Upon seeing the four main steps outlined in the Hero Cycle (call to adventure, crossing, supreme ordeal, and return), I immediately recognized them. This is not only the mold of most “heroes’ stories,” but also forms an important segment of literary theory. Almost all plots are hung upon this skeleton. There is the call to adventure that thrusts the hero into the events of the story, the crossing in which the stakes against him are continually raised, the supreme ordeal that tests his mettle once and for all, and the return in which the action falls and the hero is left victorious or defeated. As an avid writer, I am intimately acquainted with this pattern.
One novel in which the Hero Cycle can be clearly seen is my personal favorite, Treasure Island. The mantle of hero is claimed by young Jim Hawkins, the modest son of a tavern keeper who is thrust into a cutthroat world of piracy, buried treasure, and black deeds upon the high seas.
His call to adventure is the arrival of the pirate Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow, the tavern his father owns. Bones is mysterious and frightening, and attracts equally threatening ruffians to the previously-quiet inn. Jim finds out that Bones possesses a map these pirates desperately want, and when Bones dies of a heart attack, the map falls into Jim’s hands. Immediately, the pirates zero in on him. Jim has no choice but to run, and when he delivers the map into trusted hands, a crew is raised to seek out the treasure. Excited at the thought of adventure, Jim signs on as cabin boy to the Hispaniola.
The crossing is the middle of the novel; the series of events that ratchet up the tension and ultimately lead to the climax, or supreme ordeal. In Treasure Island, there are many events that make up the bulk of the crossing. Long John Silver, the Hispaniola’s cook and an experienced sea dog, leads a mutiny against Captain Smollet and his men (including Jim). Several of the members of the “good” company are killed or wounded in a vicious skirmish with the mutineers. Jim successfully steals the Hispaniola out from under the noses of the pirates, only to fall into Silver’s hands. All these events heighten the tension of the novel until only one choice remains to the hero: face down his foe once and for all. This leads us to the supreme ordeal.
The supreme ordeal in Treasure Island occurs when, after finally fighting their way to the site of the treasure, the pirates (along with a captured Jim Hawkins) discover that someone got to the treasure before them. Silver’s crew turns on him, and he and Jim face their final battle. They manage to hold the bloodthirsty scoundrels off until Smollet and his men swoop in and save them.
The return is simple-Jim returns to his normal life at The Admiral Benbow, but the effects of his shocking experiences linger. He is plagued by nightmares, and wonders at the fate of Long John Silver, who escaped with a modest amount of gold and was never heard from again.
Even though I used Treasure Island here, the Hero Cycle can be applied to almost any novel, movie, or literary work. From Shakespeare to Stephen King, it has been used to create cohesive and thrilling narratives. Perhaps its longevity can be applied to the simple beauty it possesses. Hero is initiated, goes on a grueling quest, faces physical and emotional demons, and returns to his life a changed person (for better or for worse). It is the ideal vehicle of internal growth, something essential to any written piece of literature.