I’ve reached the last stage of the hero cycle in this series. It is known as “The Return.” This is where all the people who watched the potential hero answer his call and embark on his journey welcome him home with open arms and shower him with gifts. Really. That’s what this stage is all about.
I wrote about the initial stages here and here. The whole idea of the hero cycle is a helpful pattern to know if you are writing any kind of story with a journey or transformation of the main character in that it can help you figure out what comes next.
The final stage, the Return, is made up of three steps: the atonement, the return, and gifts. The atonement is the most difficult to understand, but it helps if you break the word up into its parts, as in at-one-ment. Often, the hero goes through the tranformation and becomes a hero, but they are a reluctant hero. They don’t really like this new role and are not comfortable in it. The atonement is where they literally become “at one” with the idea of being a hero. They accept their new role and are finally ready to return to their known world. It completes their transformation into a hero.
Throughout the entire quest, the hero has accepted the call, overcome all obstacles, and now, they are finally ready to live the life that awaits them as a hero. This doesn’t have to be a life of fame or as a world leader. It could be that the hero has just overcome a significant challenge which changes their status in some way within their family or community, and they’re finally accepting of that change.
Harry Potter provides a great example of this. He goes through the initial stages of the hero cycle repeatedly, but he doesn’t really reach the atonement stage until the later books of the series when he accepts who and what he is. This actually allows him to accept the ultimate call to overcome Voldemort for the last time. His final return is after the giant battle and Voldemort’s defeat. It is at this point that he receives his gift which is, of course, the girl!
While many writers employ all the stages of the cycle in their longer works, it is possible to focus on just one stage of the cycle. Examples of this would be stories like Kate Chopin’s classic “The Story of an Hour” which focuses on “The Call” or Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” which focuses on the obstacles and challenges. Both of these are well known examples, but you can probably think of many works which employ either the entire cycle or focus on specific stages of it.
This series has been a very simplified version of the hero cycle, but it hopefully serves as an introduction. Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about it, and any internet search will turn up numerous resources. I’d love to hear how this applies to your own works in progress or if it helps you at all in your writing journey.