Death and Rebirth

I know, the title of this post may sound a little exaggerated, maybe even scary. But it describes effectively the stage that comes next in the structure of the Hero’s Journey.

Let’s try to remember all that happened so far: a Challenge has been set (and initially, naturally, Rejected); a Journey started; Teaching happened all over along the way, together with strange, exotic and sometimes dangerous Encounters; a Big Danger has been faced; a fabled Reward was claimed. Along the way, a lot of Experienced happened. Our hero (who finally accepts he/she is a Hero) has packed again, crossed another Threshold, is ready to go back home. It couldn’t get any better. It’s done, right?

hunger
Yeah. Katniss seems to think that her Journey isn’t quite over yet, even after she won “The Hunger Games” (2012).

Not quite.

It’s exactly at this point that a new, even more important challenge must take place. Because it’s not enough for our Heroes, to be aware of their new conditions and experience. Now it’s time to show that they are really worthy of it.

The Journey back home has many challenges. Reluctantly, the protagonists might even have persuaded themselves that going back home might be the right thing to do. Even if the Extraordinary World feels so good, deep inside they know that the Treasure they found cannot be for their own benefit only. Instead, it needs to be taken back home and shared with the community. But to know it is not enough: now they must learn why.

And this is the essence of this Stage of the Journey. In writing or screenplays, it’s the Climax (from the Greek for “stairway”) that awaits now. The peak, the highest challenge met so far by the Hero, the real and final test.

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“Climax” is quite the word that comes to mind when Ripley has to battle the Mother Alien at the end of “Aliens” (1986). Just when all troubles seemed over. James Cameron knows the tricks in successful storytelling, apparently.

In stories from all traditions, this is such a strong narrative moment, one that can involve somebody’s death, departure, or some other form of permanent loss: a connection, a possession, a body part. Powerful symbols are used here to deliver the meaning that in order for the transition to a New Stage of Existance to be effective, a price has to be paid. And sometimes it’s a high price. There are several forms in which this can manifest. We will try to examine a few. 

The loss of the divine lover: maybe no story teaches this lesson more strongly (and painfully) than the Classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. As you could remember, we have already encountered it in a previous post. The brave Orpheus, son of Apollo, went all the way down to the Underworld to bring back to life his beloved young wife, Eurydice, who died prematurely.

After a true Ordeal, he strikes a deal with the King of the Dead, Hades. He could take back his wife, but in order to do so, he would have to walk back leading the way. Eurydice would follow him, just a few steps behind. With one condition: Orpheus had to trust the agreement blindly. He would never, under any circumstance, turn back his head in doubt. He would never look back to check if his loved one was still following him. He had to have faith, until they were safely in the open again.

The brave man accepts the deal. What else could he do? He didn’t get all the way down to the Realm of the Dead for nothing after all. So the couple starts their journey back to the surface, soon to realise that it would be the hardest part of their adventure yet. Monsters and demons lurked in the dark at every corner; strange and fearful noises echoed in the shadows at every step. But after a while, Orpheus couldn’t hear his love’s footsteps anymore. Or so he thought? His faith started to falter. Was she still there? What if something terrible happened just then? If he turned his head just once, for a quick glance, would anyone ever notice?

Consumed by self-doubt, the young man couldn’t resist, and turned his head. Just once, just to quickly check if everything was fine… and yes, Eurydice was there, following him! But so was Hades, inflexible, still honouring his part of the deal. While Orpheus didn’t: and to his greatest horror, the young poet could do nothing but witness as his wife, the love of his life, vanished into darkness again. This time, for good, and nothing could ever restore her to her previous mortal form.

EurydiceOrpheusRussell
The tragic ending of Orpheus and Eurydice’s story, portrayed by Elsie Russel.

Firm but fair. Not exactly your perfect happy ending, eh? But so were often the classic stories from the past – before (mainly) Hollywood sweetened them more and more to reassure and please audiences worldwide.

As tough as it may be, the story offers some strong universal teachings for us to learn. This particular myth is so rich and deep you can choose your own moral(s): never give in to self-doubt. Or – death and loss are inevitable and we must learn to deal with them. Or maybe, nobody can cheat the Gods and get away with it. Orpheus learns in the hardest possible way, with the loss of his beloved half, that if he wants to go on with life he needs to leave something behind.

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The Fallen Angel parable. Many other myths or tales choose more reassuring symbolisms to express the concept of necessary change. This can be the moment when the Villain, having completed his cycle, meets his fate (we have discussed the very important role of Villains in a story here).

And mind you: it’s not only to say “ah, see, the bad guy gets what he deserves!”. There is a much deeper meaning that is conveyed here. The Villain is expression of an unbalance, a twisted plot – another Journey – that has its roots in the past, where the Hero fell victim to their own weaknesses or passions.

At this point of the story, it’s time for this to be solved. That particular aspect of the past has been dealt with, and it’s time to turn page, move on. This is symbolised with the demise of the Bad Guy, and the closure of its narrative arc.

This is described very well in The Lion King (1994) for example:

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Scar, the evil brother, eventually falls victim of his own selfish ego (portrayed by the hyenas).

