Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Hero's Journey: Return with the Elixir

We've got the coldest temperatures in more than twenty years, and because our houses and heating systems aren't designed for this sort of weather, that means the power grid is overloaded, and we're getting rolling blackouts. I lost power at least once during the night and then for about twenty minutes this morning while I was having breakfast and then again while writing this post. It looks like we won't have choir tonight, since the church web site said all activities today were canceled. There was a crock pot soup I wanted to try making if I'm not going to be out this evening, but crock pot cooking isn't a great idea if you're going to be randomly losing power. I'm trying to hurry and finish up the stuff that must be done on the computer, and then I may make this a reading day so I won't have to worry about power going in and out on the TV. Come to think of it, I may unplug everything so I don't have to worry about power surges when the power comes back on after a blackout. This will be a good day to use the fireplace and spend the afternoon by the fire with a book.

We've reached the last stage of the hero's journey. He's gone on his quest, survived an ordeal and has gone through a death and resurrection. Now he gets to go home again in the Return with the Elixir stage. The archetypal myth is a quest story, where the hero has to get something and then bring it home to heal the land, and this is the part where he returns with the thing he got and puts it to use. This is the Grail being brought back to heal the Fisher King, and through him, the land. It's sort of a reminder of why the hero went through all this in the first place, as he sees the people he cares about being safe, free or healthy. The Lord of the Rings is an inverted quest, since the object of the quest is to get rid of something rather than to find it, and in this part of the story, our heroes return home without the deadly ring to a Shire that no longer lives in the shadow of evil.

This is also where we really see the hero as a new man. Seeing him back in the Ordinary World setting gives us an opportunity to notice how much he's changed during his journey. He may take a leadership role when before he lurked on the edges, or a loner may become part of the community. Or, he may just have a different attitude. When Dorothy gets back to Kansas from Oz, she has a new appreciation for her family and friends there since she's learned that there's no place like home.

There are a lot of things that can represent the "elixir." A big one is love. Weddings, engagements and the first "I love you" often come at this point, with the hero having earned them through his actions or being able to give and receive love after he's been changed. Another is a change in the world brought about by the hero's actions, whether it's a literal healing like in the myths or something like the overthrow of a tyrant. The elixir may involve the hero taking on a new role, fulfilling his destiny. In a more tragic story, the other characters or even the audience may be the ones to receive the elixir the hero doesn't live to see, as we can learn from his sad example.

In fantasy stories, the character may return to the "real" world from the magical world. Most of the Harry Potter books start with Harry in the ordinary world of his relatives' home, then he travels to the magical setting of Hogwarts, and then at the end he returns to the ordinary world, carrying with him whatever happened to him while he was at school (most of the movies cut out the return sequences). Or in the Narnia books, which are about crossing over into a magical world, the story ends when the children come back to England.

But not every story involves a literal return to the beginning. The hero may never go on a literal journey. It may be an emotional journey. In that case, the Return may be a metaphorical one, revisiting an event, person or situation from the beginning, and we see how the hero handles it in a different way, showing us that the story has come full circle. The movie version of About a Boy starts with Hugh Grant having a solitary Christmas and claiming to enjoy it, and it ends with him surrounded by friends in a big Christmas celebration. During the Ordinary World segment of While You Were Sleeping, we see Sandra Bullock in her booth, unable to bring herself to speak to the handsome man who flings his token at her through the slot without even noticing she exists. At the end, she's back in her booth, and the man she loves drops an engagement ring through the slot.

Sometimes, the hero goes on to face a new Ordinary World, a new normal, after going through his ordeal. He doesn't go back home, but rather moves forward. This is what we see in the original Star Wars. Luke doesn't go back home after destroying the Death Star. It's implied by the medal ceremony at the end that he's now a part of the Rebel Alliance and will now be working with them to fight the Empire. In Neil Gaiman's Stardust, Tristan becomes the king of Stormhold and stays there instead of going back to his village. What was the special world of the story has become his new ordinary world.

This part of the story has to do a lot of things -- and do them pretty quickly. It needs to tie up most of the loose ends of the plot and subplots (except for those being left open for sequels). It needs to give us a hint of where the main characters will be after the story. It needs to definitively answer the story question posed at the beginning, and it needs to give the story a definitive end. This is also the last big emotional surge for the reader. For this reason, you don't want to drag this part out too long. You'll have had a high point at the climax, the resurrection moment, and it's sort of downhill from there, other than a nice burst of satisfaction that comes with the real conclusion -- that thing that makes you close the book with a satisfied sigh. If you drag out the ending too long or have too many "endings" as you wrap up each individual plot thread, the reader doesn't know when to have that last big sigh and may not be as satisfied with the end. If the reader has sighed too early and the book keeps going, she'll just get bored and irritated. If she's held back, waiting for the big one, it may lose the impact when it does come. At the same time, you don't want an ending that's so abrupt that it gives you whiplash. Readers generally like a little wrapping up.

More literary stories may not provide closure at all, instead leaving things more ambiguous so that the reader gets to decide what really happened to the characters after the story. On the other extreme, romance novels may not only have the Return with the Elixir segment where the hero and heroine finally commit to each other, but they'll also have an epilogue showing the characters months or even years later as a happy couple, often with their children.

Next: Putting it all together and using this structure.

No comments: