Stage Four: Meeting the Mentor

MEETING THE MENTOR: The hero is encouraged by the wise old man or woman. By this time, many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like character as the hero’s mentor. The mentor can only go so far with the hero, but may give him a magical gift – a sword, a potion or even knowledge. But the hero must soon face the unknown by himself. Often the Mentor gives the hero a swift kick in the pants to get things going.

  • The Hobbit: Gandalf.
  • Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi.
  • Cinderella: Fairy Godmother.
  • Homer’s Odyssey: Athena/Mentor
  • Many Greek legends: Chiron (Sagittarius)

This mentor will often die later in the story (spoilers!), sacrificing himself for the young hero. This symbolises the older generation giving way to the new – just as our parents and elders give up their lives to raise us. It also gives the young in general, and the hero in particular, an example: he must risk all to save people, since others have died for him. The hero’s parents are often dead, and the Mentor a survival from their time – old friends of the family, uncles, fellow warriors … It is also a good way for ‘backstory’ to come out – for the storyteller to explain, through the Mentor, a little of how we came to this point.


Stage Three: Refusal of the Call

REFUSAL OF THE CALL: The hero is reluctant at first. The hero balks at the threshold of adventure.

  • Star Wars: Luke refuses the quest until he learns his aunt and uncle are dead.
  • The Lion King: Simba refuses to return to Pride Rock and accept his destiny.
  • Groundhog Day: Example of the negative cycle caused by refusing the call.

You’re being asked to say ‘yes’ to a great unknown, to an adventure that will be exciting, but also dangerous and even life-threatening. It wouldn’t be a real adventure otherwise. You stand at the threshold of fear; you hesitate or even refuse, temporarily. Your family fears for your life and don’t want you to go; people mutter that the journey is foolhardy. Should you not just stay – let someone else do it, take the risk, save the day? Even Christ, in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion, prayed “Let this cup pass from me.”[6] He was, for a moment, refusing his Call – seeking a way around the ordeal he, like anyone, knows he must face. In fiction, too, strong characters like Rambo, Rocky or a cowboy in a Western, refuse many calls.

And yet you must go, and it must be you. Continuing to refuse can lead to tragedy – looking backwards (like the man mentally stuck in the nursery) is denying what is real in the present. The only time you should refuse is if the call is actually a temptation to evil. The Three Little Pigs wisely refused to open the door to the Big Bad Wolf’s powerful arguments. Odysseus had to stop up the ears of his men with wax, and have himself tied to his ship’s mast, so they wouldn’t be lured onto the rocks by the Sirens’ bewitching, attractive song. “… The Devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape …”[7]

This stage can combine with the next two: Meeting the Mentor, and Crossing the First Threshold. There may be secret doors here. When Belle in Beauty and the Beast is told she has the run of the Beast’s house, but for one door she must never enter, she is compelled to answer her inner call to open it. If Pandora is told she can never open the box, she won’t rest until she’s had a peek. If Psyche is told she must never look upon her lover, Cupid, she will find a way to see him. Humans are of satiable curiosity.[8]

Questions to consider: have you ever refused a call? Or accepted?

[6] Matthew 26:39.
[7] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, line 564.
[8] See Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant’s Child”, Just So Stories. Macmillan & Co., London: 1902.


Stage Two: The Call to Adventure

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure.

  • Harry Potter: “You’re a wizard, Harry.”
  • The Hobbit: Gandalf the Wizard arrives.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The tornado.
  • Star Wars: R2D2’s cryptic message: “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope.”

This gets the story rolling. Trouble shadows your home tribe. You hear the grumbling of our stomachs and the cries of our hungry children. The land for miles around lies barren and clearly someone must go out beyond the familiar territory. That unknown land is strange and fills us with fear, but pressure mounts to take some risks, so life can continue. A figure emerges from the campfire smoke, an elder of the tribe, pointing to you. Yes, you have been chosen to begin a new quest. You’ll venture your life so the tribe may live on.

The Call to Adventure may be a message, or an event like a declaration of war, or the arrival of a telegram reporting that outlaws have just been released from prison and will be in town at noon to gun down the sheriff. Or the Call may be a stirring within the soul of the hero – a messenger from his unconscious, bearing news that it’s time for change: dreams, fantasies or visions that reflect the emotional and spiritual changes to come. Or, simply, the hero may just get fed up with things as they are. An uncomfortable situation builds up until that one last straw sends him on the adventure. In a deeper sense, a universal human need drives him, but it takes a miserable day to push him over the edge.

