using Tangled and Dragon Age 2 as examples. In Part Two, we’ll finish up the stages of the Heroine’s Journey, and I’ll briefly talk about some other stories that follow this pattern.
Okay, enough prologue. Back to the good stuff:
Super Duper Long Rambly Meta Nerdery Below The Break:
5. The Eye of the Storm
Last we left off, the Heroine had just faced off against a major obstacle. Well, after facing her fears – maybe even the Big Baddie itself– the heroine has a moment to catch her breath and come to grips with what has just occurred. She realizes that hey, actually, when push came to shove, she didn’t do half-bad. She starts to understand that she’s stronger than she thinks, better, smarter, more competent. She thinks maybe the hard part is finally over.
Of course, nobody ever gets off that easy. Maybe she gets cocky and takes a chance she shouldn’t. Maybe she lets supporting characters take her home before it’s really time to go. Whatever it is, she relaxes, relents, lets down her guard, if even for a second – which makes the next stage hurt all the more.
In Tangled, Rapunzel and Flynn have a touching scene together in the passageway underneath the Snuggly Duckling. Rapunzel realizes she handled herself pretty well in the tavern, and she doesn’t need Flynn’s guidance as much as she thought. She starts to see Flynn less as a tool to achieve her own ends and more as a friend—she begins to need his support.
In Dragon Age 2, the moments of relaxation and reflection are mostly player-enforced – whenever you shut off the game counts, I guess — but I think the aforementioned love scene with the player’s chosen Love Interest counts as one such in-game example. Another might be after Leandra’s death, when the Love Interest (or Aveline), comes to visit Hawke and offer his/her condolences. After all, relaxation and reflection isn’t always achieved through positive events. Sometimes it’s imposed on you through loss.
Stage 4 and 5: Redux
In the Heroine’s Journey, Stages 4 and 5 may be repeated as often as necessary, in order to deal with all the Heroine’s fears and obstacles. In a way, these two stages are like a ritual cleansing, a stripping away of everything the Heroine thinks matters so that she can learn to trust herself when it really counts. This physical descent is almost reminiscent of the Belly of the Whale stage in the Hero’s Journey, except a) it can happen more than once, and b) rather than it being the lowest part of her journey, it’s instead an important step towards her eventual enlightenment.
Because Tangled is a short movie, Rapunzel really only goes through the Descent and Eye of the Storm three times, all of which are in short succession. The first time is in the Snuggly Duckling, and the second, the fight scene in the mine, is like a physical coda to that earlier emotional descent. In the mine, Rapunzel loses the frying pan (Descent), and she thinks she’s escaped the villains in the cave (Eye of the Storm)… until the water begins to rise.
The third time occurs in the cave, when all is lost… until Flynn shares his secret: that his true name is Eugene. This simple act encourages Rapunzel to reveal her own secret, which in turn helps her realize that her glowing hair can lead them to safety. Tellingly, Eugene does not save the day here, but rather acts as support staff for Rapunzel, enabling her to save the day through a power she had in her all along, a strength she didn’t even realize was a strength.
(When writing this essay, I struggled exactly how to categorize the cave scene – in many ways, it mimics a typical Death/Support/Rebirth sequence, as we’ll go over in a minute. But in the end, I decided that it best fits the Descent stage, considering that this isn’t really Rapunzel’s lowest point in the story. Still, it has many parallels to the Death/Support/Rebirth sequences that act like foreshadowing for what is to come. So keep that in mind as we go on through the story.)
What’s interesting in Tangled is that each time Rapunzel enters a Descent stage, in which a self-defense mechanism is stripped away from her (her illusion of Flynn as a tool, her frying pan, etc.) she simultaneously makes a physical descent too. When she realizes Flynn is more friend than guide, the pair is descending the hidden passage beneath the Snuggly Duckling; in the case of the frying pan, she uses her hair to catapult herself from the higher ground of the mine down to the earth below. This is falling action is mimicked later on in the movie, as she descends the staircase to deal with Gothel after realizing that she herself is the Lost Princess.
In Dragon Age 2, most of the Act 2 plots are Descent plots, involving a loss of some kind – whether it’s a loss of a mother, or a loss of control over the Qunari situation, or, in the case of Isabela, the loss of a favored companion. You’ll note that many of the Act 2 quests follow the similar trajectory: Hawke first formulates a plan (save my mother, prevent the gaatlok from being sold, save Isabela’s skin) and storms in, guns blazing, but whatever initial strategy Hawke had in mind is thrown out the window when Something Big Goes Wrong (my mother’s fridged, the elf steals the saar-qamek instead, Isabela ditches me) and Hawke must adapt to the circumstances on the fly.
This is the real subversive (and brilliant) element of Dragon Age 2, in that the player assumes going into the game that Hawke, as a player character, starts off with the power to decide fate – that Hawke is in control of the world around her. But the Act 2 quests reveal that Hawke’s power is an illusion. That’s not to say that Hawke is useless, or unable to affect the course of events in Kirkwall – a common complaint about the game – because of course Hawke matters, and the game is all about affecting the course of events in Kirkwall. (I mean, Champion, hello.) Rather, Act 2 shows that Hawke – and the player – must learn that the weapons you arm yourself with – in Hawke’s case, battle strategy (which is what the player assumes she’ll need going into each quest) – are illusions. Instinct is what truly matters. This is even reinforced by the frantic, fast-paced gameplay, which allows little opportunity for the pre-determined battlefield strategies that characterized Origins.
I don’t need to tell you that this was a highly controversial move on the developers’ part, and for players expecting a typical Hero’s Journey out of Dragon Age 2, deeply unsatisfying. But in the context of a Heroine’s Journey, Hawke’s growing reliance not on tactical remove but on her own instincts to survive – something that will be reinforced later during the opening to Act 3 – is a crucial step of the journey, one that cannot be skipped if later events are to make any sense whatsoever.
6. Death: All Is Lost
In the Death stage, everything goes to hell at once. The Heroine is caught off guard when the villain comes back, and this time, the Heroine doesn’t have any of her weapons left to fight. The villain, intent on the Heroine’s destruction, and the Heroine believes there’s nothing she can do to stop it. She is utterly vulnerable. Everything is lost. She dies: She failed at her journey and accepts defeat.
Tangled’s Death stage occurs when a broken-hearted Rapunzel returns to the tower with Gothel after Eugene has apparently abandoned her. Even knowing that her glass bubble has been shattered and cannot be re-entered, Rapunzel – humiliated and feeling stupid for falling in love – gives up her freedom and accepts her defeat.
I like to think that Leandra’s death serves as a mini-Death scene for Dragon Age 2, but doing so relies a fair amount on what I bring to the table as a player, so probably a more universally accepted Death scene would be the Qunari invasion. In this case, all Hawke’s efforts throughout Act 2 have been for naught. The city is under attack, and Isabela has disappeared with the only means of placating the Qunari and stopping the invasion. Kirkwall –and by extension, Hawke – is surely lost.
Note that both Death scenes in Tangled and Dragon Age 2 are not at the climax of the story, as you might find in a Hero’s Journey. They’re in the middle. That’s a huge, huge difference between these two narrative structures, and one that I personally find far more applicable to real life. Hitting rock bottom, and climbing out of that pit, is never really so simple as it’s presented in the Hero’s Journey. It’s ugly and time-consuming, and backsliding occurs, and it’s never really the end of change, but the midpoint.
The differences between the Heroine’s Journey and the Hero’s Journey continue to shine in the Support stage. While the Hero’s Journey is about an individual’s need to prove himself to his chosen group, the Heroine’s Journey is all about the individual’s need to prove herself to herself, and then share what she has learned with the group.
Remember how I said the Heroine’s Journey starts with a betrayal from someone else? Well, when the Heroine comes out of Death into the Support stage, it means she’s finally reached the point in her journey where she can trust again and accept help from others. As Schmidt writes, “she can’t be betrayed again because she has her own strength and self-realization that can’t be taken away from her.” Another way of saying this is, she can’t be healed from her own death until she understands that there’s strength in numbers – the heroine realizes it’s alright to be part of a group, even if that group is just one other person.
It’s important to distinguish “accepting help from others” from “the prince swoops in to save the day”. The choices that save the Heroine must still be her own, the Heroine must still have agency. It’s more like cooperation: by letting someone else help her, the Heroine exposes that ally to the benefits of taking the inner journey—they help her, she helps them.
