Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
I believe that the Seeker’s Journey may begin, or we may veer toward a new heading, when we bump up against the limits of our imaginations. I’ve always been told (and have believed) that I have been blessed and cursed with a “good imagination.” Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to prove I could actualize what my mind imagines is possible in the face of those who have wanted me to quit, “to be more realistic” or reduce my goals unless a successful outcome is relatively certain. And I have not always been a big fan of failure.
And yet…. In every creative project, I hit the wall.
That place where nothing is working, or rather, I am struggling with something that isn’t working the way I want it to, or it doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t know what to do to make it feel right. I’ve spent a lot of time believing that I wasn’t good enough, or that I wasn’t trying hard enough, or that I am stupid, or there is something else wrong with me. And, if I can just figure out what is wrong with me and fix it, then my work, my journey, and my life will proceed smoothly. But I can never fix what I assume, in these moments, must be wrong with me, so, eventually, I turn back to the problem at hand and muddle along.
Although we commonly assume that our senses’ and mind’s job is to enable us to accurately perceive reality, psychologist Dennis Proffit of the University of Virginia, and cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman of the University of California Irvine, remind us that what we see, hear, and feel is largely determined by our automatic, pre-conscious, moment-to-moment assessments of the actions that our surroundings are prompting us to take. When we are looking for a book, we focus on the titles and don’t notice the color of the carpet or the paint condition of the shelf unless they are somehow related to finding the desired book.
Once the book has been found, or the hunt abandoned, we then go on to perceive and focus and store in memory other things related to what we plan to do next, or the things that are integral to the reason we sought the book.
The reality is, there are always more problems and sub-problems than we have the answers for. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We hit the limits of our imagination, not because we are stupid, or ignorant, or naïve, but because that’s how our brains are built. We couldn’t function if everything we perceive, remember, or intuit about the environment, ourselves, and those with whom we are interacting had to be held in working memory or accessible consciousness. Our brains aren’t able to handle that much interacting information, nor did we evolve to do so.
Similarly, when we day dream or think about our life, or career, or a relationship, or a project, we can’t know all the details, nor process all that will be required in the future as we proceed on our journey (or journeys). We also can’t account for everything that could possibly affect us, our environment, our journey, the ones we love, and the world. They are all interconnected, so the solution is not to decide that we are only going to focus on the world instead of those close to us, or that we will focus only on ourselves instead of the world. Thus, no matter how smart, or creative, or driven, or limited we are, if we are present to the world and ourselves, we will hit the end of the known world. That blankness or darkness, which feels so uncomfortable (or worse), is the prompt that tells us to continue seeking.
The Seeker’s Journey may be the most profound journey (but not the only, or most pleasant journey in all moments) that we can take. The word profound comes from the Latin “pro” meaning forth and “fundus” meaning bottom, or coming from the very bottom. The Seeker’s Journey is our most profound journey because it is a physiological imperative that we face (or avoid). The seeking impulse is part of our nature, without regard to cultural constraints or institutional, religious, or political oppression, although these can be a major concern of a Seeker’s Journey. Our brains and bodies are magnificent and limited, and we are constantly asking our senses and minds to simultaneously focus on the subjects of our concern, our relationships, the world, and ourselves, and all of these are constantly and interactively changing.
To be a seeker is to meet the unknown at the edge our known reality, and to do this consciously and willingly without disrespect for what we already are and have done. The Seeker’s Journey often calls upon us to change course, not because we were misguided before, but because what was suitable previously may not fit with what we understand ourselves and our world to be now. The reward for changing course, or wholeheartedly making the journey, may not be material success, or external approval, or permanent anything– the Seeker’s reward is the felt miracle of being alive.
In an upcoming blog, we will explore the role and mechanism of transformation in The Seeker’s Journey.
Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
“Dalinar’s sense of wholeness may be challenged again as his reality changes, his sense of self changes, and he must recalibrate his worldview. This future wholeness that Dalinar may find will not negate the validity or meaningfulness of the sense of wholeness he has found at the end of book three. Neither context nor wholeness is static. As our context changes, and we ourselves grow and change, so too must our understanding of wholeness evolve.”