It might be temptation – the allure of an exotic travel poster, the sight of a potential lover; the glint of gold, the rumour of treasure, the siren song of ambition. In the Arthurian legend of Parsifal (Percival), the innocent, young hero is called to adventure by the sight of five magnificent knights in armour, riding off on a quest. He has never seen such creatures, and is stirred to follow them, not realising his destiny is to become one of them. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy follows her runaway dog, Toto. The clouds of change rage above them, brewing up a tornado to whisk her away to the magical world of Oz.

Symbols such as trains leaving, smoke lifting, horses riding off, or even an upset stomach, signal the pressing fact that change and progress are going to happen, and soon. Some Calls are warnings, though – they signal doom for a tragic hero, not high adventure. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a character cries out the warning, “Beware the Ides of March.” – which is the date Caesar is killed. In Moby Dick, the crew is warned by a crazy old man that their adventure will turn to disaster.

Questions to consider:
1. What is the Call to Adventure of another story you know?
2. What Calls have you received – and how did you respond?
3. Have you ever delivered a Call to Adventure to someone?


Stage One: The Ordinary World

THE ORDINARY WORLD: The hero is introduced to his ordinary world. Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you’re going to tell a story about a fish out of his water, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world.

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Dorothy in Kansas.
  • The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins in Hobbiton.
  • Star Wars: Luke Skywalker on Tatooine.
  • The Lion King: Simba at Pride Rock.

The Ordinary World is as different as possible from the Special World the hero will soon enter, so that audience and hero experience a dramatic change when the threshold is finally crossed. In The Wizard of Oz, the Ordinary World is depicted in black and white, to make a stunning contrast with the Technicolour Special World of Oz. In the Hobbit, the Shire is peaceful, quaint and green, and probably quite boring. Quite the contrast from the myriad landscapes the hobbits will encounter, including the warlike, dangerous, blackened – but exciting – county of Mordor. Yet the seeds of adventure are already here, in this Ordinary World. In Oz, Dorothy clashes with Miss Gulch and is rescued by three farmhands – this is foreshadowing for the Wicked Witch and the three friends (scarecrow, lion and tin man) she finds in the Special World.

Every hero needs three conflicts: an inner one, a conflict with another person, and a conflict with the whole universe: Luke Skywalker’s inner yearning for adventure, bored at being a farmhand; his battle with his great adversary, Darth Vader, and his fight with the whole galactic empire and dark side of the force. At the climax of the story, he’s going to have to beat all three at once.

The audience should feel a strong bond of sympathy with the hero – he (or she) is like us; during this story we see the world through their eyes; they are the ‘centre of the good’ in their world. This doesn’t mean every hero is a goody two-shoes: for every lovely little hobbit, or valiant Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), or suave Rick Blaine (Casablanca) or charming Harry Potter, or neurotic Neo (The Matrix), there are plenty of violent gangsters, devils, conmen and crooked politicians in stories, who are the heroes. That’s one of the warm thing about humans – through the power of storytelling, we can see the good in just about anyone.

Look at it from the point of view of the ‘baddy’ – in their own world, they are the hero, not the anti-hero or evil one. Lord Sauron (Lord of the Rings) just wants to rule Middle Earth; Darth Vader (Star Wars) is just trying to get his son to rule the galaxy; Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) is an abandoned orphan who was wants to live forever … ‘bad guys’ who aren’t actually good in some way, simply aren’t interesting.

This opening part often begins in medias res – right bang smack in the middle of the action. As a reader or audience, you’re thinking: What on Earth is going on? Who are these people? Where did all this come from? But gradually you figure it out; you absorb yourself in the world before your eyes in the theatre, or on the screen, or on the soft pages of the book in your hands. This is called the willing suspension of disbelief* – it means that, even if the story be set in a magical world, or in outer space, or another country, you can identify with it because the characters feel real.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is the Ordinary World of a story you know?
  2. How does the author introduce the hero?
  3. Is there foreshadowing to suggest where the story will go?
  4. Are the heroic journeys/stories of men & women different?
  5. Do different cultures need different kinds of stories?

*A phrase coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1817.