Stage Twelve: Return with the Elixir

RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR: The hero comes back to his ordinary world, having survived all ordeals and lived through death, but his adventure would be meaningless unless he brought back the elixir, or treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with something, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. If he does learn something, his new life will be one forever different because of the road just travelled. True heroes will bring back something that they share with others, or with a power to heal (body, mind or soul).

This is the part the French call the dénouement (un-knotting, un-tying). A story or myth or life is like a weaving in which the lives of characters and people are interwoven into a coherent pattern. Where there is conflict, there’s a knot. It’s desirable usually to release the tension and resolve conflicts by untying these. Hollywood films have a ‘happy ending’. British, European, Australian & New Zealand films are more open-ended/realistic, with unanswered questions and ambiguity.



When the young knight, Percival, brings the Holy Grail back to his ailing King, Arthur, the King revives and rides out with his knights again. They are so filled with new life that flowers burst into bloom at their passing. Thanks to Percival, they have become a living Elixir, whose mere presence renews nature. Dorothy’s return in The Wizard of Oz shows her having learnt every lesson on the road, and finally happy in her own skin, feeling at home no matter where she is. That is her Elixir – the new idea of ‘home’ and how she sees herself.

In Casablanca (1942), Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, makes a difficult Resurrection sacrifice, by giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves, and in doing so, puts his life in danger from the Nazis, whom he hates. His reward – the Elixir he brings away from the experience – is his new alliance with French governor, Louie. They will be unstoppable. Or, as Rick puts it, in one of the most famous lines in film history, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


Stage Eleven: Resurrection

THE RESURRECTION: The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his experience. “What can I do, old man? I’m dead, aren’t I?”[11] This is the climax, the last and most dangerous meeting with Death in any myth. We as humans or heroes have to undergo a final purge, a final purification, before re-entering the Ordinary World. Think about this …

We shuffle back towards the village. Look! The smoke of the Home Tribe fires! Pick up the pace, we’re almost back – huzzah! But wait – the priest appears to stop us from charging back in. You have been to the land of Death, he says, and you look like Death itself, covered in blood, carrying the torn flesh and hide of your game from the hunt. If you march back into the village without purifying and cleansing yourselves, you may bring death back with you. You must undergo one final sacrifice before rejoining the tribe. Your warrior self – the adventuring hero in you – must ‘die’ so you can be reborn as an innocent into the group. The trick is to keep the wisdom of the Ordeal, while getting rid of its bad effects. After all we’ve been through on the quest, we must face a final trial – maybe the hardest.

Look at an example from real life. The lack of public ceremonies and counselling for returning soldiers from World War I and the Vietnam War veterans may have contributed to the terrible problems those soldiers had in reintegrating with society. So-called primitive societies, or those who keep cultural and religious ceremonies alive, seem better prepared to handle the return of heroes. They provide rituals to purge the blood and death from hunters and warriors – and their everyday equivalents – so they can become peaceful members of society again.

“Sacrifice” comes from the Latin, “making holy”. Sacred architecture is often used to create this feeling of Resurrection, confining worshippers in a narrow dark hall, before bringing them out into an open, well-lit area, which brings relief. Baptism, for example, by immersion or touching in water, is a ritual designed to give this feeling, both cleansing the sinner and reviving him from symbolic death by drowning.

In terms of myths relating to school life, if the Ordeal stage is your ‘mock’ exams, then the Resurrection is your end-of-year, all-important final exams. You are tested to see if you retained the learning from the Ordeal. It is often a race against time in the final weeks, to make sure everything is remembered. In fiction, look at James Bond – in Goldfinger, 007 battles the villains and races against time and impossible odds to disarm an atomic bomb, with millions of lives at stake. Watching this, we are taken with him right to brink of death one last time before Bond (or his ally, Felix Leiter), manages to yank the right wire and save us all from destruction. In Western films, it is often a shootout, or showdown. In the most powerful stories, this is the moment when all three major conflicts – inside the main character, with another person, and with the whole word – all come to a point at once, and the hero must beat them.

If successful, hero and audience should experience catharsis. This is the Greek word for ‘purging’ (or ‘vomiting up’) but has come to mean a purifying emotional release or breakthrough. In drama, stories and in real life, this allows us to purge the poisons of daily life from our bodies, minds and souls. Laughter, tears, shrieks of joy and shudders of terror, in response to seeing a moving story, are the triggers that bring about this healthy cleansing, catharsis.

In Star Wars, selfish loner Han Solo turns his back on his friends but shows up at the last minute (like the cavalry in a Western), showing that he has finally changed and is now willing to risk his life for a good cause. Luke Skywalker himself sacrifices part of himself – reliance on machines – when hearing Kenobi’s voice in his head to “use the force, Luke.” He learns, for a final time and to spectacular effect, to trust his human instinct instead of machinery. In Terminator 2, once the shapeshifting villain has been destroyed, the story then takes a higher emotional climax when the hero robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) must sacrifice himself to keep from causing future violence in the world, and to save the young boy. In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a man gives his life on the guillotine to save another man. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy learns to look for her heart’s desire in her own back yard – there’s no place like home … which is where we go next.

[11] From The Third Man, by Graham Greene.


Stage Ten: The Road Back

THE ROAD BACK: The hero’s not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure (e.g. Indiana Jones). These are the final efforts of the world, and of your mind, to stop you achieving what you what to achieve. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune[9] having a final fling at you.

It is time to wake up, shake off the effects of the feast and celebration, and remember why you embarked on the journey in the first place. People back home are starving and it’s urgent, having recovered from our ordeal, to load up and ship out, taking the food and treasure back home. Besides, there’s no telling what danger still lurks on the edge of the hunting ground. “Easy is the descent to the Lower World; but, to retrace your steps and to escape to the upper air – this is the task, this the toil.”[10]

Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, is about to board a hot-air balloon that the wizard has built here, to take her home. But her dog, Toto, sees a cat and dart off into the crowd; Dorothy follows and the balloon wobbles off without her, taking only the wizard (who came to the special world that way). Many heroes have tried to return using such familiar means – old crutches and things on which they used to depend. But the journey has changed them.

Guided by her instincts (represented by an animal, the dog), Dorothy knows deep down that this is not the way for her. Yet she is ready to take The Road Back, and keeps looking for the proper branch of the path. She finds it in saying “There’s no place like home” and in using what she has gained – her knowledge and the ruby slippers – to get back to her world, so all can benefit.

Questions to consider:

  • What is The Road Back in a story you know?
  • What have you personally learnt or gained from confronting death, defeat or danger?
  • Did you feel heroic?
  • How can you use your knowledge, feelings and experience to help yourself and others who have not been on such a journey?

[9] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III: Scene 1.

[10] The Sibyl to Aeneas in The Aeneid.


Stage Nine: The Reward

REWARD: THE HERO SEIZES THE SWORD: Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, the hero now takes possession of the treasure he’s come seeking. Sometimes the “sword” is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces. The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Women in these stories (or men if the hero is female) tend to be “shape-shifters.” They seem to change in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly changing aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the hero’s point of view.

When hunters have survived death and brought down their game, it’s natural to want to celebrate. Energy has been exhausted and needs to be replenished. Heroes may have a party, or barbecue the spoils of victory. The heroes of the Odyssey always offered a sacrifice and had a meal, to give thanks and celebrate after surviving an ordeal at sea. There are often campfire scenes at this point, or singing, or dancing – the romantic waltz in Beauty and the Beast is the Beast’s Reward for having survived an ordeal with the townspeople and Belle’s Reward for having seen past the Beast’s monstrous appearance.

Whatever he or she does, the hero must at this point take possession of whatever he came seeking. Treasure hunters take the gold, spies snatch the secret, pirates plunder the captured ship, an uncertain hero seizes her self-respect, a slave seizes control of his own destiny. The hero has risked death or sacrificed life, and now gets something in exchange.

The Norse god Odin (or Woden in English, after whom we name our day Wednesday), in his Ordeal, gave up an eye and hangs on the World-Tree for nine days and nights. His Reward was the knowledge of all things and the ability to read the sacred runes. James Bond, in From Russia with Love, takes the Lector – a Sovie translating device, back to British Intelligence, having risked his life. King Kong, who had been young Fay’s abductor, turns into being her protector during the Approach stage (characters change) – so that, by the time he battles to the death with a giant serpent to protect her, he has become a hero, and can take possession of his Reward. Like any good hero, he gets the girl … A reward of any kind – love, money, knowledge, prestige or anything – is called a boon. After getting it, heroes must turn back to completing their quest – the danger is not yet quite over.

