Joseph Campbell has written about the recurring patterns of the Hero’s Journey he has observed in classic literature from ancient stories like The Odyssey and Don Quixote through more modern tales, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Campbell observed that, in these mythologies, the Hero is always called upon or forced to embark on a journey to address a major problem or seek a grand goal. As the journey commences, the Hero crosses a threshold, going from the known to the unknown world. Along the way, he invariably finds helpers and tools to help his mission. Then, he faces a series of trials, setbacks, some atonement, and then overcomes a life-threatening abyss or two before he returns home victoriously to the known world. In these tales, the Hero’s successes make him wiser, richer, or in some way more capable or valuable as a person and as a member of his community. See model below:
Consider the Hero’s Call to the Journey in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although Huckleberry Finn is the hero, his mission is not defined until his helper, Jim joins his adventure. Although these two characters have different reasons for embarking on their Journey, they wind up embracing it together. Both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn meet Campbell’s definitions of a Heroic Journey. In Tom Sawyer, Tom and Huck are partners who seek and find a fortune after risking death from Injun’ Joe and from getting stuck in an endless cave. In my last Huck Finn column, I commented on how Judge Thatcher helped Huck hide his share of the treasure from his abusive father-Pap. In his story, Huck feels compelled to change his situation because he has been stifled by Miss Watson’s efforts to sivilize him. Even more, he is afraid that his alcoholic dad will seriously harm or kill him. Thus, he devises a series of stunts, involving the blood of a sheep he has killed. This makes it seem, to Pap and the rest of the community, that he has been killed by robbers and dumped in the river. Rather than having a specific goal, he feels compelled to escape by paddling a canoe away from the town he grew up and far down the Mississippi River.
Huck relates the extent of his plan: “I dropped the canoe down the river under some willows that hung over the bank, and waited for the moon to rise.” He says, “I made fast to a willow; then I took a bite to eat, and by and by laid down in the canoe to smoke a pipe and lay out a plan. I says to myself, they’ll follow the track of that sackful of rocks to the shore and then drag the river for me. And they’ll follow that meal track to the lake and go browsing down the creek that leads out of it to find the robbers that killed me and took the things. They won’t ever hunt the river for anything but my dead carcass. They’ll soon get tired of that, and won’t bother no more about me. All right; I can stop anywhere I want to. Jackson’s Island is good enough for me; I know that island pretty well, and nobody ever comes there. And then I can paddle over to town nights, and slink around and pick up things I want. Jackson’s Island’s the place.” Once he starts floating down the river he starts to enjoy the freedom of leaving the world he knew: “I got out amongst the driftwood, and then laid down in the bottom of the canoe and let her float. I laid there, and had a good rest and a smoke out of my pipe, looking away into the sky; not a cloud in it. The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water on such nights.”
As Huck settles on Jackson Island, he runs into Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, and conveys the details of his escape plan to him. Jim is so impressed, that he says that Tom Sawyer couldn’t have come up with a better plan. Huck is also interested in learning how and why Jim wound up on the island. At first, the slave is reluctant to tell him unless Huck promises not to turn him in. Huck agrees and Jim simply tells him, “I – run off.” He says that Miss Watson often treats him “pooty rough” but the reason he ran off is that he had heard her talking about selling him to another slave owner in New Orleans for $800. Therefore, Jim did not escape because he was a slave; he escaped because he didn’t want to be uprooted from the devil of the world he knew, to be sold to the devil of the world that might even be worse than the one he knew. However, his ultimate dream is to gain his freedom, get a job and then buy the freedom of his wife and children. Although Huck is afraid that people might call him an abolitionist for harboring a slave, he gradually embraces the idea of also making Jim’s ultimate goal the main reason for his Journey. He assures Jim that he intends to keep his secret: “I said I wouldn’t [tell], and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum — but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t a-going to tell, and I ain’t a-going back there, anyways.” Since neither Huck nor Jim can return home until they complete their Heroic Journey, they embark on a raft together floating toward the unknown world, experiencing many fantastic and memorable adventures.
Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is a co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.