THE SUPREME ORDEAL: The hero endures the supreme ordeal. This is the moment at which the hero touches rock bottom. He faces the possibility of death, brought to brink in a fight with a mythical beast, alien or spirit. The secret? Heroes must ‘die’ so that they can be reborn.
- Star Wars: Blowing up the Death Star.
- Lord of the Rings: Mount Doom.
- The Wizard of Oz: Defeating the Wicked Witch.
This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and is born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, then we are revived by the hero’s return from death. You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.
A witness is important: someone nearby who sees the hero appear to die, momentarily mourns the death and is elated when the hero is revived. In a ‘lesser’ ordeal scene (there can be several), the robot droids R2D2 and C3PO are listening by intercom to the progress of Skywalker & co. The droids are horrified to hear what sounds like the heroes being crushed to death in a giant rubbish compactor, deep in the inmost cave of the Death Star ship – the belly of the whale …
These witnesses echo what we as readers / listeners / viewers feel. It’s not that we enjoy seeing heroes killed, it’s that we all relish a little taste of death every now and then. Its bitter flavour makes life taste sweeter. Anyone who has survived a near-death experience, a sudden close shave in a car or plane, knows that for a while afterward, colours seem sharper, family and friends more important, time more precious. The nearness of death makes life more real.
When Luke Skywalker seems to have been eaten by the monster, we feel pain – only to see him resurrected and alive. The same when he switches off his ship’s computer and guides in the missile on instinct – he has thrown himself into a new way of being, and is dead to the old way. But this Death is only a metaphor for the hero’s fears, his ‘Shadow’. This is the only thing any of us need fear – and a hero overcomes it. Once that part of you ‘dies’, you are dead to the old, limited vision of things and reborn as something new.
Greek hero Perseus’ approach to the monster Medusa goes past statues of heroes turned to stone by her glance. Theseus’ labrynth is littered with the bones of those who were eaten or couldn’t get out. Heroes survive because they have sought supernatural aid at an earlier stage; they cheat death. Perseus uses a mirror; Theseus a line of thread. The ‘cavalry’, planted earlier in the story, may now come to help the hero …
Questions to consider:
- What is the Ordeal in a story you know?
- In what way is the villain or antagonist the hero’s “Shadow”?
- What is your greatest fear? Will you overcome it?