This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What is stage 15 of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey? What is the significance of “crossing the return threshold”?
Crossing the return threshold is the stage of the hero’s journey in which the hero returns to the ordinary world with their divine boon in hand. Crossing the threshold is stage 15 of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
We’ll cover what crossing the return threshold entails and look at two examples of this stage of the hero’s journey.
Crossing the Return Threshold
Now, at last, the hero returns to the ordinary world with their divine boon in hand. This is the stage of crossing the return threshold. The hero’s journey has been an exercise in uniting the world of the unknown with the world of the known—for the two are mirror images, opposite sides of the same coin. The challenge now is to communicate to the ordinary world the wisdom and enlightenment that the hero has learned in their quest to the land of the gods.
One of the hardest things for the hero to accept during the stage of crossing the return threshold is the reality of the sorrows and banalities of ordinary human existence. The North American legend of Rip Van Winkle presents an interesting case of the challenges of the returning hero.
Rip Van Winkle falls asleep one night (his own version of the journey to the world of darkness and the realm of the subconscious). When he awakens, he realizes that he has been asleep not for one evening, but instead, for decades. His handy musket which he fell asleep next to has rusted into uselessness; he has grown old and stiff in the joints; he has grown a foot-long beard; and when he approaches his hometown, he recognizes the place, but sees that it is populated by strangers. The townspeople marvel at the spectacle of Rip, with the mayor demanding to know if he is a Federal or a Democrat (it happens to be an election day in the town)—Rip, of course, fell asleep during the days of British colonialism and doesn’t even understand the question, professing instead his loyalty to the British crown. The people pronounce him to be a Tory spy and usher him into the stockades.
Or consider the plight of the Irish hero Oisin on his return journey from his 300-year sojourn with the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, whom he had rescued from a spell which had transformed her head into that of a pig. He marries her and they dwell in bliss for centuries in the land of Tir na n-Og. Oisin yearns to return to Ireland, but his wife warns him that if he leaves to return to his homeland, he will never return to her and will lose his gift of timelessness, instead becoming a blind old man. Nevertheless, she gives him a steed to carry him on his journey home. When he returns, he shows off his otherworldly powers by lifting an unliftable stone and attempting to blow on the legendary horn of the Fenians (mythological giants in ancient Irish lore). But as he reaches for the horn, his powers suddenly diminish. He loses his legendary protective steed, slips, and becomes a blind old man, as his wife forewarned. This is another example of the dangers of the stage of crossing the return threshold.
The dangers that face the hero or mythological figure who returns to the secular world are reflected in rites and traditions throughout human history. The stage of crossing the return threshold is not an easy one, even though it’s the last. The Aztec god-king Moctezuma never set foot on the ground, but was instead always carried on the shoulders of his retinue. The divine being can never be sullied by contact with the filthy and un-sacred surfaces of earthly existence, lest they lose their spark of divinity.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Hero with a Thousand Faces summary:
- How the Hero's Journey reappears hundreds of times in different cultures and ages
- How we attach our psychology to heroes, and how they help embolden us in our lives
- Why stories and mythology are so important, even in today's world