The wisdom of Joseph Campbell pertains not only to our own life-journey, but to that of the Protagonists we write in our stories. Here is an example:
From a psychological, even spiritual standpoint, each of us has work to do, a never-ending interplay between the exploration of our inner world and the unfolding of insights we translate into our beliefs and behaviors in the outer world. Carl Jung called this lifelong process individuation, where a person digs into their Self to gain awareness and understanding of all aspects of their Psyche, the totality of their psychological being. As part of that process, Campbell calls out to us to confront those parts of our psyche which scare us the most, our Shadow, go down into that ‘abyss’. For it is there, we will truly “recover the treasures of life”.
This framework functions beautifully for the Protagonist journey. It implies a starting point where the Protagonist is not in a state of unity, they are in some sense disconnected from their treasure. That treasure is likely symbolized as a conscious goal — a job, task, relationship — something they want to achieve in the external world. There is also a related unstated or unconscious goal in their inner world, a need to emerges along the way of the journey. That need is almost always tied to this ‘treasure’ that exists within.
The thing about this ‘treasure’ is it has always been there. Whether we call it Core Essence, True Self, or Authentic Nature, it has been lying fallow. This is why Campbell asserts that the hero begins the story needing to change. Indeed from a psychological standpoint, the entire point of a story is for the Protagonist to become aware of the treasure, embrace and use it to accomplish their goals and move toward a state of unity.
Hence Campbell’s word choice: Recover. Get something back.
Just as Glinda tells Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas” and that she needed to go through the trials and tribulations she did in Oz because “she had to learn it for herself,” so too most Protagonists in their own journeys. Whether it’s Michael Dorsey learning to be a better man by experiencing life as a woman in Tootsie, C.C. Baxter embracing his inner ‘mensch’ in The Apartment, Katniss Everdeen emerging as both warrior and leader in The Hunger Games, and so many other Protagonist examples, we see this dynamic play out again and again in stories.
Oftentimes the key is for the Protagonist to down into their abyss. Hannibal Lecter knew this about Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, that until she managed to overcome her deep, dark anxieties about her associations of her father’s death with the spring slaughter of the lambs on her uncle’s Montana farm, she would never be free. By confessing that terrible memory to Lecter, Clarice prepared herself to descend into an actual abyss — a serial killer’s basement — and face the physicalization of the Boogeyman who killed her father: Buffalo Bill. Her treasure? Saving Catherine Martin and a measure of personal redemption.
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” If ever there was an apt expression of the arc of the Protagonist’s psychological journey, it is this.
About the graphic above: Huge props to Trish Curtin, a delightful person and wonderful writer from Australia. She has created several of these images set to Campbell quotes which I will be sharing over the next few weeks. The images are public domain, so feel free to distribute and spread the inspiration.
Many thanks, Trish!