The Reward and the Road Back

From Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure"

Odysseus returns to his wife Penelope in the Kingdom of Ithaca

De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Once our hero has cheated death during the ordeal and has seized the sword, the much sought-after prize is hers. The prize of the hero's journey can be an actual object, like a holy grail, or it can mean the knowledge and experience that lead to greater understanding and reconciliation. Sometimes the reward is love.

The Hero's Destination

This is the climax or denouement of the hero's story, and she's come a long way, both physically and as a character, since first refusing the call. Seizing the sword may be a moment of clarity for the hero when she sees through a deception. After having cheated death, she may find she has special powers of clairvoyance or intuition, experience profound self-realization, or have an epiphany, a moment of divine recognition.

We all know that cheating death will have consequences for our hero, but first the action pauses, and the hero and her gang celebrate. The reader is given a break and is allowed to become more acquainted with the characters while life is relaxed.

The Reward in the Wizard of Oz

In the "Wizard of Oz," Dorothy wins the burned broomstick she has been challenged to steal. She returns to Oz to seize her next reward: her trip home. The wizard balks and Toto (Dorothy’s intuition) reveals the little man behind the curtain. This is the hero's moment of insight.

The wizard finally gives Dorothy’s friends their own elixirs, which represent the meaningless gifts we give each other. Those who have not survived death can take the elixir all day long and it won’t make a difference. The true, all-healing elixir is the achievement of inner change. The wizard tells Dorothy that only she can grant herself the self-acceptance to get home, to be happy inside herself wherever she is.

The Road Back

With the hero armed with the reward, we move into Act Three. Here, the hero decides whether to stay in the special world or go back to the ordinary world. The energy of the story is revved back up. The hero's passion for the quest is renewed. However, all is not necessarily well. If the hero has not resolved the issue with the conquered villain, the shadow, it comes after her with a vengeance.

The hero runs for her life, fearing the magic is gone. The psychological meaning of such counterattacks is that neuroses, flaws, habits, desires, or addictions we have challenged may retreat for a time, but can rebound in a last-ditch defense or a desperate attack before being vanquished forever.

This is when expendable friends, often killed by the avenging force, come in handy. Transformation is an important aspect of chases and escapes. The hero attempts to stall the opposition in any way possible. A twist on the road back may be a sudden catastrophic reversal of the hero’s good fortune. For a moment, after great risk, effort, and sacrifice, it looks like all is lost.

The Hero's Resolve to Finish

Every story needs a moment to acknowledge the hero’s resolve to finish, to return home with the elixir despite the trials that remain. This is when the hero finds that old familiar ways are no longer effective. She gathers up what she has learned, stolen, or been granted, and sets a new goal.

But there is one final test on the journey. The wizard has prepared a hot-air balloon to take Dorothy back to Kansas. Toto runs. Dorothy runs after him and is left behind in the special world. Her instincts tell her she can’t return in the usual manner, but she’s ready to find a new way.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese, 2007.