– Dalinar’s Wholeness: “Journey Before Destination”
These are the concluding words to the final post that I wrote last year about the fictional character Dalinar and his narrative arc(s) in Brandon Sanderson’s series, The Way of Kings (see also parts one and two). Consistent with the Heroine’s Journey, Dalinar had developed a sense of wholeness by the end of his narrative journey at the end of book three (which, at the time, was the most recent book in the series). However, Dalinar had gone through nearly three complete iterations of the Heroine’s Journey, and two of the Healing Journey, before he was able to reach this point. As a prominent character and narrator, it struck me as unlikely that he could continue through future books unscathed. Surely something new would happen in future books to once again challenge how Dalinar understands himself and the world he lives in.
Dalinar’s many struggles and his complex, non-linear journey towards health and wholeness in the first three books of the series exemplify the obvious that we frequently overlook: life—and life rendered semi-faithfully in literature—is never static. Often, life is not even stable for very long. The past year and a half have given many of us a harsh reminder that even if we reach a sense of wholeness, dramatic changes in our circumstances can require additional journeying.
As I wrapped up the Dalinar blog series in the midst of lockdown, and as events in my own life consistently caused me to question what I thought I knew, I could not help but wonder what would become of Dalinar’s wholeness in future books. I wondered what would become of my own attempts to readjust my worldview and sense of self as I tried to keep up with a world that was quickly changing around me. If something happened in a future book to render the wholeness that Dalinar achieved at the end of book three obsolete, did that mean that he had not really found wholeness?
The answer I came to was this: if context is not static, neither is wholeness. We have often noted that wholeness rejects binaries. Wholeness includes both good and bad, happiness and sadness, joy and pain. This means that wholeness also includes completeness and incompleteness. Wholeness includes resolution, preparation, closure, and opening. Although these were things that I could assert at the time when I published the last of the Dalinar posts, they still felt like questions, not certainties.
These questions led me to imagine a journey where even wholeness did not carry with it a sense of finality. A journey that recognized that life is inherently and perpetually in motion. A journey that would continue on past wholeness. A journey that would treat wholeness as a semi-colon rather than a period.
I do not like to think of journeys beyond wholeness as simply multiple back-to-back Heroine’s Journeys. To conflate theIllusion of the Perfect Worldwith a sense of wholeness, or the Separation from the Feminine with a sort of fall from wholeness, brings with it complications that are too complex to address within this post. But trying to work through the questions that arise if the heroine begins their journey with a sense of wholeness led me to ask:
Is it possible for someone to reach wholeness—that is, develop an encompassing and functional sense of world and self—and then later need to adjust or rebuild their sense of wholeness, without invalidating the wholeness that they had first found?
I believe that this is not only possible, but perhaps a healthy way to approach change. To adjust what you are doing and to seek out something new that works better for you is to take care of yourself. It is how we can live consciously and creatively in an evolving world.
All of these questions, contemplations, and hopes have led me to what I call the Seeker Journey, which documents the fluidity and impermanence of wholeness. Wholeness is no longer solely the goal or destination of the journey; it also becomes a starting point and process of arrival.
The Seeker Journey forces us to confront the possibility that we might leave something that has been good for us. The Seeker Journey forces us to confront the fact that whether we leave by choice or coercion, we will never be able to return to the exact same thing we once had. The Seeker Journey forces us to confront the possibility that what was once good for us might one day begin to cause harm.
As we will explore in our next posts, the Seeker Journey recognizes that there are many reasons to start a journey, and that there are many ways to move towards a functioning and healthy understanding of yourself and the world. The Seeker Journey recognizes that just because you are no longer fulfilled by or you no longer have access to something that was once good does not mean you can simply return to that same experience after the threats and uncertainties subside. Instead, you keep moving forward, in search of something new.
This is the final post to a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
In our most recent posts on the the Stormlight Archive series, we examined Dalinar Kholin’s route through multiple cycles of the Heroine’s Journey and theHealing Journey. In The Start of Journey, we introduced Dalinar and his world and examined Dalinar’s first cycle through the stages of the heroine’s journey. In Healing in the Search for Wholeness, we examined Dalinar’s second cycle through the heroine’s journey and his complete healing journey (which encompasses two cycles).
Through the character Dalinar, author Brandon Sanderson demonstrates how complex, enduring, and protracted the search for a meaningful sense of wholeness can be. The Stormlight Archive also highlights the importance of internal healing as an essential part of wholeness. Healing internal wounds or fractures is necessary to find wholeness, but healing and wholeness are not the same concept. In this post, we will consider Dalinar’s third heroine’s journey cycle, in which he is finally able to push past the Moment of Truth to Return to World Seen Through New Eyes and find wholeness.
