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Supernatural University: Taking the Hero’s Journey

Who are your heroes? What makes a hero? Are you a hero? Welcome to the first summer session of Supernatural University, which explores the roles that all of us play in the mythology of our own lives.

Many of our favorite human stories are archetypal in nature. The most common one of all is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey:” a transformational story of an ordinary person called to adventure, called to the service of something beyond his or her own experience and personal benefit, who proceeds through many trials to emerge different on the other side, bringing something of importance to others back from his journey. Hero myths seek to explain truths, to enrich our experience of human society, and perhaps most of all, to teach us how to live.

Many people, including the man himself, have observed that Eric Kripke, in creating Supernatural, was following the template of the hero’s journey, as restated in such popular culture icons as Star Wars, when he designed the story of Sam Winchester. The truth of this is easy to see. When we first met Sam in Season One, he had all the earmarks of the classic reluctant hero. He had left his home and family, rejecting their lifestyle and mission, to strike out on his own aggressively normal life. Approached by his brother Dean for help when their father disappeared, he very reluctantly agreed to join Dean in the search for John, but insisted on returning to his own life and freedom. Only when his girlfriend Jessica was killed the same way as his mother had been
- the classic, forcible, severing loss that separates a hero from the normal life he had known - did Sam dedicate himself to the hunt, out of a spirit of revenge.

Throughout the first season, Sam experienced a sequence of trials that challenged him, from experiencing dreams and visions to having to make choices to reaffirm his decision to hunt. All of them encouraged his gradual transformation from the person he had been to the person he needed to be in order to fight evil and save others. By the end of season one, Sam had changed profoundly, in particular putting his brother’s emotional needs ahead of his own desire for revenge. In season two, Sam experienced yet more of the classic hero’s journey, given the death of his father/mentor, the new challenges of trying to penetrate his brother’s self-destructive course, and the terrors engendered by his own further developing abilities. Sam has gone through many of the classic phases of the hero’s journey, including being separated from his mentor and his companions, and even taking the journey into death and the underworld and being brought back.

What I would like to do in today’s class is look at some of the other characters in Supernatural, and point out that Sam is not alone in being on the hero’s journey. Indeed, my thesis for this class is that virtually everyone we’ve met on the side of the angels in Supernatural is engaged in their own version of the hero’s journey, playing the role of the hero in their own story even as they play other roles in the corresponding hero journeys of the other characters. And I would posit that the same is true of each and every one of us.

Dean is as much an archetypal hero on the journey as Sam. Arguably, he began the journey earlier, experiencing his first severance from normal life at the age of four, when his mother was killed and his universe changed. From that moment, Dean took on the care of baby Sam, and also the role of emotional support, as well as son, to John. Dean answered the call to adventure and service before he was even old enough to know anything about them. Where Sam had been reluctant, however, Dean had given himself to the journey heart and soul from almost his earliest memories, and reaffirmed his decision when he was old enough to understand what he was doing. In Bloodlust, for example, we learned that he had consciously dedicated himself to the hunt when he was sixteen, killing an unspecified monster with a silver crossbow bolt to the heart and burning the body with his father while Sam waited in the car.

Dean’s hero’s journey took its harshest turn when his mentor and father died, not just because the hero always has to lose his mentor before he can be fully adult and assume his own place in the story, but because of Dean’s unique guilt in knowing that his father died - and worse than died - specifically for him, and that he’d also been given a task that tortured his soul: the knowledge that he would have to kill the brother he loved more than life if he couldn’t save him first. The second season saw Dean swallowed into the belly of the whale, overcome by outside events and facing ultimate loss. Season two delved into the darkest corners of Dean’s hero’s journey, exploring his temptation and desire to abandon the hero’s path, and culminating in his decision to sell his own soul - to give up everything he was, including his own life and future - in order to ransom his brother back from death.

In the aftermath of that decision, reunited with Sam, Bobby, and Ellen, Dean confronted the yellow-eyed demon, was saved by the intervention of his father’s spirit, and successfully destroyed the demon. Dean saw his father’s soul released from torment and experienced John’s pride and approval, which went a long way toward healing his spirit. And despite knowing that his deal for Sam’s life means that he has only a year to live and will wind up in hell unless something extraordinary happens, Dean found new purpose in the mission to hunt the demons and spirits who escaped hell along with John, and rededicated himself to the cause with a resurgence of the joy in the hunt that he had evidenced back in the first season. Dean fits the classic hero pattern every bit as well as Sam.

