Revisioning Social Movement Arcs, Public Narratives, and Citizen Engagement in 2021 and Beyond

Written by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.


Following the presentation, we have received requests from several organizations and numerous individuals who were not able to attend the presentation, or who heard about it afterwards, asking if we could record and share the presentation. We are now posting the presentation here, free, for our Heroine’s Journey and Beyond audience.  (The original presentation included a provocative Q& A period, but since the original program could not be taped per University rules, we are unable to include that here.)

We have also created a handout that includes links to our research, writing, and activism suggestions, and “how-to’s” on various subjects. That handout can be found here: Narrative and Citizen Engagement Handout Lecture 2021.

Toward the end of the presentation, we offer a number of mental paradigm shifts that we think are necessary to transform our understanding of social action movements from fleeting hero’s journeys into sustainable heroine’s, healing, and integrity journeys.  One of those ideas was to establish “15 Minute Clubs”  that could encourage and support ongoing social action and engagement. Nancer Ballard is currently coordinating a 15 Minute Club pilot program. If you view the presentation and then are interested in becoming a member of the 15 Minute Club pilot program, you can let us know in the “Contact Us” section of this site, and we will get in touch with you.

We appreciate the thousands of followers and guests who have provided us public and private feedback as we have examined the perspectives of participants, witnesses, and those affected by oppressive policies and social change movements. We are grateful to those of you who have accompanied us on our journey to more deeply understand the role of journey narratives in social movements. 

In upcoming posts, we will be focusing on the personal, psychological and biological underpinning of journeys and offer some new perspectives on evolving life journeys in an interconnected  21st century world.

Social Change Journey Narratives and Sustainable Progress

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


As early as 1899, American geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin proposed that changes in the climate could be the result of changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Half a century later, Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg warned that at the rate at which humans were emitting carbon dioxide, we would soon see marked changes in the climate that we would have no means of controlling or reversing. Another half a century, and numerous international efforts later, climate change today continues to accelerate rather than slow down.

Of course, the movement to protect our planet isn’t the only social movement that has struggled to achieve its goals. How is it that so many of us sincerely want social change, but find our goals so difficult to achieve?

One of the problems is that we—both social activists and the sympathetic public—are relying on social change journey narratives that do not support the goals we have.

Journey stories and narratives are important tools that we use to share ideas, convince others that they should be interested in our goals, and encourage others to actively participate in realizing these goals. Environmental protection, racial and gender equality, and other causes such as LGBTQ+ rights and income inequality, require large-scale, sustainable social change. However, the narratives that have been used to try to bring about these changes often focus on individual action and sudden high-profile moments of change that are presented as changing everything once and for all. In this post we will explore why these narratives are often counter-productive, and we will suggest alternatives that may be more realistic and beneficial for achieving meaningful social progress.

The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, was signed by 196 countries in 2015 and became law in 2016. It was hailed as a landmark agreement to address climate change and its impacts on a world-wide basis. And it was. But signing the agreement did not change everything; in fact, it changed nothing. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But that can only happen if countries actually make consecutive five-year plans to control and reduce emissions, communicate their plans to the public, support one another, and implement their plans in a manner that is consistent with the longer-term goal. Transformational change requires a slow, tedious, inconvenient, no-guarantee commitment to engage in ongoing shifts in mindset and world-orientation alongside millions of other people.

Heads of delegations pose for a group portrait at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21).

We are not used to telling stories about transformational change until after the transformation has supposedly already happened and can be romanticized and mythologized. It is not hard to see why stories that focus on the achievement of a significant milestone are more appealing to us than stories that emphasize the need for long term commitment of personal energy and resources. Social change requires an enormous devotion of time, energy, and attention by thousands and thousands of people in order to achieve even the first remarkable milestone. Success is not guaranteed and the commitment inevitably costs more than we think it will.

When that first milestone is achieved—whether a law or treaty, or recognition of injustice with a pledge for reparations—we want to celebrate our success and assure ourselves that our effort was worthwhile and that our achievement will last. We also want to believe that the extraordinary level of sacrifice, time, energy, money, and uncertainty is at an end, or at least that the change we want won’t continue to require so much work from us. Once the emergency is over; we want to return to our “normal lives.” And so we deceive ourselves into believing that the first step or milestone achievement is instead the culmination of social change, or is such a momentous first step that everything else will roll out automatically.

When the Paris Agreement was signed, people worldwide believed that we had achieved a global commitment to combatting climate change and that success would follow as a matter of course. Each country set emissions-reduction pledges and many people took for granted the fact that these pledges would be met. A scant four years later, to the horror of many, former President Donald Trump pulled the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, out of the agreement. In doing so, he demonstrated how fragile and relationship-dependent transformational change is. Signing an agreement, passing a law, or electing a new official is often a crucial achievement, but should not be confused with success or the guarantee that success will inevitably follow.

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, many viewed the election of a Black American as evidence that the U.S. was finally becoming “colorblind” or “post-racial,” and assumed (erroneously) that the hard work of achieving racial equality was almost complete. It was not until twelve years later that widespread awareness of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police officers, and easy-access video proof and testimonies of the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests, jolted many Americans into fully realizing and/or openly acknowledging that racism has continued to be present everywhere and that we have a long way to go in the fight for racial justice, equality, and equity.

So how do we change our social change journey stories and narratives to reflect the real world without becoming discouraged?

First, we acknowledge—and keep acknowledging—that lasting social change of any type occurs in increments over long periods of time through the prolonged efforts of many people. This shouldn’t discourage us; this is how it has always been. What does discourage us is when we treat milestone actions as ultimate victories, because then we are doomed to disappointment. When the next bump in the road comes, we think we have failed. 

We need to adjust our attitudes and recognize that a milestone or first commemorable step is a significant action rather than the destination. Actions borne of great effort can be followed by a pause, but the exertion and subsequent rest must be seen within a narrative framework in which additional action is both necessary and assumed. Perhaps if we can see significant moments or events as actions rather than ultimate victories, we can avoid burnout and complacency.

Second, we recognize broad-scale public support and participation more, and mythologize leaders less. Social change narratives are often told as hero’s journeys and as such, focus on the efforts of a key individual actor and make that person into a mythic-like leader or hero. Mythologizing a leader is often done to inspire participation, but it can also weaken social movements. Believing that we have a leader who will save us allows us to deny the necessity of long-term commitment from “normal” people. Treating leaders as special heroes also encourages us to believe that only a few special people are needed to change the world, and that only such special people can change the world.

For example, activist Mohandas Gandhi has long been immortalized for his role in India’s anti-colonial civil disobedience movement. His leadership inspired and coordinated many to peacefully resist British control and create an autonomous India, but the tax boycotts, salt marches, home-spun cloth campaigns, and other means of peaceful resistance achieved their intended success because of the wide-spread involvement of “ordinary” Indians.

Individuals can serve as inspiration and can themselves take significant actions, but the truth is that it is the millions of ordinary people who devote their time and energy to a cause who together create change, not one special person. Narratives that encourage and enable large-scale, sustainable social change must be relationship focused. That is, narratives should recognize and emphasize the importance of the actions of a broad network of actors. Within movements working towards social change, relationships create networks of support, motivation, and accountability.

We must view milestones such as the signing of the Paris Agreement or the election of Barack Obama as actions located within a web of other actions that are brought about through a multitude of relationships. Only then can we begin to build social change journey narratives that recognize the achievement of incremental progress while renewing our commitment to our larger goals and strengthening our relationships with one another.

We’d love to hear your stories of how you have persisted and inspired others to value ongoing participation and incremental progress in long-term social change efforts. Let us know in the comments!

The Narrative and the Story

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Stories are powerful ways to engage people, but they are usually a closed system, that is, they have a beginning, middle and end. This is part of a story’s appeal—the reader or viewer expects that whatever dilemmas the protagonist encounters will eventually be resolved physically or psychologically. Stories provide the reader with a sense of hope and completion—even if their own life feels like a tangled mess.