At the start of the series, Dalinar, a young warrior, was already nearly a fully realized Hero. He was young, rich, powerful, privileged, and revered. He didn’t worry about bettering himself except perhaps in regard to his physical strength. When he was told to go fight somewhere, he did. When he was told to marry someone, he did. It was as if his (Hero’s) journey had been made for him. When his wife stood up against violence and urged him to spend time with his children and be a father rather than a heroic icon, Dalinar began to consider that there could be more to life than glory and blind bloodlust. But only when his wife died as a result of his actions did Dalinar truly question his world view and his place within his world. Dalinar did not, at first, seek wholeness, but he did need healing. When Dalinar met with the Nightwatcher to change his life and then chose to forget his past actions and his wife rather than do the harder work of facing his past and seeking forgiveness from himself and others, his healing journey was stalled. However, the relief from the unbearable pain of self-loathing and grief that memory loss provided Dalinar gave him the psychic space to question his way of operating in the world rather than spending all his time overwhelmed by intense pain.
Dalinar’s brother, Gavilar, was the first Stormlight Archive character to seek a sense of wholeness (although his initial efforts were primarily focused on simply living honorably). Dalinar did not yet understand this journey, but he started to try to copy the steps out of respect for Gavilar; he tried to reject blind bloodlust by reading The Way of Kings and following the ancient Alethi War Codes. Dalinar truly began to seek a new perspective—instead of just following a laundry list of steps—when he started to receive visions during highstorms. He moved in the direction of wholeness, but could not cope with the knowledge that the Almighty was dead and consequently began another cycle of the Heroine’s Journey. Again, he moved towards wholeness, but then he could not cope with his returning memories of his past actions and his wife’s death.
Dalinar’s experience of betrayal/disillusionment when he realizes the Almighty is dead is external and global in scope; his realization of his second (self) betrayal is internal and deeply personal. To address this pain he must embark on a second cycle of the Healing Journey. Wholeness requires both an internal and external realignment, and Dalinar experiences both in extreme ways.
Dalinar eventually learns and grows in addressing both of these betrayals and continuing to seek wholeness. Although he proceeds through three cycles of the Heroine’s Journey, each cycle is part of one single, sustained, complex attempt to find wholeness. Dalinar’s multiple setbacks and adjustments demonstrate how much determination and commitment can be required to sustainably and meaningfully integrate competing cultural expectations and the way of life you want to embody.
Dalinar’s memories of his wife slowly return. At first he is shaken, but he is determined to continue to recruit allies and Prepare for His Journey. He learns that he is able to enter his visions at any time and invite others to participate in them rather than having to wait for a vision to seize him alone during highstorms. Sharing his experiences of the visions helps Dalinar persuade other leaders that his cause is true, and he recruits allies by being authentic and open with them. He learns that he does not need to appear perfect in morals and strength in order to convince people to trust him—he needs to be himself.
The coalition grows and appears strong, and Dalinar enters the Eye of the Storm. But when the capital city falls and the king (Dalinar’s young nephew) is killed, Dalinar feels that All is Lost again. He begins to struggle with the Thrill once more and realizes that he never truly overcame it. The Thrill merely lay dormant for a while. The wisdom from the Way of Kings no longer comforts him and Dalinar considers using force (returning to his masculine, mythic identity) to make his allies comply with his wishes. He also returns to alcohol to numb the pain of his memories of his violent past and his present failures.
In Dalinar’s third cycle through Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey stages, Support comes from psychological/visionary higher powers. In a vision, a young version of the philosopher author of the Way of Kings tells Dalinar that he is neither a tyrant nor a hypocrite; he is merely a man in the process of changing. Dalinar does not yet believe this, but the conversation sticks with him and later rings true.
In the third cycle Moment of Truth, Dalinar faces his past, but instead of being crippled by it, he grows and develops a more complex understanding of himself and the world. He engages with the possibility of forgiveness instead of masking his guilt with dichotomies.
Dalinar’s coalition dissolves and he enters the Thrill once more, but this time he does not use the Thrill to block out his pain. He accepts that his own pain is part of his life, and he accepts responsibility for the pain he has caused others. Crucially, he also recognizes that he is capable of good. With this new-found clarity, Dalinar is able to win the battle without causing the massive casualties that have been the hallmark of his past battles.