Tangled has a deceptively layered Support scene, like two Support scenes running parallel to each other. First of all, the Snuggly Duckling ruffians come to Eugene’s aid, who in turn comes to Rapunzel’s physical aid. But that’s kind of misleading, as whatever Eugene and co are doing at that moment is mostly out of Rapunzel’s agency. The real Support scene occurs when Rapunzel pulls out the sunburst flag, the token of Eugene’s affection that he bought for her during their date in the marketplace. Even though Eugene is physically no longer with her, the flag demonstrates that metaphorically he has never left her side – and it is the sunburst flag, of course, that allows Rapunzel to put together the pieces and see the sunbursts hidden in her mural, and come to the realization that she is and always was the Lost Princess.
If we consider the Battle of Kirkwall as Hawke’s Death stage in Dragon Age 2, then the Support stage first begins when Hawke does the unthinkable – pair up with the Templars, who her family has been on the run from their entire lives – in order to save the city and the people she loves. It’s a subtle moment, one easily overlooked in the drama of the Act 2 climax, but given that Dragon Age 2 is really about the Mage-Templar conflict and not the Qunari menace, I think it sets the stage for everything that comes in Act 3. Act 1 Hawke, with Bethany weighing fresh on her mind, may have offered help to the Templars to keep them at bay, but she never would have been so open to accepting help from them – not until all else was lost.
The rest of Act 3 is a sequence of Support stages, showing Hawke consolidating support among his Companions and among the Mages or Templars for the fight that is to come. It culminates in Anders blowing up the Chantry – the final Supportive act gone terribly, terribly wrong, which provides the final crisis point of the story.
You might have noticed by now that the Heroine’s Journey structure kind of skips over the duel with the Arishok. I even seem to be implying that it’s irrelevant. You caught me. I do think it’s irrelevant. I mean, it’s a great capper to the Act, to be sure… but what does it really signify? In the grand scheme of things, Hawke becoming the Champion is irrelevant to his own personal journey through this narrative – especially during Act 3, when it’s revealed that the title doesn’t come with any greater power over her situation, just more headaches.
This is another point that I think was greatly dissatisfying for those expecting a traditional Hero’s Journey out of Dragon Age 2. In a Hero’s Journey, the duel with the Arishok would have meant something more, something grand—but then again, in a Hero’s Journey, the Qunari would have been the real villains all along. Instead in this tale they’re the great bait and switch.
Sometimes I think all the Qunari were was another defense mechanism to be stripped away from Hawke. In a way, the belief that all her problems could be solved by defeating an external foe, especially who treated mages like her sister (and maybe herself) as animals, was a retreat from the real problem, which is Meredith and the Templars and the system itself.
8. Rebirth: The Moment of Truth
The Heroine has found her strength, her resolve, and now she reaches out and grabs her goal with open eyes and open arms. Like TARDIS-Rose laughing at the Daleks in Season 1 Dr. Who, she laughs at those silly enough to oppose her. She is no longer afraid to die – she has braved death, and come out the other side – hell, she realizes now she was already dead way back in the glass bubble. She has learned her lessons. She has faced her fears. She is reborn. Nothing can stop her now.
In Tangled, once Rapunzel realizes she is the Lost Princess, she is no longer afraid of Gothel. She does not mumble. She does not hide or otherwise wither or shy away. Instead she fights Gothel, and decides to return to the kingdom and claim what is hers.
Note that the movie’s final crisis point comes when Eugene appears at the tower to save the day and Gothel guts him. (Interestingly enough, like the Chantry explosion, this is another Support stage act gone horribly, horribly wrong). Rapunzel appears ready to backslide on her Journey, promising in all earnestness to give up any fight she has in her, as long as she can heal Eugene from death.
This is a mirror of her earlier Death stage, when she accepts defeat and goes with Gothel back to the tower, and likewise, the resultant Support scene is mirrored when Eugene slices off Rapunzel’s hair. At first glance, this action might seem like “the prince saving the day”, but keep in mind that Eugene doesn’t know that Rapunzel’s hair is what’s keeping Gothel alive. All he knows is that Rapunzel plans to use her hair to save his life and, by doing so, give up hers (the consequence of giving up her freedom). But Eugene values her journey and her freedom too much to let her do that – he has, in effect, watched her Journey and learned from it –so in one last supportive act, he sacrifices his own life so that she can keep hers intact.