Stories have narrators, but a narrative is different than a story. A single series of events told by narrators with different perspectives makes each rendition of a story feel very different. The narrator’s perspective and motivations, the order in which events are told, and what events are included and excluded from the story shape the narrative and affect how we interpret the characters and events being described.

Narratives can also encompass multiple stories. Multi-story narratives can often be distilled into a single sentence or phrase, such as “The American Dream” or “Black Lives Matter.” Most importantly for our discussion here, multi-story narratives are often open ended—that is, they do not have a final resolution. 

In a story or story-bound narrative, the reader enters the story-world by identifying or empathizing with the characters or situation. However,  multi-story narratives often include an implicit or explicit invitation for the audience to become personally involved—e.g. to participate– in the narrative and to help determine the outcome of a story propelled by that narrative. For example, “Black Lives Matter” is a declaration about racial injustice, but it’s also a call for the listener to participate in social change.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, narratives can operate at both personal and social/cultural levels. An example of a social narrative is the colonialist narrative that Indigenous peoples were better off being assimilated into the dominant European-derived culture because their native cultures were regarded as inferior. Another example of a social narrative is the American Dream’s promise that in the United States anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough.

Broad cultural narratives can be true, false, or true in some but not all situations, and they always contain a value-laden message designed to drive attitudes and/or behavior. Individual personal narratives include statements that you repeat to yourself to explain behavior and outcomes in multiple situations such as, “I just didn’t work hard enough,” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” “I should have seen it coming,” or “So it goes.” 

Personal narratives that are generalized from incident to incident also contain prescriptive messages that can be helpful, harmful, or both. And, of course, personal narratives are influenced by social narratives, and personal stories and personal narratives can become part of group narratives and gradually alter broad social narratives.

In between social/cultural “master” narratives and individual personal narratives are what can be called “group” or “local” narratives. Local narratives interpret contemporary events in light of master narratives and encourage individuals to align their personal narratives with group and master narratives. Such alignment can be a powerful force for social change and/or extremist zealotry.

In Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, Steven Corman of Arizona State University describes how Islamist extremists used narratives to interpret contemporary events as threats in order to enlist local participation. The extremist narrative was designed to entice Afghan civilians into seeing themselves as defenders of Islam against the international forces assisting the Afghan government, although the international forces were in fact there to provide security against terrorists. The Taliban portrayed international forces as modern-day Crusaders bent on subjugating and exploiting Muslims, and portrayed themselves as champions of ordinary Afghans, in order to encourage Afghans to take up the Taliban’s cause. By encouraging Afghan civilians to align their personal narratives with the Taliban master narrative the Taliban hoped to create the means to expel foreign forces and replace the democratic government with a pro-Taliban Islamic Emirate.

The recently-defeated American President Donald Trump has demonstrated a similar ability to lead a significant percentage of Americans to align their personal frustrations and anger with his narrative. Trump’s social narrative contends that those who disagree with him are “elitists” and socialists who are trying to destroy America. He also claims mainstream journalists who question his misleading statements or false claims are spreading “false news.”

In his narrative trope, the President simultaneously casts himself as the victim of those who challenge his view of himself and as the protector of true patriots. The fact that the President’s policies are often less favorable for his supporters than the policies of the Democrats, and that many of his claims are grounded on implausible or demonstrably false statements is a testament to the power that socially embedded narratives have to drive beliefs and belief systems. People of all political persuasions can interpret facts to fit their narratives rather than change their belief systems to accommodate inconsistent facts. When narratives operate independently of facts or when facts are treated as fuel for a narrative agenda rather than used to test its validity, then prejudice, rigidity of thought, and polarization inevitably follow.

None of us are immune to narratives that are nonsensical or overly simplistic, or not suited to the facts of the situation. What are your personal narratives—those slogans that you find yourself repeating aloud or to yourself?  Where did they come from?  Do these catch-phrases serve you?  Insult you? Or both? Only when narratives arise from a genuine open-minded inquiry into events rather than a pre-determined or pre-loaded interpretation of meaning and motive, do we have a chance to enlarge our understanding of humanity. How do you fight narratives that aren’t supported by facts?  We’d love to hear from you.

Dalinar Kholin: Healing in the Search for Wholeness

This is the second post in a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


In our last post, we introduced the character Dalinar Kohlin in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. Although epic fantasy characters are traditionally expected to follow the Hero’s Journey, Dalinar’s story includes instead multiple cycles of both the Heroine’s and Healing Journeys. As the author Brandon Sanderson notes, “The book [series] started its life many years ago being about a young man who made a good decision. I wrote the entire book that way before realizing I’d done it wrong. So I started over from scratch and had him take the other fork, the more difficult fork. The fork that cast him into some of the worst imaginable circumstances, ground him against the stones of a world where there is no soil or sand on the ground. My goal [has been] to prove to myself, and to him, that the ‘good’ decision was not actually the best one.”

Stormlight Archive author Brandon Sanderson.

This quote speaks to the experiences of more than one character in the series, although we are focusing on Dalinar. Our first post explains how Dalinar’s initial trip through many of the stages of the Heroine’s Journey ends when he learns that the Almighty was long dead, before he finds a sense of wholeness. In the story this realization functions as a betrayal that upends his worldview and sends him on another cycle of the Heroine’s Journey. In Words of Radiance, the second book of the series, Dalinar Prepares for his (second heroine’s) Journey. He believes now more than ever that his purpose is uniting the Highprinces of Alethkar, his nephew’s kingdom. Although the belief that one has a special purpose as a leader is often a Hero’s trait, instead of desiring to become a dominant leader, Dalinar’s mission is to increase a sense of community, fight for the common good, and bring people together.

The Highprinces of Alethkar have been engaging in separate missions against their enemy, the Parshendi, in order to capture gemhearts, which are organic gemstones that harness magical energy. Capturing and possessing gemhearts is a means to increase wealth and prestige, and the missions have become a competition between Highprinces and a distraction from the real fight against the Parshendi. In the first book, Dalinar tried to join Highprinces on these missions to foster cooperation and community. After Sadeas’ betrayal (which is discussed in the first post), Dalinar tries to reduce internal competition by ordering the Highprinces to give all gemhearts to King Elhokar. This is a highly unpopular move that does not help Dalinar’s already failing soft power.

In his first Heroine’s Journey cycle in Book One, Dalinar experienced his Descent when he feared that the visions he had begun having meant that he was going mad. In  the fourth stage of his second Heroine’s Journey cycle, Dalinar fears that he is a tyrant. Others try to reassure him that he is at least a benevolent tyrant and thus better than their currently weak king. Dalinar’s nephew, King Elhokar, is ineffective, young, and paranoid, but he is the rightful heir to the throne, and Dalinar doesn’t believe he has the right to supplant him and act as Alethkar’s leader.  

Depiction of Dalinar’s second journey through Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey cycle.

Dalinar’s Eye of the Storm occurs at the end of book two when he loses a fight with the man who assassinated his brother and accepts that he could not have saved his brother even if he had been sober at the time of his death. This realization helps Dalinar forgive himself for his brother’s death. Around this time, Dalinar also learns that he and three other central characters are Radiants with magical abilities. Their discovery leads the humans to believe that they may be better equipped to face the coming threats than they had feared.

All Is Lost when Dalinar learns that the Parshmen—nonhuman beings who seem to possess little consciousness and are extensively used as slave labor in Alethkar—will change into terrifying powerful creatures when a new, more destructive highstorm arrives. Dalinar’s visions tell him that fighting the oncoming threat is futile. However, Dalinar believes he has options regarding how to move forward since he is a Radiant and has the Support of the other Radiants. Dalinar attempts to gather further support by establishing a coalition with other leaders.

Instead, Dalinar collapses once more when he begins to recover memories that he had chosen to forget. His potential Moment of Truth quickly turns to debilitating Disillusionment that sends him on a Healing Journey and ultimately forces him into a third cycle of the Heroine’s Journey.