Or, and it couldn’t be otherwise, see the role of Darth Vader in Star Wars – who redeems himself before he can be seen for the first time by his son:

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“The Return of the Jedi” (1983). “Just for once let me look on you with my own eyes”.

Or, in some other cases, it’s the Hero that has to go through his own personal ritual of Transformation. Sometimes metaphorically, sometimes quite literally. Let’s see a few examples:

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Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) loses a hand in a lighsaber duel, after he learns who is his real father. He has to build a new identiy: symbolised here by the loss of a limb.
Harrison FORD, Sean CONNERY, John RHYS-DAVIES
Indiana Jones has to face the possible death of his father in “The Last Crusade” (1989), before he can choose what are the most important values in his life in the movie that ends the saga. I said, ends the saga.
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And in the most iconic – if a bit cheesy – scene in “The Matrix”, Neo is dead and brought back to life by Trinity and her love. His cycle (remember how he started the journey?) is complete.

The Hero faces his own death, and is brought back to life by the teachings he got (as in Star Wars) or his Allies (Neo in The Matrix he has learned to love – Indiana Jones heals the relationship with his father and decides that ambition is not the primary value of his life), maybe with a scar that will be a constant reminder of the Journey, representing change.

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The Martyrdom. In more drastic cases, the hero dies. Think of course about the parable and life story of Jesus Christ. In these cases it becomes even more important that the story survives, so future generations will learn and prosper from it. In this way, the sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain – and this explains why in many traditional cultures storytellers were highly respected, almost “holy” members of the community. Nowadays they are mostly starving, while a privileged few get a villa in California.

Let’s see a few cases:

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Even the visual representation of Leonida’s death scene in “300” (2006) is a strong reference to the Crucifixion. It’s martyrdom in the essence.
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The bad-turned-good cyborg meets his fate at the end of “Terminator 2” (1991), but the audience feels allright. He cannot speak from the bottom of the melted steel pool, but you can almost hear him saying I WILL BE BACK.

I guess it all makes sense by now. What is the meaning for us, then?

Once again, each of us can choose our own interpretation of such an ancient and powerful element of storytelling. But in short, this stage teaches us that just when we believe we have reached a new, safe destination, it’s time to prove (once more) that we are worthy of it. And this usually comes in the form of a very demanding test, which will require a price to pay.

Every passage of state is demanding – and must be so. In a way, it’s again a Threshold to cross, and it follows the same rules.

It’s really that simple. If we want to move on, we have to leave something behind. This concept can also help in dealing with grief or loss. It’s inevitable, it’s the supreme mystery of life, and maybe it’s exactly the reason why we all embarked in this Journey in this world?

It’s hard, to let go.  But some “old” needs to die, in order for “new” to emerge. The hero must learn this hard lesson, before his Journey is complete.

Tears_In_Rain
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears… in… rain. Time to die”. The unforgettable final monologue of Roy in Blade Runner (1982). His arc is complete. Almost makes you wonder who is the hero here.

It may sound easy in principle, of course, but it’s not as comfortable when we are called to face such situations in our life. Ok, we get it: change is necessary. But our new comfort zone feels just so cosy, do we have to leave it so soon? We worked so hard to get our reward, do we really have to leave it all behind and start again?

Yes, but not all. There is also good news: this is also a very important moment to affirm our power of choice. The Extraordinary World can be tempting, so reassuring after we have mastered its ways, defeated the bad guys, and claimed its rewards. But here is the deeper meaning: to really incorporate the change in us, we must choose what to take with us – and what not – and make space for it.

Something must stay behind, for some other things to make it through and become part of us, in the next parts of our Journey and life. But the elements that will come with us, will stay with us forever. 

gladiator
The Spaniard’s story in “The Gladiator” (2000) is another clear example of Martyrdom. At the end of his arc, he welcomes death as a transition. Not an end, but a beginning.

I myself find this particular teaching very useful every time I am involved in coaching or training with a group, and the end of an intense residential experience is approaching. 

There is that feeling of “oh but why do I have to go back to real life?” that is hard to overcome, sometimes.

The Hero’s Journey metaphores really can help there. Because in the end, there is no “real” and “imaginary” life. Life is one and it’s a whole. What happens in our fantasy is real enough, if we remember how powerful our imagination can be. And what happens in our everyday life can be as fantastic as a fairy tale, if we use our newly-acquired magic abilities and – for example – appreciate all the privileges we have, the people we meet and share our adventures with, see our challenges (big and small) as heroic quests, and are not afraid to claim the treasures that wait in the Dark Cave. If, in other words, we are not afraid to turn our lives into “Heroic Tales”. That is the magic, healing power of storytelling.

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In “The Neverending Story” Bastian manages to merge his own real (a bit boring) world, with Fantasia. And he is a hero!

After his(her) Resurrection, the Hero knows this: reality is fantastic, and fantasy is real.

And the Hero will be known henceforth as the Master of the Two Worlds: able to get the best from both dimensions, travel between them at will, and appreciate them both in their differences.

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