At the end of Oathbringer, the third book in the Stormlight Archive, Dalinar and his allies have won a significant battle, but the war is far from over. Dalinar is able to accept who he is as a complex being and accept the world as a complex space. He rejects dichotomies of Good vs. Evil and Past vs. Present vs. Future. Although reading and writing are skills reserved for women in his culture, he begins to learn to read and write in order to express himself in a new way. At the end of Oathbringer, Dalinar is finally able to answer the riddle posed by his dying brother in book one, who told him to “find the most important words a man can say.”
The most important words a man can say are, “I will do better.” These are not the most important words any man can say. I am a man, and they are what I needed to say. The ancient code of the Knights Radiant says “journey before destination.” Some may call it a simple platitude, but it is far more. A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us. But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.
Thus, ironically but also inevitably, Dalinar finds a sense of wholeness when he realizes that the process of journeying does not end. Another book in The Stormlight Archive series is currently in the works, and Brandon Sanderson reports that there are many scheduled beyond that, so it is likely that Dalinar’s story and journeying will continue. Dalinar’s sense of wholeness may be challenged again as his reality changes, his sense of self changes, and he must recalibrate his worldview. This future wholeness that Dalinar may find will not negate the validity or meaningfulness of the sense of wholeness he has found at the end of book three. Neither context nor wholeness is static. As our context changes, and we ourselves grow and change, so too must our understanding of wholeness evolve.
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.”
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.
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.
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 .
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In our next post we will discuss how the storyteller’s choice in where to begin a story affects the journey.
by guest blogger, Jody Gentian Bower; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson. Jody Gentian Bower, PhD., is a cultural mythologist and the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.
In the 1980s, I belonged to a women’s book club. Over time I noticed that most of the novels we read featuring a female protagonist had a similar plot. Then I realized that many of the great novels by women, the established classics, followed the same plot. I found a similar plot in the biographies of many noted women.
The idea that women authors* have been telling a consistent story for centuries wouldn’t leave me alone. Yet I couldn’t find any discussion of this plot by scholars of literature. The Heroine’s Journey by therapist Maureen Murdock, Women Who Run with the Wolves by folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Jean Benedict Raffa’s memoir The Bridge to Wholeness touched on some of the motifs I’d seen (and opened my eyes to a few I’d missed), but their approaches were not quite what I was looking for. My fascination with the literary plot itself eventually led to Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.
I came to call this plot the Aletis story—aletis being an ancient Greek word that means “wandering heroine.” Her story is not defined by an external quest like the Hero’s Journey plot. Instead, her journey takes her farther and farther away from home until at last she finds the place—both within and without—where she is able to create the life that she has always longed for. Unlike the hero, who proves himself a man by a heroic act that enforces and preserves the idealized vision of the status quo of the community, the Aletis finds her inner worth and bases her life on what she values. She doesn’t ask anyone else to change, but her example often causes her community to shift out of old ways that no longer work.
I call her the wandering heroine because she keeps moving, keeps on leaving situations where she cannot be herself. For example, Jane Eyre longs for a life lived fully, with passion. She chooses to leave her adoptive, abusive home to go to school; chooses to leave Lowood School and her teaching job to become a governess for strangers; chooses to leave Mr. Rochester when he asks her to compromise her integrity; and chooses to leave the safe harbor she’s found with her cousins when St. John tries to force her into a loveless marriage. Eventually, the Aletis finds (or, like Jane, builds) her own home where she can put down roots and create what she was meant to create. She provides an opportunity for others to do likewise, like Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, who draws a community of like-minded creative people to her—including her own formerly abusive husband.
But first the Aletis must journey into the wild place, the place of danger, the very place her family and community have warned her against. In old tales like “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she goes from her little village into the forest where the scariest thing of all, the witch Baba Yaga, lives. In many recent stories the wild place is the big city, the center of sin and crime. The heroine has been taught all her life to fear this place, yet she is drawn to it.
In the wild place she encounters the witch. The wicked witch is often the villain of a hero story; the hero must defeat her. But in Aletis stories, the witch becomes the girl’s teacher. The witch must be approached with respect; not as an enemy, but not in a craven way either. The heroine has to prove herself to the witch, and the first thing she must prove is that she respects herself too. She must stand boldly before the witch and tell her what she has come for.