Dalinar begins to remember his deceased wife despite the fact that five and a half years ago, he solicited a magical “cure” for his pain that would make him forget her for good. He also begins to remember actions from his past which caused great harm to many others. Dalinar’s entire understanding of who he is changes, and he must once again reorient himself within and without, and face many hard realities that he never properly dealt with.

Dalinar concept art by Benjamin Hill.

Thus far, Dalinar’s Heroine’s Journey has  focused on his attempt to disentangle himself from the mythic lure of the warrior status. However, before Dalinar can continue on the third cycle of his  Heroine’s Journey, he must find a way to confront and forgive himself for his violent past. Although Dalinar is an epic fantasy character, his struggle with his “heroic” (super-masculine) identity, his difficult relationships with his wife and sons, his use of alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms, his reliance on adrenaline and rage, and his struggles to forgive himself for past harms, are painful challenges borne by many of us in real life.

The Hurt that starts Dalinar’s Healing Journey is the death of his wife, eleven years before the start of the first book. Readers do not learn of this until Dalinar begins to recover his memories in the third book.

While still a young warrior, Dalinar was married a foreigner, Evi ,in order to secure a Shardplate and Shardblade (see prior post for description) to aid his country’s expansionary war effort. Evi questioned Dalinar’s bloodlust and violence, and this tension between their worldviews culminated when she visited him at a war camp. She complained that he was so often absent that he did not even know his two young sons (who both adored their father as a legend). Dalinar was deeply affected by her pleas and promised to return home after the battle he was already engaged in. He tried to follow Evi’s advice and end the dispute through diplomacy instead of bloodshed, but when his efforts backfired, he became enraged and burnt the enemy’s city (called the Rift) to the ground. After the Rift was reduced to ruins, Dalinar learned that his wife had furtively snuck into the city in a last ditch effort to secure peace and had been imprisoned, and that by setting fire to the Rift prison, Dalinar had killed his own wife .

Depiction of Dalinar’s first journey through the Healing Journey cycle.

The second stage of the Healing Journey is characterized by fear and hurt as the wounded person tries to absorb and deflect the source of their wound. Dalinar’s Fear and Anger manifest most clearly when Evi’s burned corpse is brought back to the war camp. Dalinar and the few who know the truth tell everyone else that Evi was assassinated and the Rift burned as revenge. Spreading this false story serves their political purposes and allows Dalinar to deny the truth of what he had done. He directs anger at himself for killing Evi and lying about it. Four years after her death, Dalinar is still heavily burdened with grief and shame. He continues to fight in battles and experience the Thrill, but his anger, fear, grief, and shame create constant internal conflict (Stage 3), and he now hates who he is when fighting.

Unable to see a way to resolve his conflicts, Dalinar loses his ability to care for himself or others (Stage 4). He turns to drinking and drugs when he is not fighting and cannot mask his pain with the high of the Thrill. Dalinar tries to delude himself about his reliance on self-numbing and tells himself that his brother is throwing away all his drinks, but it is implied that Dalinar is actually drinking through what he purchases more quickly than he realizes. In a heart-wrenching scene, Dalinar’s young son, Renarin, brings him a small bottle of wine when Dalinar cannot find anything to drink, offering it as a gesture of care for his father. Renarin is too young to understand his father’s destructive drinking habits. Dalinar believes he deserves to be hated and hates his late wife, who he believes has convinced his own sons to hate him. When Renarin explains that Evi and the rest of the world have only good things to say about Dalinar and that they look up to him, Dalinar hates himself even more. He prays for release (eg. Death Wish, Stage 5), not caring what form this release takes.

In Healing Journeys it is often a slight, random, or even tragic event that leads to a small lift in energy that spurs the beginning of lasting change. Dalinar’s brother, Gavilar, is killed while Dalinar is drunk at a party. Dalinar blames himself for failing to protect his brother. But before his death, Gavilar asked his assassin to tell Dalinar to “find the most important words a man can say.” When this message is successfully relayed, it becomes a turning point. At his brother’s funeral, Dalinar makes the Decision to Get Well. He apologizes to his sons for being a poor father and decides to visit the Nightwatcher—a being who possesses Old Magic and is supposed to be able to “change a man.”

Concept art for Cultivation & the Nightwatcher by Ambitions Avatar.

Dalinar goes to the Nightwatcher and asks for forgiveness. Although Dalinar is willing to give up alcohol and bloodlust as “fixes,” he is still looking for someone/thing external to take his pain and guilt away. The Nightwatcher can change men by giving them material possessions, skills, and power (hero’s traits of success). When Dalinar insists on forgiveness instead, Cultivation, who can be understood as goddess of growth and nurture, appears. At first she tells Dalinar that he has gotten what he deserves and is reluctant to offer help. But Dalinar isn’t ready to forgive himself and thus cannot unconditionally love himself.  Eventually, Cultivation says, “I WILL NOT MAKE OF YOU THE MAN YOU CAN BECOME. I WILL NOT GIVE YOU THE APTITUDE, OR THE STRENGTH, NOR WILL I TAKE FROM YOU YOUR COMPULSIONS… BUT I WILL GIVE YOU… A PRUNING. A CAREFUL EXCISION TO LET YOU GROW.”

Cultivation explains that the cost will be to lose all memories of Evi. In his pain and desperation, Dalinar believes that he never deserved Evi to begin with and he accepts the goddess’ offer. Evi becomes a blurry memory. Dalinar cannot remember what she looked like, nor any specific interactions they had. Even her name sounds to Dalinar like mere rushing air when it is spoken out loud by others. Having forgotten all events related to his wife, he accepts the lie that his wife was assassinated and the Rift burned as revenge. Dalinar’s healing journey stalls.

When Dalinar’s memories begin to return five and a half years later, Dalinar begins the second round of his Healing Journey. He remembers his wife’s name, and this memory re-ignites his Hurt. He does not yet recall all the events that led to Evi’s death, but he knows that Evi’s death led to his years as a drunkard and his decision to visit the Nightwatcher. He is confused as to why his memory is now returning since the Nightwatcher’s curse (the exchange for her gift of change) has never been known to disappear before.

Depiction of Dalinar’s second journey through the Healing Journey cycle.

As his memories return, Dalinar must face his Fear and Anger again. He feels like a hypocrite for condemning others who have killed innocents to obtain power when he himself has done the same for less. He hates the popular myth that he fights ruthlessly but with fairness and honesty because he now knows that it has always been a lie. As he Loses Love for Himself and Others once more, he questions how he can live with this returned pain and again expresses a Death Wish. He thinks that if there were any justice in the world, he would have been killed long ago. However, Dalinar now believes that “wishing for ignorance” is “the coward’s route.” Dalinar realizes he cannot return to ignorance and avoidance, even though he does not yet think it possible to face his past.

Meanwhile, Odium, a god of chaos and destruction who has killed other gods, including he Almighty, is now trying to kill Cultivation. Odium describes himself to Dalinar as “emotion incarnate,” and tries to convince Dalinar that he and Odium are not so different. Dalinar begins to believe he is dishonorable and not worthy of being a Radiant. The Alethi capital city falls, the king is killed, and Dalinar recovers his full memory of the destruction of the Rift. All of his coping mechanisms have failed him; he realizes that he never truly overcame the Thrill and the ancient ethical guide, the Way of Kings, no longer comforts him. Dalinar starts drinking heavily again and abandons his leadership of the coalition. 

This time his Lift in Energy is the result of a dream/vision in which he talks with the philosopher author of the Way of Kings, Nohadon. Nohadon gives advice that Dalinar once told someone else, pointing out that a hypocrite is “nothing more than a man who is in the process of changing.” Echoing Dalinar’s brother’s words (to find the most important words a man can say) in a slightly different form, Nohadon encourages Dalinar to search for “the most important step a man can take.” Dalinar again makes a commitment to Get Well.