In Dragon Age 2, ostensibly the Rebirth moment occurs following the Chantry explosion, when Hawke decides whether to support the Templars or the Mages, given once the choice is made, the rest of the Act unfolds as if Hawke is reborn “pro-Mage” or “pro-Templar”.
But personally, I think a more telling and poignant Rebirth moment is when Hawke decides whether or not to kill Anders. Every moment of Hawke’s life, every decision in the game, from his family’s legacy to the Deep Roads, from aristocratic riots in Hightown to starving orphans in Darktown, from Keran to Kelder, Justice to Hybris, everything and everyone has led up to this. Hawke must face the hardest questions of his journey – which matters more, revenge or mercy? Do we spare Anders and prove that justice only matters when it’s convenient to our purposes? Do we kill Anders and prove him right, that there never was any difference between justice and vengeance? Anders’s fate raises brilliant philosophical questions, made all the harder by the strength of the arguments on both sides, and for me, this was the true emotional climax of the game.
9. Full Circle—Return to a Perfect World
The Heroine has achieved her goal, and returns home a changed woman, utterly capable to live a better life. Her job now is to share her experiences, to influence the group, and help those still in the glass bubble break out and embark on their own journeys. In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero gets the girl, or the kingdom, or some other external reward, but in the Heroine’s Journey, the Heroine gets a sense of strength, awareness, or some other internal reward. There are more battles to be fought, yes, but she knows that she can face them, chin up, eyes open.
Often times, says Schmidt, the Heroine’s Journey feels episodic in nature, because the ending is really a return to the start. It’s no coincidence, given that women’s lives are ruled by cycles, physical and mental. One of the most important elements in this final stage is the hint that the Heroine’s life continues on, that there will be another cycle, that nothing ever truly ends.
In Tangled, obviously Rapunzel’s return to the perfect world isn’t a return to the Tower but a return to the Kingdom, where she meets her father and mother for the first time in decades. She gets engaged to Eugene and lives happily ever after… but note that the final shot of the movie is not of the kiss but of the floating lanterns, which are emblematic of her journey—she has returned home but the tradition continues, implying that the cycle awaits someone else’s discovery.
In Dragon Age 2, there is a limited amount of perfect world to return to, per se, given that Thedas is on fire with revolution. But the pro-Templar Hawke returns to the Viscountry, while the pro-Mage Hawke returns to revolution (possibly with Anders by his side). Either way, the story clearly isn’t over—even when Varric’s telling has completed. More battles remain to be fought, but whatever they are, Hawke will be ready.
So there you go, the Heroine’s Journey, broken down for your Friday afternoon amusement. Now that you know how it works, you can probably start to recognize it in all sorts of stories you love. In her analysis,Schmidt lists several books and movies that follow a Heroine’s Journey format: Thelma and Louise, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, The Wizard of Oz, American Beauty. Director James Cameron is a particular fan of it too, using this storytelling pattern in several of his movies, including Titanic, The Terminator and The Abyss. Romance is rife with it, as are family sagas and religious texts.
And yet, the Heroine’s Journey also tends to meet resistance wherever it goes. How many times have you heard critics and fanboys alike deride the plotlines of romances or Titanic or even the later seasons of Supernatural, calling them “boring” or “melodramatic”?
Personally, I think it’s because we as a culture are not trained how to appreciate stories of inner journeys and introspection – or, if you want to be frank about it, women’s stories – in the same way we’re trained to value men’s stories. And it’s a damn shame too, because if any of the more than 5,000 words I wrote today about this topic spoke to you at all, then it’s evidence that the Heroine’s Journey is just as valid an archetype as the Hero’s Journey, and for some people far more applicable and inspirational.
The older I get, the less patience I have for the Hero’s Journey. Not that coming of age stories aren’t important, but… well… that’s all they are, you know? Coming of age stories. But life continues on well after you’ve come of age, and there are many other stories worthy of sharing, where we might find inspiration and solace. Fiction is full of revelation – we just need to know how to seek it.