The witch sniffs, unconvinced. She sets the girl a series of impossible tasks. These tasks require the girl to use discernment—to sort out the good seeds from the bad—or be diligent and unwavering as she spins the mountain of straw into gold. Her commitment provides the magic that allows the task to be accomplished. Once the girl passes the test, the witch gives her what she needs.
Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is a modern Baba Yaga, feared by all who know her. (“Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestly” evokes someone in touch with divine power.) The heroine Andrea, newly come to the big city from her small town, walks boldly into Miranda’s demesne and asks for a job. Miranda sniffs, as do all the sycophants around her, but she lets Andrea stay and sets her a series of increasingly impossible tasks. After Andrea passes the tests, Miranda recommends her for her dream job, investigative journalism. Andrea will not only get to write but will have a positive effect on the wider world.
The Aletis story teaches us how to go willingly into the heart of the unknown. It teaches us that when we come face to face with those we’ve been taught to fear, we don’t have to fight them or defeat them. Instead, we must stand firmly in our integrity as they test our commitment to learning from them. In showing them respect while maintaining our own self-respect, we often receive their respect and ultimately, their cooperation and aid.
To learn more about Jody’s work or purchase a copy of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Journey, click here.
*And a few visionary men. Shakespeare’s Viola of Twelfth Night, Charles Dickens’s Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn of The Lord of the Rings are examples.
Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Barbara Leckie’s “Kicking the Stone,” in Salamander’sSummer 2018 issue, is a wonderful, complex short story that interleaves three life stories that broadly follow Victoria Schmidt’s formulation of the heroine journey. The short story revolves around the life trajectories of two sisters and a husband and the changing relationships between and among them.
In our lives we often complete the heroine’s journey cycle nonlinearly. We return to stages as new challenges are presented, and we examine previous experience more deeply. We can also work on several stages at one time. “Kicking the Stone,” illustrates the role that memories play in our navigating and narrating our lives, and flashbacks play in composing stories. Indeed, the “present” of the story takes place in the relatively static setting of a University town coffee shop in the space of about an hour. Flashbacks provide tension, action, context, emotional complexity, and pacing.
The story begins in a cozy coffee shop where Sylvia waits for her sister. It’s early spring, but a surprise snow storm has temporarily buried the crocuses. The setting suggests Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey’s Stage one–the illusion of the “perfect” or “normal” progressing world, but almost immediately we realize that things are not what they seem because Sylvia is tearing tiny holes in numerous packages of sugar and pouring them into her tea to make a sugary slush at the bottom, as if her drink cannot be made sweet enough to swallow. She overhears a student at the next table say, “We are never quite prepared for death. I don’t think.” The overheard statement sounds unreal due to the lack of context and curious grammatical construction, but also ominous because it comes so soon in a composed short story.
Sylvia’s sister, Marg, arrives and apologizes for being late. The author then describes Marg’s illusory perfect world from Sylvia’s point of view. Marg is a university professor who teaches in the linguistic department who “possessed the room” and commands “a sort of erotic attention [by] her confidence.” Sylvia, a couple of years older than Marg, feels as if she plays second fiddle to her younger sister. Sylvia has worked at a variety of community non-profits doling out food to the homeless and delivering community newspapers door-to-door. She is, by her own half-joking admission, “still trying to find herself.”
From this description of Marg as the “successful” sister and Sylvia as the plainer one who travels in her sister’s orbit, we are jolted by the matter-of-fact revelation that Sylvia is living, and has lived, with Marg’s husband for years. We are also told that Sylvia believes Marg had been negligent with her husband. The story thus abruptly enters the land of betrayal, or at least, coping strategies have not gone as expected.
We return to the present and Marg, the accomplished jilted sister, asks Sylvia if she is angry at her, again apologizes for being late, and asks if Sylvia has been waiting long—signaling that the story itself is moving on to Stage 3—Awakening and Preparing for the Journey. Sylvia reinforces this sense of anticipation by telling Marg that she has something to tell her without revealing what it is. Both sisters lean toward each other, signaling the importance of their relationship which the reader senses has been, and will be, its own journey.
The author again references Sylvia’s “affair” with Marg’s husband (the Stage 2 betrayal), and then a second blow up (Stage 6), before describing the period between the estrangements when the sisters reconciled and referred to Hugh, Marg’s former husband and Sylvia’s current partner as “our Hugh.” This moment feels like a Stage 5 “Eye of the Storm”– during which the sisters had managed to find equilibrium in their relationships with Hugh and each other.