Dalinar again reaches Stage 8—the Decision to Forgive. His memory of meeting the Nightwatcher and Cultivation returns, helping Dalinar to realize that he must forgive himself, not be forgiven by others or simply ask a higher power for forgiveness. Once Dalinar realizes he must forgive himself, he is finally able to move forward toward Unconditional Love. Dalinar finally claims responsibility for Evi’s death and on the battlefield, he refuses to let Odium take his pain. He reaches Stage 10–Healing and Understanding–when he enters the Thrill and instead of becoming lost within it, thanks the Thrill for giving him strength in the past and leading him to his current understandings. He is able to look back at the man he was when he burned the Rift and say, “I understand you,” and know that that his past self and current self are one person.

On the battlefield, Dalinar faces the Thrill one last time. Concept art by Ashley Coad.

At the end of the third book, Dalinar achieves the final stage of the Healing Journey. He rejects the possibility of being king and begins to learn how to read and write (which is socially taboo for men in his country). Writing becomes a new way to express himself that has nothing to do with violence or bloodshed. Dalinar accepts his pain and responsibility for what he has done. He realizes that he cannot be himself and help those around him if he tries to compartmentalize his experiences and live an existence devoid of pain. With this acceptance, Dalinar faces the uncertainty of the continuing war.

In our next and final post, we will examine Dalinar’s third cycle of the Heroine’s Journey, which occurs concurrently with his second Healing Journey and in which his forgiveness of himself is crucial to forming his new understanding of the world and his place within it.

The Start of a Journey: Dalinar Kholin

This is the first post in a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


A linear journey story is easy to follow and sells well because it satisfies our need for simple, straight-forward solutions, but it often doesn’t accurately translate our life experiences within a complex reality. In our last post, we considered some recent Academy Award Best Picture winners that feature incomplete, unorthodox, or aborted journeys. In this post, we will examine the Stormlight Archive books, an epic fantasy series in which  one of the main characters goes through the stages of the Heroine’s Journey three times and the Healing Journey twice before reaching a satisfying, integrated healing and wholeness. 

The epic fantasy genre is best known for its classic Hero Journeys. Epic fantasy novels and series usually feature vast worlds that differ from Earth and contemporary civilizations in key ways, magic systems, fighting and warfare, and heroes that elevate their kingdom’s status or achieve grand solutions. However, in the Stormlight Archive, author Brandon Sanderson takes the genre built for a Hero’s Journey and twists readers’ expectations by introducing more complex journeys that can speak to the reality we inhabit. The Stormlight Archive series takes place a world called Roshar, which includes a multitude of human kingdoms and the native non-human population, the Parshendi. Many of the main characters come from Alethkar, a kingdom whose territory is divided and ruled by Highprinces. Although the books involve many characters and sub-plots, the series broadly follows the refounding of the Knights Radiant, a mythical group of protectors who guard Roshar from magical destruction. In exploring the human condition, Sanderson places many of the characters under great stress and has them struggle to make sense of past traumas. Here, we will consider only one of the main characters, a man named Dalinar Kholin. Although introduced in the first book of the series—which currently includes The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer—much of Dalinar’s story is not revealed until the third book.

A close up of a map

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A map of Roshar found within the front cover of Oathbringer.

Dalinar Kholin is an unlikely candidate for the Heroine’s Journey. As a young man (before the start of the first novel) he is already a conventional Campbellian hero. He is privileged by his inherited nobility as a Highprince and by being the younger brother of the king, Gavilar. He is also an established and terrifying fighter, known as the “Blackthorn,” who becomes even more powerful and lethal due to his possession of a rare sword called the “Shardblade” that can sever the soul from the body, and of Shardplate, magical armor that enhances his strength and speed. Dalinar’s fighting abilities are also heightened when he is in thrall of the Thrill—the force that many men experience in battle (but rarely explicitly discuss) that gives them a lust for killing and enables them to continue fighting despite their injuries and exhaustion. At the same time, Dalinar is also a tool. He follows his older brother’s orders without question and without understanding his brother’s overall plan. This all changes when his brother, King Gavilar, is assassinated (in the prologue of the first book), leaving his unprepared son as heir in a kingdom intent on vengeance and divided by greed and internal fighting. No longer able to simply wage war when and where his brother tells him to, Dalinar must finally figure out for himself who he is and who he wants to be.

A close up of text on a white background

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Depiction of Dalinar’s first journey through the stages of Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey arc.

Prior to Gavilar’s assassination, Dalinar exists in his Illusion of the Perfect World. As the Blackthorn, Dalinar fits into the world he inhabits, and his skills are exactly what his expanding kingdom wants. This illusion is punctured when Dalinar cannot protect his wife, or later, his brother, and both die violent deaths. Dalinar is disillusioned with the world he thought he knew and his place in that illusionary world. He turns to alcohol when he isn’t fighting and does not have the Thrill, and eventually he does not experience the Thrill on the battlefield. Instead of experiencing glory and hazy euphoria, he sees and feels pain, death, and destruction. Dalinar begins to grapple with is the idea that the valorization of war and high masculinity may bring humanity closer to disaster, not deliverance.

Readers are introduced to Dalinar as he enters step three of the Heroine’s Journey– Preparing for his Journey. He reads the Way of Kings (a philosophical book in Roshar that the first book in the series is named for), and reconnects with an ancient set of honor codes called the Alethi War Codes. He uses these texts as guidance to try to reorient his life away from disorder, selfishness, and gratuitous violence. Dalinar is still seeking knowledge outside himself, but he is trying to find a new way of living that works for him. He is no longer content, nor wants, the heroic warring role he has always had.

Blackthorn concept illustration by Randy Vargas.

Dalinar begins his Stage Four Descent when he starts to receive visions during highstorms. These visions supposedly come from the Almighty (a Roshar near-equivalent to God), and show Dalinar scenes of a forgotten past that can be used to understand current and coming events. The highstorms form an intense weather system that brings brutal storms that can last for hours, but the storms are also a source of life because they refuel the gemstones that Roshar’s inhabitants use to power their societies. Dalinar’s near-epileptic fits during these highstorms undermine his authority as a political and military leader, and even Dalinar becomes unsure of whether he can trust his visions. He seriously considers abdicating his role as Highprince to his son, Adolin. His son, instead, convinces him to find a way to test the veracity of his visions. With the help of Dalinar’s brother’s widow, Navani, they record the visions to determine if they offer valuable insights into the past or if Dalinar is going mad.

Navani realizes that Dalinar’s visions provide the key for translating Dawnchant, an ancient language that no one has been able to decipher. Reassured of his sanity, Dalinar abandons his intentions of abdicating, and enters the Eye of the Storm. In his visions, the voice of the Almighty tells Dalinar that he must “unite them,” which Dalinar initially interprets to mean uniting Alethkar’s highprinces to provide a unified front against their enemy, the Parshendi. The Highprinces have, instead, been competing to see whose attacks on the Parshendi are most successful, and, thus, who is most powerful. Dalinar believes he is beginning to successfully unify the Highprinces when he convinces Highprince Sadeas to commit to a joint attack whose goal is to bring  greater peace and cooperation within the kingdom and to defeat those who assassinated his brother.

However, Sadeas betrays Dalinar, withdrawing his troops from the battle and leaving Dalinar’s troops completely surrounded by the Parshendi to face certain death. Dalinar feels that All is Lost. His new attempts to live honorably have not convinced the other Highprinces to trust and work with him. Dalinar and some of his troops only survive because a runaway soldier enslaved into Sadeas’s army, named Kaladin, Supports Dalinar by saving his life (Stage Seven of the Heroine’s Journey). Taking a stance against the current Alethi culture, Kaladin also supports Dalinar’s decision to not kill his enemy while she is incapacitated. In return, Dalinar promises to free Kaladin from his position as an enslaved soldier in Sadeas’ army.