And so does John. Perhaps the most common form of the hero’s journey story is a coming of age one, the tale of how a boy moves from child to man, or from adolescent to full adult; but the classic hero’s journey can apply to someone of any age, moving from any one state to another, following the spur of answering the call to service and leaving ordinary life behind. Think about John for a moment. From what we know of his backstory, he was fully adult when he received his extraordinary “call to adventure.”  He’d already experienced one call to adventure and service when he decided to become a Marine. Judging from the photo of John in uniform with his wife Mary that we first saw in the pilot, he decided some time after his marriage to change his life again, and we know that he was working as a civilian, owning a half interest in an automotive garage, when his life fell apart with the bizarre death of his wife and his introduction to the supernatural. That was his second call to adventure, combined with the severance of his old life. From that moment on, John was on his own hero’s journey, learning from others, evidently including Missouri Mosley, Charles Elkins, Bobby Singer, Pastor Jim Murphy, and Bill Harvelle, about the nature of the forces of evil arrayed against him. John started as an innocent, at least in supernatural terms, and had to grow up quickly.

We don’t yet know enough about John’s journey to know for certain what roles the people around him played, but his words in Dead Man’s Blood suggest that Daniel Elkins was a true mentor, imparting to John the skills of hunting, tracking, and learning to kill the supernatural. John evidently lost his mentor not through death, but through the unspecified “falling out” that made John strike out on his own and not seek out Elkins again until his death. Missouri may have been either a mentor or simply the oracle from whom John learned to take the first steps on his road. Bobby, Pastor Jim, Caleb, and Bill Harvelle were likely all companions on the way. Ultimately, in In My Time of Dying, John made the choice that Dean’s life was more important than his revenge against the demon, and determined that his journey, his true call, was to enable his son to live. He made the sacrifice of a mentor for a younger hero.

The fascinating thing is how all of these characters, each of whom is on his or her own hero’s journey, also play different roles in the journeys of others. Sam is his own hero, but he’s also his brother’s companion in Dean’s hero journey. Hero John is also mentor to both of his sons, and had his hero story culminate in his mentor sacrifice and loss, and then his reconciliation after death with both of his hero sons. Hero Dean has been both companion and mentor to Sam, serving as his teacher and model while Sam was growing up, and now serving as an equal partner with his younger brother, although still driven to be protective in the conjoined roles of mentor and companion.

Bobby, Ellen, Jo, Pastor Jim, Caleb, Daniel Elkins, Gordon Walker, and all the others we’ve met in the hunter culture have been similarly on their individual hero’s journeys, while also serving as companions to others. Each of them was called, even though we don’t know what prompted all of them to start. It’s likely that most of them began the way that John and Gordon did – assailed by supernatural tragedy and flung out of the lives they had known, choosing to learn the truth and fight back rather than accept what had happened as unknowable and unavoidable. All of them became hunters, and in doing so, reached out to save others, even if – as with Gordon – saving others wasn’t the reason for their personal hunt.

Some of these people – notably Bobby, Ellen, and probably Pastor Jim – served as mentors to the boys at times along the way. Bobby, Ellen, Jo, and Gordon have filled the roles of companions to the brothers. In a classic example of the “hero betrayed” portion of the classic story pattern, Gordon turned from a companion of the boys to an adversary because of his own interpretation of the course of the hero journey that he sees himself following. In his own mind, Gordon perceives himself as still on the right journey, even though we would disagree.

All of these characters have changed from the people they were before they began their various journeys. We saw it in John: the loving, laughing father of the pilot was transformed by his quest into a harsh and distant warrior, still a father, but unable to express the love, pride, and joy that had so clearly been a part of him. We’ve seen it profoundly in Sam and Dean, as they’ve both grown and matured, seeing their lives and their purpose through different eyes. They’re stronger for having passed through the fire, but as their story continues, they will need to become stronger yet. They’ve heard the call, and while they’ve been tempted to refuse it and turn aside, we know they’ll stay the course, because they’re heroes.

And that brings me to all of us. I began this class with a thesis that the stories of myth are intended to teach us how to live; that all of us face our own version of the hero’s journey. Ours may not be as obvious or dramatic as the tales of legend, myth, and contemporary fiction; we aren’t challenged by demons of hell or spirits of the underworld, we aren’t called to abandon our day-to-day lives in a grand quest to face death, challenge evil, slay dragons, save lives, and return with the wisdom of the universe.

But although our calls to adventure and service may be quieter ones, they are there nonetheless. We are challenged to face the demons of our own fears and shortcomings, and to find ways to overcome them and grow beyond their limitations. We are called to become aware of the larger truths, of the world around us, of people in need of help, and if we accept the call to adventure and service, we will reach out to do what we can. Not slaying dragons, perhaps, but offering comfort to a hurting friend, providing charity and succor to a stranger, giving back to the community we live in. Through all those actions, we’re walking the hero’s journey, changing ourselves even as we bring something very important back to the people around us:  community, caring, compassion, and hope for the future. And as we walk our individual road, it’s also given to us that we may be companions, oracles, and mentors to others around us.

Joseph Campbell said, “Myth is a metaphor for the experience of life.” Supernatural is the metaphor. It’s up to us to experience the life.

Class dismissed.

Tags: meta, myth, supernatural, supernatural university

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