipes and Warner) have a different ambiance and intention than myths and mythic novels. Maybe there’s a book in this for you: the schema and some illustrating and annotated faerie to go with it.

  10. Margaret (Peggy) Squires says:

    Wonderful essay, and wonderful comments. Seeing the connection with the Prince as connection with one’s animus gives a fine possible perspective.
    So many fantasy/folktale stories seem to hinge on “Who will be the rightful king?” Political issues are important, but I like to entertain the idea that these stories are also inviting us to think about the establishment of order, harmony, and well-being among the wide array of internal parts or “ego-states” that we all have within us.

  11. Totally correct—Campbell made the statement and also (confusingly) used Inanna etc. as examples of journeying heroes. (In his last book, Pathways to Bliss, he says in the intro that he was wrong—he did start to notice a separate heroine’s journey. Vogler said something similar in his intro.) I too looked closer and found a non-identical heroine’s journey. Your emphasis on the home is interesting. Some stories like Cinderella of course take place entirely within the home (yes, as a dangerous place) with the stepmother/Baba Yaga/Jungian shadow figure as antagonist AND mentor, suggesting the treacherous complexities of the heroine’s life (whereas, the man goes off to war and kills an unambiguous giant or dark lord). Usually the heroine is on a quest to save children or lovers, while the witch destroys them. Several responders have mentioned reading/writing/teaching, so I’m including a reading list of children’s novels, myths, etc. from the Heroine’s Journey section of my site. http://www.frankelassociates.com/calithwain/HeroineReading.htm Happy reading!

  12. woden13 says:

    You may also be interested in a book called, “The Lady of Linshui: A Chinese Female Cult,” which is about a shaman who saves her kingdom.

  13. Reblogged this on elizavictoria.com and commented:
    We all know the Hero’s Journey (as distilled by Joseph Campbell). But what about the Heroine’s Journey? A worthy read.

  14. Sarah Beach says:

    An interesting approach, and I’m going to have to look at it more closely! Thanks.

    Years ago, when I was gathering material on mythic motifs and archetypes, my conclusion was that what Campbell designates as the “Hero’s Journey” (and thus implying that only masculine characters do it) is more (in Jungian terms) the journey of the animus – it is about external action. The heroines in such stories usually represent the anima, the essential qualities that the active character is searching for. The marriage at the end of such tales represents the balanced union of action and essence.

    I think that is one reason why there’s a struggle to find an easily recognizable “Heroine’s Journey”. The tension between our impulse to (1) designate “active” as masculine and “essential” as feminine and (2) tell stories of active, self-determining females makes defining the issues difficult. “Essential” qualities don’t change and don’t generate action or go on quests.

    I did a blog post a couple of years ago about that aspect of story heroines — http://scribblersguidetomyth.com/blog/2011/12/01/rescue-the-maiden/

  15. I’m overjoyed I found this and immediately aligned it with some of my favorite tales. I’ve read Camobell’s Hero at least twice, and while he is brilliant, unfortunately, he is also a man of his time and therefore derisive towards any ideas of feminine power/agency. I’m excited to read your other essays on this subject.

  16. Tod Davies says:

    Beautiful post, thank you. May we all keep clearing the road ahead for all the heroines coming after.

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