Sadeas refuses to free Kaladin unless Dalinar gives Sadeas a Shardblade. Sadeas assumes this is a laughable proposal that Dalinar can never accept, since Shardblades are so rare, difficult to obtain, and extraordinarily powerful. Dalinar then experiences a Moment of Truth when he is faced with a difficult moral decision of keeping his word to free Kaladin or protecting his own power/identity.  When he hands over his Shardblade to uphold his promise to Kaladin, Dalinar demonstrates that he cares more about human life and his word than he cares about power, prestige, and public opinion. Although the story could end here with an affirmation of a new world order, instead  Dalinar experiences a new betrayal that completely shakes his worldview and launches him back through the stages of the heroine’s journey a second time; Dalinar learns that the Almighty is dead.

To begin a second journey arc and go deeper, a person or character cannot merely face and conquer a new obstacle or set of obstacles. There must be a new betrayal and disillusionment that causes the person to completely rethink everything they thought they knew or had learned. To go on a new journey, you cannot just patch up the problem or work harder to “fix” it. Most importantly, you cannot just do more of what you’ve been doing. Something new is required. In our own lives we may be about to complete a journey and graduate, get married, have a child, get a job promotion, leave home, or finish a long-standing commitment. Then something else occurs that prevents us from completing that journey, which upends our understanding of the world and our place in it. In Dalinar’s case this happens when he learns that the Almighty no longer exists.

The Stormlight Archive: the Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer.

The Almighty has been the external embodiment of a larger moral code and world order. When Dalinar learns that the Almighty can be, and has been, killed, Dalinar questions the source of morality. Instead of being able to rely on external wisdom for how to best live his life, Dalinar must find his own wisdom. In our next post, we’ll show how Dalinar moves through the Heroine’s Journey a second time and then undertakes a Healing Journey in order to find healing and wholeness.

Three “Best Picture” Films That Subvert Conventional Journey Arcs

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Now that over one third of the world has been ordered to stay at home unless they are working in essential services, people are watching a lot of movies. So, we thought this would be a good time to update the Heroine’s Journey Project Drama and Film page and to offer our thoughts on three recent Academy Award winning films, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and Parasite, that challenge conventional journey arcs.

The 2016 Best Picture winner is a three-part coming-of-age drama about Chiron, an African American boy in Miami, Florida who wrestles with bullying over his sexuality and with a pervasive drug culture neighborhood. Chiron in Part I of Moonlight

 

In Part 1, a Cuban drug dealer finds Chiron, who has been dubbed “Little,” hiding from a group of bullies in a crack house. The drug dealer, Juan, takes Chiron to his own house where he and Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, make up a spare bed for Chiron.  When Juan returns Chiron to his mother the next morning, Chiron’s mother, Paula, punishes the boy for worrying her although she is an addict and often out later herself. Juan and Chiron continue to spend time with each other and Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. When Juan sees Paula smoking crack with one of his customers, he berates her for being addicted and neglecting her son.  Paula lashes back at Juan for having sold her crack in the first place. She suggests she knows why Chiron is bullied by his peers, saying he walks like a girl. The next day Chiron tells Juan and Teresa that he hates his mother and asks what “faggot” means. In a surprising departure from machismo, Juan describes it as “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” He tell Chiron that it’s okay to be gay and that he shouldn’t let others bother him. Chiron asks Juan whether he’s really a drug dealer and leaves when Juan answers truthfully.  In short, in Part I, the film evokes and shatters masculine stereotypes, mixing objectification (Juan vis a vis his customers) with sympathy (for Chiron), indifference (Juan’s attitude as a crack dealer) with tenderness (for Chiron and Teresa), denial and bravado (in drug dealing scenes) with perspective and sociological imagination (Juan on the beach with Chiron).

Moonlight iijpg

In Part II of the film, the plot seesaws between increasing cruelty and powerless good intentions. Juan has died and the teen-aged Chiron spends his time trying to escape bullying at school and with Juan’s nurturing former girlfriend, Teresa. Chiron’s mother’s crack addiction progresses and she more openly abuses Chiron, begging and threatening him for money for a fix.  A classmate, Kevin, is Chiron’s only friend. One night Kevin sees Chiron at the beach, and they smoke a joint let down their defenses, talk, and then kiss. Kevin masturbates a shy Chiron. The next day the leader of the school bullies threatens Chiron, and Kevin is manipulated into punching Chiron, believing that this will save Chiron from a worse fate. When Chiron refuses to surrender to Kevin’s punching the gang beats up Kevin. The next day an enraged Chiron smashes a chair over the bully’s head. The police arrive, and Chiron is sent to a juvenile hall. Rather than meeting and succeeding at increasing difficult obstacles as would happen in a hero’s journey, Chiron is caught in  downward spiral in which neither he, nor sympathetic others, can protect him.

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In Part III, machismo faces off against emotional connection and reality. Chiron, now a much larger, muscular adult, goes by the nickname of “Black.” After being released from prison, he becomes a drug dealer in Atlanta.  His mother, much the worse for wear, now lives in a treatment center. One day he receives a call from his old friend Kevin who invites him to visit if Chiron is ever in Miami.  Chiron visits his mother and tells her he is dealing drugs. His mother expresses regret and apologizes for not loving him when he needed it most and tells him she loves him even if he does not love her back. Later Chiron drives to Miami to visit Kevin, who now works as a cook at a diner. Kevin tells him he has a child by an ex-girlfriend and although the relationship is over, he enjoys acting as a father. When Kevin asks him about his life, Chiron is silent. Chiron asks Kevin why he called and Kevin plays a song on the juke box that he says reminds him of Chiron. After Kevin serves him dinner, they return to Kevin’s apartment.  Kevin tells Chiron he is happy although his life didn’t turn out as he had thought. Chiron then breaks down and admits that he hasn’t been intimate with anybody since their encounter years earlier. Kevin comforts him and they embrace. Although the could suggest a happy ending, the film rejects the easy ending. Instead, the film closes with a flashback of young Chrion standing, alone, on a beach looking at the ocean where Juan taught him to swim, and where, later, he and Kevin would kiss. The beach may signify that it is still possible for Chiron to choose again, to envision a different future, but he is standing alone. There’s no suggestion that such change would be glamorous, quick, or easy.

 

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Shape of Water, the 2017 Best Picture winner, is a dark fantasy about a mute young female cleaner, Elisa Esposito, who works at a high security government laboratory where she falls in love with a humanoid-like amphibian creature.

Elisa, who was found abandoned by the side of a river with wounds on her neck as a child, communicates through sign language. In the laboratory she begins to visit the Amphibian Man and non-verbally communicates with him. When she learns that his keepers (an American researcher and a Soviet spy posing as a researcher) plan to harm the Amphibian Man, she persuades her next door neighbor to help her save the creature. They plan to release him back into the ocean, but Elisa must bring him to her apartment until it rains and the canal that leads to the ocean is open. Various complications and a somewhat bizarre sex scene (unless one views the film as metaphor) ensue, and viewers discover that the Amphibian Man has magical healing powers. The laboratory researchers discover the Amphibian man is missing and chase Elisa and her neighbor to the canal where they are about to release the Amphibian Man. The lab researchers shoot the Amphibian Man and Elisa, but he is able to heal himself in time to slash the shooter’s throat and jump into the canal with Elisa. Underwater, the scars on Elisa’s neck open to gills, and Elisa and the Amphibian Man embrace.

In the voice-over narration, the next door neighbor states that he believes Elisa and the Amphibian Man lived “happily ever after in love.” Because the neighbor can’t really know what happens after Elisa and the creature sink into the ocean,  the story can be interpreted as a hero’s journey in which two misfits find themselves and have a “happily-ever-after” conclusion, or as Elisa dying while trying to save a “creature” that will never be accepted in the world, or as Elisa and the creature attempting to flee (successfully or unsuccessfully) a world into which they will never fit. As a fairy tale, The Shape of Water follows the conventional hero’s journey arc. To the extent that one views the film as metaphor, the story can also be interpreted as a heroine’s journey metaphor in which Elisa is pursuing wholeness whether one interprets the Amphibian Man as an aspect of Elisa (and following Maureen Murdock’s heroine’s journey arc) or as a separate outcast who supports rebirth of Elisa’s true full creature self (Victoria’s Schmidt’s heroine’s journey arc).

