the hero’s journey – refusal of the call

Be not afraid of greatness:
Some are born great,
Some achieve greatness
And some have greatness thrust upon them.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


The third ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot: Refusal of the Call.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

The refusal of the call. The reluctant hero. The glance back. The lingering doubt that leaves a peculiar letter sitting on the kitchen counter.

This is an odd step in the list because it can be easily omitted. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, two chapters. Or it can last most of the story. (As said, Campbell’s ‘list’ is squishy.) The reason, though, that this is an important step and belongs in the list with the rest is that we expect people to be reluctant to pursue herculean tasks. It humanizes them, for one, and it puts the road ahead in better perspective. People who charge up mountains make the mountains look small.

Tolkien used the Refusal of the Call in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins wanted nothing to do with this mad ‘adventure’ that Gandalf had invaded his home with until the dwarves started wondering if Bilbo was too pathetic to do the job (and his regrets echoed for a long while after when things got hard). Later on, Frodo tried to make Gandalf take the ring from him– surely, such a great wizard would be able to handle such a quest better than he.

On the other hand, in George Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Jon Snow recruits himself for his quest, as part of the Night’s Watch. He even has to talk his family into letting him leave. Yet there is still a Refusal in his story line– first as he rides North with the watch, and wonders what the hell he’s doing. Then later his refusal is personified not as an escape home, but by clinging to the attitudes he was raised with through his training. Not all refusals directly counter the call to adventure.

Omitting the Refusal of the Call colors the tone of the story. Take ‘The Princess Bride’, for instance. The eagerness of Westley to rescue Buttercup would not be denied. He would not falter. He would not change his mind. Death itself can not stop him– all it can do is delay him for awhile.

Incidentally, The Princess Bride is a strange story that doesn’t follow the pattern exactly. No mentor, no refusal of the call, no First Threshold. The Call to Adventure is behind the scenes; there must be a call to adventure, because Westley is not with Buttercup. This in itself is a fundamental flaw in the universe, and there is no more to be said on the matter. It is as if the story begins halfway through the formula. This is a good example of a very good story that breaks and stretches out Campbell’s theory, yet still has identifiable parts to it.

After I visit each of the twelve points, I’m going to go through several stories to analyze how their plots are structured. So far this list includes The Princess Bride, A Game of Thrones, and The Hobbit– something that runs with the formula well (The Hobbit), something that breaks and stretches the formula (The Princess Bride), and something amazingly complicated (A Game of Thrones). If anyone has any suggestions about a good foil, feel free to make suggestions.

Next up: Meeting the Mentor.

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