Valerie Estelle Frankel

Literary Itinerary: ‘Heroine’s Journey’ guideposts appear in most good tales

by Colin Seymour

If your novel has a protagonist--it does, doesn’t it?--you ought to be aware of the concept of the hero’s journey. That’s pretty much where Valerie Estelle Frankel, our September 13 dinner speaker, will be taking us, and it just might change our conceptions about character arc.

The hero, after all, is the ultimate literary archetype, as these definitions from Webster’s dictionary indicate:

HERO: A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability . . . an illustrious warrior . . . a man admired for his achievements and qualities . . . one that shows great courage . . . the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work . . . the central

            figure in an event or period.

“Many are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey,” Frankel said by way of pitching her workshops, “the idea that every man through myth and literature grows to adulthood while battling his dark alter-ego. This is the Star Wars or Harry Potter plot, a staple for fantasy, coming-of-age, and other genres.”

Frankel has altered that definition in her new book, From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s

Journey in Myth and Legend, which, she says, “explores the classic heroine’s journey step-by-step in ancient myths and modern fantasy, revealing the other epic journey.

“In tales as old as 1001 Nights and Cupid and Psyche, heroines battle seductresses

and witches to ascend to the role of mother-goddess.” Frankel, 31, a mythologist who has lectured in several college classrooms, including those at San Jose State, knew she was onto something when “I was sitting down trying to plot the perfect fantasy novel and what they all had in common, and there emerged the classic hero’s journey . . . the magic sword passed down from the father, and the traitor, . . . and nobody had written about the women.”

So she wove her book around the hero’s journey, and in her version these are the milestones we should consider for our own heroes’ journeys:

Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Mentor and Talisman; Crossing the Threshold Sidekicks, Trials, Adversaries; Wedding the Animus; Confronting the Powerless Father; Defeating the Shadow; The Nadir of the World; Atonement with the Mother; Reward: Winning the Family; The Magic Flight Return; Power Over Life and Death; Ascension of the New Mother.

You may feel resistant to the hero or heroine angle. Those terms have been attached to athletes

and other performers so much in recent years that they have become more caricature than character. Toons abound. There’s even a documentary about urban do-gooders and vigilantes that bills them as “Superheroes.” But Frankel doesn’t dwell on the simpleminded stuff. “The modern hero has moved beyond that,” she says, with Odysseus making way for, say, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “more about thinking and introspection, not just the big , brawling Hercules sort.” Maybe you’ve been scoping the hero’s journey trailheads more than you know.

“J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter author) has never said she was deliberately following the

Campbell model,” Frankel notes, “but inadvertently she has put her characters through a hero’s journey.” Frankel is also likely to discuss where works such as Coraline, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The

Wizard of Oz” apply.

But it is not fantasy-specific.

“Every culture has the heroine’s journey,” Frankel says. “I found a Rapunzel story in Tahiti. I was finding the same stories all over.”

Some of these are old enough that they were not contaminated by European culture, she says. Nevertheless, “the most popular story in the world is Cinderella, if we define Cinderella as Poor Picked-on Kid Becomes the Best of Them All. It’s not just because others have heard the story. The main reason is, everyone wants to hear that story.

“And of course that’s Harry Potter. Poor kid forced to sleep in a closet becomes the wizard. He’s the chosen one.”

Indeed. Chosen by millions.

--South Bay California Writers Club's Writer's Talk, p. 1, 8