Parasite cast
 

Parasite, the 2019 winner and first non-English language film to win Best Picture, is a dark “thriller” directed by Bong Joon-ho (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won).  The movie follows the lives of a poor South Korean family of four, the Kim Family, who live in a small basement apartment and are trying to survive on low-paying temporary jobs. A friend of the twentyish- year-old son, Ki-woo, suggests that Ki-woo take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family.  Once he is hired as tutor, Ki-woo sees additional opportunities that could come from working for the Parks. He helps his sister, Ki-jeong, pose as an art therapist to secure a job as counselor for the Parks’ hyper-active son. Ki-jeong then gets the Parks’ chauffeur fired, and the Kims’ father takes over as the new chauffeur. They then get Parks’ housekeeper’ fired, and the mother becomes the new housekeeper. Although the Kims’ rise in fortune looks something like a Hero’s journey and they sporadically see themselves in that light, the father continually disavows any plan or vision of sustained success.

Sure enough, when the Parks go on a camping trip and the Kim family assembles in the Park’s home to revel in the luxuries of the mansion, the former housekeeper returns and reveals that her husband has been living in a secret bunker below the house built by the prior owner. The original housekeeper and her husband’s deception are eerily similar to the the Kims’ who keep their own family basement living arrangements a secret from the Parks. After bad weather disrupts the camping trip, the Parks return home early and a melee breaks out in the Parks’ house. After several more plot turns in which a member of the Parks family, the Kim family, and the original staff’s family are killed, the movie ends in the Kims’ basement apartment where the son, Ki-woo, is writing a letter to his father, vowing to earn enough money to purchase the Park’s house, set him free, and reunite the family. Although the actor who played Ki-woo has suggested in interviews that he believes this could happen,images

Parasite’s director has stated that he believes Ki-woo’s dream is only a fantasy and that the story’s characters end up where they started.  Each family is “parasitically” dependent on the other as they focus on getting ahead; each family loses some of its members but gets nowhere. There is no economic/class journey arc because both families end up where they started (minus a member) and no one seems the wiser for having lived their story. The beauty of Parasite, is that it takes our natural (or at least conventional) inclination to expect that the story will become a Hero’s Journey (underdog wins) or a cathartic Tragedy (greedy characters get what they deserve) and teases and then frustrates our expectations while provoking us to reckon with class inelasticity both literally and metaphorically.

Although the majority of the winning films follow the Hero’s Journey pattern, there has been a significant increase in Heroine Journey films in recent years. More recently, film makers have also gravitated toward making movies that involve ambiguous journeys (The Shape of Water) or resist concluding a journey arc (Moonlight and Parasite). We believe this trend is based on an increasing recognition of the complexity of an interconnected global world and the legitimacy of multiple perspectives. We’d love to hear from our blog readers on what films you have been watching that follow a Heroine’s Journey, include multiple journeys, or provide variations on a journey arc as a meta-statement on the content of the movie.

Social Context and the Sociological Imagination in Our Real Life Journeys

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


How do our journeys interact with others’ journeys and larger world forces?  In this post we examine the role of social context and social awareness in a protagonist’s consciousness, decision-making, and journey—a topic that is particularly relevant to these times of a pandemic, a time in which we are acutely aware of how we affect and are affected by others, and a time when we are watching to see how other communities across the globe are handling situations which may be on our doorstep  tomorrow.

In the middle-grade novel, “The Lions of Little Rock,” Kristin Levine tells the story of racial school segregation in Arkansas in the late 1950s. Twelve-year-old Marlee is quiet and shy before she meets Liz, who helps Marlee become more confident as their friendship grows. When Liz disappears from school without warning, Marlee learns that Liz was removed from the all-White school because she was actually a Black girl “passing” as White. Marlee begins to talk to people and learn more about the social context she is growing up in. Her own parents don’t agree on racial segregation, and as these tensions grow within her own home, Marlee also sees them grow within the community. Marlee comes to understand how her relationship with Liz and Liz’s experiences are not unique. She realizes that their experiences are not fully within their control—and not only because they are children. Marlee joins integration efforts, but is unable to prevent a bombing attack on the home of a Black family. She is ignored by the police, but ultimately supported by her family. She fights to defend her relationship with Liz, but ultimately cannot stop them from being torn apart when Liz’s family moves away. She better understands her privileges and her friend’s hardships. She repeatedly takes action and discovers new communities but she also sees how her actions are not able to bring about the societal changes she wants—no matter how determined and passionate she is. By the end of the book, Marlee has developed a social awareness and has a deeper understanding of the interplay between her individual actions and experiences, and the larger forces beyond her control in the world. 

 “The Lions of Little Rock” illustrates how unrealistic it is to force complex real-world situations into the Hero’s Journey myth structure. It is unrealistic because in the real world, individual actions are embedded within a larger environment that is not susceptible to quick change for the better. The Hero’s Journey emphasizes the supreme power of individual agency (or of a group acting as one) rather than the complexity of interconnected personal and collective struggles. In many—if not most—hero’s journey stories, the hero solves their own problems through personal effort and brings about decisive changes to their world or community. The hero does not see how they are deeply embedded within a social context but see themselves as outside of and above it. For example, in Wonder Woman, in the course of completing her own journey, Diana also ends World War II and secures victory for the Allies. But such decisive, sweeping changes are rarely, if ever, possible in the real world.

In the late 1950s, the same time period described in “The Lions of Little Rock,” American sociologist C. Wright Mills articulated what he called the “sociological imagination.” Mills believed that people would feel less helpless and more empowered if they could recognize the societal and structural causes that shape their individual personal experiences. Mills suggested that people often feel stuck in their daily lives because they do not recognize how their personal troubles connect to and are part of larger public issues.

For instance, one person may feel like their fear of getting sick is a personal trouble because they know they cannot afford treatment and because if they miss work, they will not be able to buy food for their family. However, when a significant percentage of the population worries that they cannot afford to miss work or pay for treatment, each experience is part of a larger public issue. Moreover, each person who cannot afford treatment and continues to work while sick may inadvertently infect others. Thus, one person’s health options and decisions impact and are impacted by larger economic and societal factors that are beyond their individual merit, fault, or control.

The sociological imagination is most often discussed in the context of people who are at the bottom of social structures, but it can shed light on the experiences of those in advantaged positions as well. In the simple but powerful article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, author Peggy McIntosh lists forty-seven ways in which White people benefit from their privilege as members of a dominant group in society. McIntosh identifies experiences such as: “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” and “I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.” Such advantages are often considered to be “the norm,” which make them invisible to the people who benefit from them. By drawing explicit attention to everyday White privileges, McIntosh encourages members of dominant groups to examine their role in a racially (or otherwise) divided society.

As Mills points out, recognizing privileges and disadvantages can enable us to see what seem like personal shortcomings in a larger context so that collective responses can be developed to alter circumstances through structural change. When this is not possible within the desired time frame, seeing your own experience, and others’ experiences, in a larger context, promotes empathy towards others and towards yourself. Such empathy enables meaningful changes to take place at a local level and may also bring about imperceptible but cumulative changes in the larger world.

The sociological imagination usually plays a key role in a Heroine’s Journey story. The heroine works to integrate their understanding of themselves (including their values and social position) with a world that is not of their making. The very idea of wrestling with “the feminine” and “the masculine” requires one to examine the intersection between one’s own life experience and the roles and expectations ingrained in the larger culture. In order to heal, the heroine must come to understand how masculinity/masculine values and femininity/feminine values are defined by the culture, and what role those attributes play in the heroine’s own self-definition.

The sociological imagination also frequently plays an important role in a Journey of Integrity. In this journey, the individual frequently must make a decision that involves weighing personal interests against his or her ethical values on taking action to benefit the larger world. See our post on Marie Jovanovich’s decision to testify before Congress during the U.S. Impeachment hearings. The weighing process requires the protagonist to consider how their personal experiences and actions relate to and are part of larger realities.