We return to the coffee shop with Sylvia privately wishing she could begin the current conversation with something “as light and intimate and bonding” as an “our Hugh” reference– strongly suggesting that the story and the sister’s relationship and lives are headed for a Descent (Stage 4).
The story then takes one last backward glance at stage one’s illusory perfect world as Sylvia tries to find her footing before moving forward with the descent. She muses that she would have liked to open a similar coffee shop-bookstore, but the vision quickly fades. From here, the story continues to tack forward and back, like a carefully crafted multi-thread chain stitch that braids together the heroine’s journeys of the sisters and their relationship. We learn that Marg and Hugh were in a car accident years before that left Hugh in a wheelchair (his descent). Marg, who was pregnant at the time, appears to have recovered, but she has some irreparable nerve damage, and she lost her baby. Thus, we are introduced to Marg and Hugh’s experience of death (stage six) before we find out Sylvia’s news.
The semi-omniscient narrator describes the cause of the accident (a child’s game that ended in the street and an SUV rear-ending Marg’s and Hugh’s car); Marg’s rehabilitation and response to Hugh after the accident (the descent of their relationship); and Sylvia’s support of both of them. While Marg has largely blocked out the details of the accident and aftermath, Sylvia remembers them because “it had given her her life.” In this and in numerous other instances, Leckie uses a single sentence and moment to move characters into different stages of their journeys—in this case the Descent for Marg, and the Preparing for the Journey for Sylvia.
The narrator continues to slice back and forth through Sylvia’s memory and narrative flashback, revealing the literal and psychological journeys of each of the characters as they move toward and away from their relationships with one another. With each move, Leckie illustrates the effect of a character’s action on the others and their relationships, which lead to new actions and effects that ripple throughout all the characters’ lives.
Back in the present, Sylvia reveals that the reason she has asked Marg to coffee is to tell her that Hugh (her partner now for at least a dozen years after the accident) has stage four colon cancer. We see a moment of shared concern for Hugh and for one another. Sylvia then refuses Marg’s request to go see Hugh immediately which we sense is, for Sylvia, a moment of truth and resolve (Stage 8) in the midst of her responding to others’ decisions and calamities. In this moment Sylvia is able to know and say what she needs—as hard-hearted as it seems at that moment of the story.
The story again flashes back to Sylvia’s support of Hugh and Marg after their accident, Marg’s growing impatience with Hugh, and Hugh’s attention to Sylvia in a way that makes her feel that she is more than Marg’s shadow. The story is constructed so that the reader is repeatedly surprised by the flashback action and then comes to understand and empathize with the character(s) and their journeys only to be surprised by another revelation—from Marg’s affair with a neighbor which launches Sylvia’s romantic relationship with Hugh, to Hugh’s confession to Sylvia that he and Marg have been once again sleeping together after Sylvia tells Marg that she is pregnant, etc. In each betrayal and struggle we wonder how things can be repaired after this move while hoping that somehow they can be, and knowing that somehow they must have been repaired, for now the sisters are sitting in a coffee shop talking honestly with each another and expressing concern for Hugh. There are no neatly tied-up endings in this story or in these lives, but there is beauty in the efforts each makes to live an authentic life and preserve difficult relationships that change in ways they do and don’t control under circumstances that are never ideal.
Back in the present, Sylvia has still not agreed to a specific time when Marg can come visit Hugh, but Marg has stopped pressing, and the story and the sisters know that it will not be long. Marg listens to Sylvia describe Hugh’s illness and the difficulty of telling Sylvia’s kids (she now has two) and tears up when Sylvia tells her she already finding feels sad to see High’s empty coat hanging in the hall.
Nothing is simple for these characters, but there is an underlying conviction that they will do whatever it takes to affirm their important relationships and themselves, although they don’t yet know how this will happen. In the last paragraph of the story, after Marg has left the coffee shop and Sylvia is preparing to leave, Sylvia remembers Marg telling her the last last thought she had before the SUV slammed their car into the car ahead in the accident that altered the course of all of their lives. “Brace Yourself” is both a warning and a strangely affirming declaration that the task of life, regardless of our current situations, is to engage reality while acknowledging and aligning ourselves as best we can with internal truths.
“Kicking the Stone” can be found in the summer 2018 issue of Salamander.Salamander is one thirty-plus literary journals offered by the Journal of the Month Club that enables you to sample a variety of literary journals for the price of one or two. Click here to see their holiday specials.