The Heroine’s Journey: the progress of an imperfect pilgrim

'No Turning Back' by Andrea Kowch

I never intended to write a memoir; it was the furthest thing from my mind. I intended to write a book on place, on how myth and story can bring us back to a sense of belonging to the world. Specifically, I intended to write a book about the Celtic landscapes I’ve lived in and which have haunted my imagination for as long as I can remember. About the land which has always been my lodestar, and which has taught me all the major lessons of my life. But there’s the rub: ‘How,’ my fine and wise publisher asked me, ‘do you think you’re going to guide people along their journeys to a sense of place and belonging if you don’t offer up your own as an example? And more importantly, how are you going to convince them you’re someone they should listen to, if you don’t tell them who you are?’

And so I found myself writing not only a book on myth, place and belonging, not only about the inspirational power of archetypal Celtic landscapes, but a book which is held together by threads of memoir.

If Women Rose Rooted is structured around the ‘Heroine’s Journey’: my own revisioning of American mythologist Joseph Campbell’s classic ‘Hero’s Journey’ [i], which has been so influential over the past few decades. The basic plot of all the world’s great stories, Campbell declared, involves a Hero who happens to be a person of exceptional gifts, which may or may not be recognised by his society. The world in which he lives suffers from a symbolic deficiency (in a fairy tale, for example, it may be something as simple as the lack of a specific golden ring); the Hero must set out on a great adventure to win the missing treasure and bring it back to the world. Campbell argued that there are three key phases of these symbolic journeys, beginning with the phase of separation, or departure, in which the Hero hears the ‘Call to Adventure’ and sets out. In the second phase, ‘the trials and victories of initiation’, the Hero passes along a ‘Road of Trials’ and is tested. During the third phase, ‘the return and reintegration with society’, the Hero brings back his gift to the world and so saves it, or himself, or another. Campbell believed that those three phases and the sub-stages which he outlined within them are common not only to the structure of the myths themselves, but also to the structure of our own individual journeys through our lives.

This model may well explain the features which many myths and fairy tales from around the world have in common, and may also, as many Jungian psychotherapists who followed Campbell have suggested, offer up a template for a real-life Hero’s Journey and a metaphor for personal spiritual and psychological growth. But, much as admire Campbell’s work, I have long believed that it has little to offer contemporary women. It does not reflect the full reality of women’s lives, either inner or outer. In it, women appear either as the Temptress, there to test the Hero and lead him off-course; or in the guise of the Great Goddess, who represents the ‘unconditional love’ which must be won by the Hero to give him the courage to go on with his quest. In other words, at their very best, women can be no more than the destination: we represent the static, essential qualities that the active, all-conquering Hero is searching for. Maureen Murdock, one of his female students, reported that Campbell told her: ‘Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.’ [ii]

I respectfully disagree. Women absolutely do need to make the journey; we do not, however, need to make the same journey which the Hero makes. Our journey is different; our stories are all our own. It’s more than time we told our own stories, outlined our journeys for ourselves. We don’t need Heroes to tell us who to be.

Labyrinth

One of the problems I have with Campbell’s model is that it is highly active. The swashbuckling, adventuring Hero, possessing gifts which elevate him above the ‘common folk’, sets off to save the world. ‘Dragons have now to be slain,’ announces Campbell, as his all-conquering Hero sets off down the ‘Road of Trials’ – but slaying isn’t necessarily the Heroine’s way. I have long thought of the Heroine’s Journey as more reminiscent of a pilgrimage than an adventure, and worked with it in that context. A pilgrim isn’t entirely sure whether she can save herself, let alone the world. She knows that something is lacking in her own life, that something is missing or broken. A pilgrim is, above all, possessed of humility. No pilgrim is perfect — it is part of the job description. We set out knowing that we lack. But because we know that we are missing something, even if we don’t know quite what it is, and because we know that living with that lack is a kind of living death, we walk the rocky road anyway, putting one torn and bleeding foot in front of the other. Again and again. Setting off on a pilgrimage is a severance, a kind of death: we can never go back to what we were before. A pilgrimage asks that we give up everything so we might learn what is truly ours. A pilgrimage is a search for knowledge, a search for becoming. And pilgrimage begins also with longing: longing for deep connection; longing for true nurturing community; longing for change and the rich, healing dark.

Pilgrimage involves a new way of travelling and seeing, and it is in our ancestry. The Celtic peregrini of the Dark Ages set off on great sea voyages to found their monastic settlements, travelling in large curraghs which were capable of sailing immense distances. And in the great Immramas and Echtrai, the wonder-voyages of old Ireland, people set out in boats to discover the magical islands which they believed to lie far away in the ocean to the west. The Celtic Otherworld sometimes was thought to be such an island, and one which remained outside the influence of patriarchal structure, for it was ruled by women. It was called Tír na mBan, the Land of Women; or Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth.

'The Long Path' by Frances Macdonald Macnair
‘The Long Path’ by Frances Macdonald Macnair

Yes, a pilgrim is, almost by definition, imperfect — and this brings me back to the subject of memoir. In writing about your own life, in sharing your own Journey, you are forced to confront all of your own mistakes, all at once, nicely laid out in front of you in a neat narrative structure of your own devising. It is a deeply uncomfortable process for those of us whose lives seem sometimes to consist of a catalogue of imperfections. It was a deeply uncomfortable process for me, because my own Journey was far from linear — it was circular, spiraling, and far more fractal than most, as I came up time and time again against the same issues and refused to learn. As I made the same mistakes over and over again, failed myself (yes, I am a tough self-critic, and I think that is mostly a good thing, as long as the self-flagellation doesn’t become self-indulgent!) over and over again. As I put it in If Women Rose Rooted, ‘no matter how coherently you might be able to express and explain the factors which brought you to this point, when you come to the mirror and see yourself clearly for the first time, and do not like what you see, all excuses flee. Only grief is left – the great grief which comes from knowing that you have failed yourself.’

But here is what I learned — not only from my own deeply imperfect life-long Heroine’s Journey which I share in the book, but from that months-long, intensely painful process of evaluating and writing it. Those of us who have led imperfect lives, and have learned from them, returned from them — we come back from that long Journey bearing treasure. We come bearing gifts that those who were unafraid, who never compromised their art, who never strayed from the path, who never gave into temptation or indulged their fear and took the job working for the oil company or the tobacco company — we bring back gifts that those very wonderful people, filled to the brim with beautiful gifts of their own, cannot imagine. We bring back gifts which are different, and which are just as necessary in these broken times precisely because of their brokenness. We bring back the gifts that will help lead the imperfect ones like ourselves out of the Wasteland that we have all made of the world. We bring the gift of knowing exactly what it is we are dealing with; exactly what it is we must fight, or resist. We bring back the gift of transformation, because aren’t we ourselves transformed? Above all, we bring back the gift of possibility.

I wrote If Women Rose Rooted for the imperfect pilgrims, like me. For the women who strayed from the path, or who haven’t yet found the courage to set out on the Journey in the first place. For the pilgrim soul which lies there somewhere in each of us, calling us back to the Earth, back to a sense of belonging to this wider world. And more than that, calling us back to our responsibilities: to take up our ancient roles as guardians and protectors of the land.

[i] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1949).
[ii] Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey (Shambhala, 1990).

(Featured image: ‘No Turning Back’ by Andrea Kowch: http://www.andreakowch.com)