The sociological imagination can also be a part of a Healing Journey. For example, a story about opioid addiction could address the role doctors and pharmaceutical companies play in making opioids seem less addictive than they are, or in making them the first rather than last response to chronic pain. This recognition may be important to the healing person to prevent him or her from feeling that their addiction is just a personal weakness, or to help them to work through their denial, shame, or prejudices for being someone “like that.” Of course, someone struggling to overcome an opioid addition could also formulate their story without significant attention to the larger societal structures that play a role in access to opioids and treatment availability.

The Coronavirus pandemic is shining a spotlight on the ways in which our individual and systemic vulnerabilities and our responses affect individuals, organizations, governments, countries, and the world. Some journey stories do not include any attention to the role of social context. However, a sustained sense of Wholeness is not possible without attention to context because context is part of the Whole, and each part affects the other parts and the Whole. Context is not static, nor is wholeness. As our context changes around us, and as we ourselves change, so too must our understanding of wholeness grow.

Harriet Tubman’s Storied Journeys

written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson


Araminta “Minty” Ross, born into slavery in 1820, flees her plantation in Dorchester, Maryland and somehow manages to make her way 100 miles on foot to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she takes the free name that we know her by today—Harriet Tubman. 

Tubman’s life as an agent for the Underground Railroad is the subject of the Academy Award nominated movie, Harriet, and she also has a key role in Ta -Nehisi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, which tells the story of a young man with a similar background and talent who also becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad.harrietdirector

Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo, tells Tubman’s life story as a fairly classic Hero’s Journey. As a girl and young woman, Minty Ross watches several of her sisters being sold to far away slave owners and being taken from her and the rest of her family. She marries a free African American, John Tubman, and obtains legal documents that confirm that her mother’s previous owner granted her children freedom—only to have her current plantation owner rip up the documents. Cynthia Eviro as Harriet TubmanUnable to bear a lifetime of enslavement, she flees north on foot (leaving her husband behind because she does not want to endanger his free status) and makes it to Philadelphia, a “free” state. Tubman joins the Underground Railroad and repeatedly risks her life to bring hundreds of black slaves to freedom even after her former owner places a large bounty on her head. Her ability to guide so many runaway slaves to freedom earns her the nickname, “Moses.” How does an actual person, rather than a mythical god or cartoon character pull this off?harriet-1563893309

 

Although the movie focuses almost exclusively on Tubman’s near magical successes, it provides a few hints on how a real person could become Harriet Tubman. When Tubman returns to Maryland after becoming a free woman, she discovers that her husband had presumed her dead and is now wed to another woman who is pregnant with his child. Tubman leaves him to his new family and now, single and childless, can take life-threatening risks without being psychologically torn apart by conflicting maternal loyalties and obligations. From the time that she gives up on her husband and marriage, Tubman is portrayed as being more devoted to freeing slaves than to personal relationships. 

Tubman is also depicted as having extraordinarily strong faith and intuition that manifests as spiritual visions and premonitions that forewarn her of imminent danger. Although the exact nature and origin of her visions is not explained (she is religious and also had a severe head injury as an adolescent), they seem to have given Tubman a combination of intuition and decisiveness that led others to trust her in the face of formidable odds. In the movie, her former master’s mother declares that she wants Harriet caught so she can be burned alive at the stake, “like Joan of Arc”—another well-known vision-driven crusader. HarrietFeat

A final element that may explain Tubman’s intense focus is suggested in a short scene in which Tubman is shown in a stately Philadelphia home, crying while working as a domestic alongside another maid who looks at her quizzically. It’s not hard to imagine that, having risked her life multiple times and survived a perilous solo escape to Pennsylvania, Tubman would not be satisfied with a “free” life of making beds for a wealthy white family. But what can an illiterate runaway slave without any family do?  Tubman decides to become a freedom fighter.

At the end of the movie we are told that Tubman went on to become a spy for the Union Army and the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. In her later years, she worked for women’s suffrage and started a rest home for former slaves. She lived to be ninety-one.

Harriet TubmanAlthough the movie follows a Hero’s Journey narrative arc, I suspect that Tubman’s lived experience was at least as much a heroine’s journey  as hero’s journey. Her headaches, trances and visions were likely the result of the severe head injury she suffered when a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave and hit her by mistake. She suffered from epileptic-like seizures and hypersomnia—the inability to maintain normal consciousness during waking hours—for most of her adult life. Perhaps the adrenaline produced by being in terrific danger played a role in helping her feel alive and engaged after her head injury.

PBLA2A-00003Tubman was periodically recognized for her contributions to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War as a spy, nurse, scout, strategic advisor, and troop leader. However, she never received any pay for her work in the war and was denied veteran’s compensation for many years. After being heralded by newspapers for her work in the war, she was accosted by a train conductor while riding back to New York, where her parents lived, and was instructed to move to the less desirable smoking car. She produced government papers entitling her to ride in the car she was in and refused to move, whereupon the conductor enlisted several other passengers to help him force her to move, breaking her arm in the process. Most of her life, Tubman was penniless or nearly so, and what money she had was often spent providing food to the boarders who had even less than she did.

The movie, Harriet, depicts many of the amazing feats this determined woman accomplished. I look forward to another telling that shows the complexity of strategies Tubman used to persevere through her many challenges, hard times,  tough decisions, physical and emotional stresses, simple pleasures, and heartbreaks. I would welcome another story that depicts the myriad of ways Harriet Tubman helped herself and others who once were counted as only 3/5 people to believe and experience themselves as whole.

In Ta-Neshi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, The Water Dancerprotagonist Hiram Walker is portrayed as a male soul-kin to Harriet Tubman. Both were born slaves and both have similar talents for feats of miraculous transportation. In the magical realism of the novel, this talent is referred to as “conduction”—the ability to move people “magically” from one place to another based on the strength of the conductor’s desire and memory. Coates portrays Tubman as a mythical figure who appears and disappears and reappears at important moments. Hiram Walker, her psychic kin, is much more humanized and his story allows Coates to explore the psychological implications of post-freedom identity and purpose. Walker, too, becomes a daring agent for the Underground Railroad and much of the book leans toward a hero’s journey until he must confront how to integrate his family and community ties into his quest to fight slavery and re-connect families separated by it. I believe The Water Dancer is ultimately more of a heroine’s journey than a hero’s journey.

And, of course, the struggle continues.unnamed

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Water Dancer


Where the Story Begins

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


In our last blog, we discussed the role of the ending of a journey story. In this post, we’ll show that where and how a journey story begins can be equally important.

A journey story does not always start at the beginning of the journey. Sometimes, as in Barbara Leckie’s short story, “Kicking the Stone,” the beginning of the journey is revealed later in the story through flashbacks or character narration.

The opening of a story must hook the reader, so many journey stories begin with a moment of conflict or danger. In a hero’s journey story, the first stage occurs in the “ordinary world,” yet the story often open right at the precipice of the call to the adventure. This is particularly true when the “ordinary world” is routine for the character but new and intriguing to the reader. For example, in The Hobbit, the reader or viewer has barely learned what hobbits are when Gandalf arrives to invite Bilbo on an adventure. In the opening of a hero’s journey, the hero is often portrayed as being like everyone else at the beginning of the story—a quiet hobbit smoking a pipe outside his home as he has done many an afternoon.

But there are almost immediately hints that something greater and unusual (and usually dangerous) is about to happen. The reader quickly understands that the hero will not remain ordinary for long.

In a heroine’s journey, the story may begin with the betrayal (which hooks the reader). Alternatively, the heroine may be presented in a world they are expected to belong in, but the heroine is internally or externally at odds  with this world. At the opening of the story the heroine may be at the point of trying new life strategies, and/or nearly ready to leave where they are. For example, the first act of the play, I Want to Go to Jail, opens with the main characters deciding to try a new picketing tactic because they are not satisfied with the results they have achieved thus far in their attempts to convince the country to grant women the right to vote. The fight for female suffrage in America did not begin where the play opens, but playwrights Pam Swing and Elizabeth Dabanka begin the journey of the play at a time when the suffragists are ready to separate from the more feminine tactics they have been using to try to win the vote.

