This is #13 in the Crossing the Threshold series.
Since The Hero’s Journey is a basic foundational story, there are some basic characters better known as archetypes that are associated with it.
First and foremost of course is the hero, the central protagonist in the story. We may be tempted to think of heroes as being strong and courageous however these are really secondary qualities. Mr. Vogler says “the word hero is a Greek word, from the root that means ‘to protect and to serve’…a hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others, like a shepherd who will sacrifice to protect and serve his flock.”. The true mark of a hero then is a willingness to sacrifice. To surrender something of value, perhaps even their very life on behalf of another person, group, or cause.
Heroes also show us how to face the ultimate fear by facing death and doing it well. Some may lay down their life like William Wallace in Braveheart, others may die symbolically like Chuck Noland in Cast Away, while others simply face the possibility of death like Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows. Whatever the outcome is, a hero is someone who does not give death a victory. They transcend it.
Mentors are wise old men and women who come along side the hero to teach, guide, and protect them. Often they are former heroes, ones who have survived the tests, trials, and ordeals and grown to an old age full of wisdom. They are willing to impart to their young protégés all that experience has taught them.
A mentor will often speak as “the voice of God” and serve as the source of divine wisdom in the story. Along with life saving advice they may give magic gifts like magical weapons. They help the hero to overcome his fears and impart a code of virtue that all heroes are required to have.
Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Yoda, are all classic examples of a hero’s mentor.
One of my favorite visual scenes in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring comes toward the end when the small band leaves the Woods of Lothlorien and paddle up the river on their quest to reach Mordor. They come to these immense stone figures …The Argonath, The Pillars of the King; here is how Tolkien himself describes them:
“As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening….Upon great pedestals founded deep in the waters stood two great kings of stone: still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North. The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gestures of warning; in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long vanished kingdom. Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down, shutting his eyes and not daring to look up as the boat drew near.” (The Lord of the Rings) These are perfect images for the archetype known as Threshold Guardians.
Threshold Guardians stand at the threshold of new worlds to keep out those they deem unworthy. They maybe a boss, a watchman, a sentinel, a guard, or anyone whose job it is to block the way of the hero.
A herald is a forerunner used to introduce or give tidings, to make proclamations or announcements of significant change. They can be as small as the robot R2D2 in George Lucas’ Star Wars or as large as Hagrid the giant in Harry Potter and the Scorer’s Stone. They are used to present the challenge and get the adventure going.
A shapeshifter is exactly what the word implies; a figure who changes shapes at least from the hero’s perspective. Are they friend or foe? Loyal or traitor? Honest or Dishonest? They are not the villain but they may be used by him and they always keep the hero guessing.
The Shadow of course represents the darkside. They are the forces of evil that are dedicated to the hero’s destruction. They can be outright villains who want the hero’s death, or they may be antagonists, those who are after the same goal but do not like the hero’s way of achieving it.
The hero usually has a few close allies who make at least part of the journey by his side. They serve different functions; messengers, sparring partners, figures who fight along side in battle, loyal servants, and companions. It would be hard to imagine Frodo without the Fellowship, Arthur without his Knights, or Robin Hood without his Merry Men.