The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey

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

The Wicked Witch on a broom next to her flying monkey in "The Wizard of Oz."

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The Ordeal is the critical moment in every story, a major source of magic in heroic myth, according to Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure. The hero stands in the deepest chamber of the inmost cave and faces a direct confrontation with his greatest fear. No matter what the hero came for, it’s Death that now stares back at her. She is brought to the brink of death in a battle with a hostile force.

The hero of every story is an initiate being introduced to the mysteries of life and death, Vogler writes. She must appear to die so she can be reborn, transformed.

The ordeal is a major crisis in the story, but it's not the climax, which happens closer to the end. The ordeal is usually the central event, the main event of the second act. A crisis, according to Webster’s, is when "hostile forces are in the tensest state of opposition."

The hero’s crisis, as frightening as it is, is the only way to victory, according to Vogler.

Witnesses are an important part of the crisis. Someone close to the hero witnesses the hero’s apparent death and the reader experiences it through their point of view. Witnesses feel the pain of death, and when they realize the hero still lives, their grief, as well as the reader’s, suddenly, explosively, turns to joy, Vogler states.

Readers Love to See Heroes Cheat Death

Vogler writes that in any story, the writer is trying to lift the reader, raise their awareness, heighten their emotions. Good structure works as a pump on the reader’s emotions as the hero’s fortunes are raised and lowered. Emotions depressed by the presence of death can rebound in an instant to a higher state than before.

Just as on a roller coaster, you’re hurled around until you think you might die, Vogler writes, and you get off elated that you’ve survived. Every story needs a hint of this experience or it’s missing its heart.

The crisis, a halfway point, is a divide in the hero’s journey: the top of the mountain, the heart of the forest, the depth of the ocean, the most secret place in his soul. Everything in the trip has to lead up to this point, and everything after is about going home.

There may be greater adventures to come, the most exciting even, but every journey has a center, a bottom or a peak somewhere near the middle. Nothing will ever be the same after the crisis.

The most common ordeal is some sort of battle or confrontation with the opposing force, which usually represents the hero’s own shadow, according to Vogler. No matter how alien the villain’s values, in some way they are the dark reflection of the hero’s own desires, magnified and distorted, her greatest fears come to life. The unrecognized or rejected parts are acknowledged and made conscious despite all their struggles to remain in darkness.

Death of the Ego

The ordeal in myth signifies the death of the ego. The hero has soared above death and now sees the connectedness of all things. The hero has risked his life for the sake of the larger collective.

The Wicked Witch is enraged that Dorothy and her friends have penetrated the inmost cave. She threatens each of them with death. She lights Scarecrow on fire. We feel the horror of his imminent death. Dorothy grabs a bucket of water to save him and ends up melting the witch. We watch her agonizing death instead. After a moment of being stunned, everyone is related, even the witch’s minions.

This article is part of our series on the hero's journey, starting with The Hero's Journey Introduction and The Archetypes of the Hero's Journey.

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Peterson, Deb. "The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Peterson, Deb. (2020, August 26). The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey. Retrieved from Peterson, Deb. "The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).