Stories do not have a single “objective” place or moment where they must begin or end. We live in an interconnected world where actions lead to and impact multiple other actions, where every experience and event has multiple causes and consequences extending through time in different directions, involving ramifications we cannot fully see or appreciate. A storyteller’s task is not to tell the definitive story of a person or event, but a story that may increase the listener’s understanding or appreciation of some aspect of another person and/or of the world. The place where the storyteller chooses to begin the story shapes our understanding of the meaning of the narrative.

In the recently re-issued collection of essays on social movements, Hope in the Dark, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit, the author challenges us to re-envision where stories—even the stories of our own lives—begin. As the informal storytellers of our own world, we tend to see big, hard-to-miss, events such as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or the 2008 economic crash, as concrete moments that “changed everything” and started a new story or era. In Hope in the Dark, Solnit asks us to consider whether the “new era” really began with an explosion, or whether the beginning of this new way of life actually started quietly at an earlier time.

As informal storytellers, we live our history as we make it. We are constantly narrating our lives and our perception of the world to ourselves and those around us. Because of this, we tend to view the “end” or outcome of a story as the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Our current actions will shape the lives of those who come after us, but we can’t clearly look back from the future–we only know how the story “ends” now. We describe our current situation as the result of what has come before. Thus, we shape our narratives by look “backwards” towards “the beginning” and then telling it forward to the present moment.

Our understanding of ourselves and our reality changes if we simply consider that the story might begin somewhere other than where we assumes it does. Too often, history is written by and for the victors to glorify and validate their actions. A dominant person or group will start the story in a place that diminishes the experiences and achievements of “outsiders.” Dominant groups and people structure their narrative, consciously or unconsciously, to reaffirm their power.

Solnit suggests that if you feel trapped by lack of progress or by failure in the present moment, you should look back further for the “beginning” of the story.  “[I]ncremental changes have happened quietly, and many people don’t know they have begun, let alone exploded.” “The powerful would like you to believe [their story] is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable,” writes Solnit.

“[A]nd lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view…. For a time, people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first world cities.”

What story might you understand differently by beginning in a new place?


Where the Story Ends

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


One of the questions we are most frequently asked by our readers and workshop participants is “How do you know where a story ends?”

Where to end a story is one of the most important decisions a storyteller makes. A story ends when a central character finds what they are looking for—even if it wasn’t what they thought they set out to find—or finds what they didn’t know they were looking for.

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Where and how a teller ends (and begins) a story frequently determines whether the story is a hero’s journey, heroine’s journey, or other journey story. The ending can be even more important than the nature of the events being described. For example, if you tell the story of Joan of Arc and end with her leading the French to an unlikely victory over the English at Orleans, the story would likely be a hero’s journey. If the story then continues through her capture and trial for witchcraft—depending on the perspective—it could be a hero’s journey (Joan as martyr) or a heroine’s journey (Joan seeking understanding and serenity in the face of a rigged trial). If the storyteller then reflects on Joan’s life and meaning from the present day, the story could be a hero’s journey characterizing Joan as an inspiring icon to generations of women and the French following her death. It could also be a heroine’s journey that reflects on recent theories regarding Joan’s mental health, or on the differences in how passionate male and female leaders are treated. Or it could be a Journey of Integrity, in which the narrator reflects on Joan’s decision-making process through the lens of victory, defeat, and the years since her death.

The Hero’s Journey ends when the hero finds success or the ultimate boon. He has achieved his goal, returns to his society, and/or is recognized by his peers as having achieved success. The hero is a master of two worlds—the inner world which makes him a good leader/hero and the outer world which allows him to be a leader or proclaims him a hero.

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The hero’s journey also ends with the implication that the hero’s success won’t be snatched away any time soon. It’s a kind of happily-ever after ending. If a sequel is anticipated, perhaps the hero’s success will lead to other complications that provide the chance for a new hero’s journey, but the success won’t be undone—at least not for that hero. If the success is undone, the former hero tends to become a supporting character (no longer the main character). They may become a wise elder or a mentor who urges the hero of the next generation to reclaim, recapture, or make additional progress on a larger problem that wasn’t anticipated when the first success was achieved.

In a hero’s journey, there is always the sense that success is right around the corner. Their journey is not envisioned as a long, imperfect struggle that will continue forever. The hero’s agency—his or her ability to bring about change—is central to the hero’s journey arc, so the journey usually ends shortly after the hero accomplishes their final feat and/or their victory/ability is hailed by others.

In a heroine’s journey, the story ends when the heroine recognizes and experiences wholeness. Life includes both success and failure, vulnerability and ability, self and others, and a larger world. The heroine’s self is not necessarily dominant or foregrounded, even over long periods of time. The heroine’s final goal is not to defeat or dismiss vulnerability, or failure, or sadness, or pain, or self, or others. Their goal is to integrate and value all these as necessary and valuable aspects of the human experience. It is rare that this experience of wholeness is solely an internal realization; a non-dual world is also manifested in the events of the story. It may be tempting to try to view wholeness as a resolution to a story in which the unpleasant aspects of life are part of the past but not the present, or new understanding will eliminate future suffering—but that is a hero’s journey.

Several of our readers have wondered if the heroine’s journey is more depressing than a hero’s journey. Many heroine journey stories have heartwarming or uplifting endings. For example, in the play about the women’s suffrage movement, I Want to Go to Jail, the story ends with a celebratory moment after a group political action. However, the main characters and the audience (which has the benefit of hindsight) understand that more action will be required before women are able to vote.National Womens' Party picketing

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Another example of a heroine’s journey that ends on a positive note is the 2018 movie, The Green Book, which tells the story of an African American pianist traveling through the American south in the early 1960’s with an Italian-American bouncer who serves as his bodyguard. The story has a heartwarming ending when the jazz pianist drives through the night so that the bodyguard can get home for Christmas. The jazz pianist is then is welcomed into their home, but it remains clear that the pervasive racism that has followed the pianist throughout his tour has been neither “solved” nor “conquered.” The odd-couple main characters have grown personally and relationally within the racist societal backdrop. The heroine’s journey doesn’t end with a sense of a “once-and-for-all” victory.

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The end of the Healing Journey revolves around forgiving the self and sometimes others for not being able to control even one thing that you feel you most need to control. In this journey, the protagonist’s rage against the wound is at the center of the story. This may also appear as the apparent unfairness of an injury/illness, or the protagonist feeling overwhelmed by the cards they have been dealt. The protagonist often tries at first to solve their dilemma with a hero’s journey approach. For example, she might imagine that if she fights her illness hard enough, she will be healed, or that if she just accepts her illness instead, the conflict within will be resolved and she will get better. The hero’s journey promises that you can get well. The heroine’s journey involves finding compassion for one’s self and others whether or not you recover. The Healing Journey usually involves a point of absolute break-down, where the injured one wants to quit, and possibly die. Then there is a moment or experience of beauty that surprises them, and allows for a shift in perspective, a shaft of light to enter their consciousness. Sometimes they give up trying to control, sometimes they give up magical thinking, sometimes they give up, giving up—the action can vary. What is important is that the protagonist forgives him/herself and an imperfect world.

A Journey of Integrity involves both the protagonist action and awareness (culminating in the moment of integrity), and also the witness/viewers’ awareness of and reflection on the meaning of the protagonist’s action. These stories may end with the protagonist returning to ordinary action in the ordinary world, but they also often jump forward in time or expand geographically so that the narrator or audience can see and comment upon the protagonist’s action within a larger context.

Readers and listeners always evaluate the meaning of a story through the lens of its ending. No story has a single, objective endpoint. As storytellers, we shape the readers’ experiences and the meaning of a story through the endings that we choose.

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In our next post we will discuss how the storyteller’s choice in where to begin a story affects the journey.