HP ...

HP …


Stage Eight: The Supreme Ordeal

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?
St George and the Dragon

St George and the Dragon


Stage Seven: The Belly of the Whale

APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE – OR “THE BELLY OF THE WHALE”: The hero reaches the innermost cave. The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of his quest is hidden (Holy Grail). At this point, we heroes on our journey are like mountaineers who have raised themselves to a base camp by the labours of testing, and the road of trials, and are about to make the final assault on the highest peak. Allies can become enemies, and vice versa. Constancy is tested.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy & co. have been tricked by the witch’s field of poppies, which sent them into a deep sleep. The witch symbolises the doubt and darkness in Dorothy’s own soul and mind, which stops her from doing things, or tells her to turn back. The poppies symbolise all temptations to take you off track (including drugs – poppies make opium/heroin). Rescued by the good witch (an ally), they arrive at the Emerald City, approaching joyfully, but are blocked by a rude sentry – one of those bureaucrats whose job is to enforce stupid, pointless rules, and who has probably made several of his own to boot. Only Dorothy’s past experience, during her testing phase, and the ruby slippers she won, allow them to pass.

Be prepared and all shall be well. This gift, from the Mentor, remind Dorothy that, like all of us, she is a unique being with a core that cannot be shaken by outside events. They are like Ariadne’s Thread in Theseus and the Minotaur – a link with a loving spirit that gets you through the darkest of labrynths. She must overcome the huge obstacle – in the world of Oz, a castle with a portcullis, moat and soldiers; in the world of her mind and soul, this represents a neurosis (mental fear) to overcome for her to live her life.

Often, the way in past the sentries will be by subterfuge and cunning – knowledge learnt on the journey and tested. Like the Plains American Indians donning buffalo robes to creep close to their prey, the hero can get under the skin of their opponent and look like one of them. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We must get into the minds of those who stand in our way. At some point, though, we might well need to use force, to break down the final wall. The hero’s own resistance and fear have to be overcome by a violent act of their will.

Questions to consider: How does a hero(ine), in facing outside challenges, also face up to inner demons and defences? Is this true for you sometimes?

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur


Stage Six: The Road of Trials

THE ROAD OF TRIALS: TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES: The hero encounters tests and helpers. The hero is forced to make allies and enemies in the special world, to pass certain tests and challenges as part of his training.

  • Lord of the Rings: Samwise Gamgee.
  • The Wizard of Oz: The Tin Woodsman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion.
  • Star Wars: Luke’s sessions with Yoda.

No matter how many schools a hero has been through, he’s a junior boy or girl all over again in this new world. The terrain is different – you need to explore it; the rules seem unfair – you need to learn them; everyone seems a stranger – you’re going to need some friends. This is the time of testing. Greek heroine Psyche was put through a series of almost impossible tests by Venus before winning back her lost love, Cupid (Eros). Friends advise her on the way and lend a hand. At school, this stage would be your class tests or ‘mock’ exams – the hero’s training before the ‘real’ end-of-year exams. Most of the work happens now – it will be too late by the end, the real test.

Enemies can be made, e.g. gangster Jabba the Hut in Star Wars. This stage often extends out from the previous one, so may happen in a bar, with music – the catchy tune played by the alien band in the cantina in Star Wars, or in Rick’s Café Americain in the classic film, Casablanca (1942), when there is a musical duel between the passionate Marseillaise sung by the French patriots, and the brutal Deutschland uber Alles sung by the Nazis. Or there may be flirting – a different kind of ally/enemy situation. There may be gambling – in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, a cosmic family feud is set in motion by a rigged, cheated game of chance between two sets of brothers.

Questions to consider:

  1. Is there a testing phase in a story you know?
  2. What has been a testing phase in your life?
  3. Do some heroes have no allies?
  4. How do you turn an enemy into an ally?