Thoughts on Mythic Structure: Approach to the Inmost Cave


This is Part 6 of my series on the hero’s journey, or monomyth.

1. This stage of the journey is when the story begins to coalesce around a major confrontation with the antagonist.

The part of the journey that falls under “Tests, Allies and Enemies” can take up quite a bit of the story after the hero crosses over into the world of the adventure. But now everything has to begin to come together and focus on the main battle against the forces of antagonism.

It’s at this point where the main task in The Wizard of Oz changes from “off to see the Wizard” to “acquire the Wicked Witch’s broom and bring it back to the Wizard.” The Scarecrow says, “But we’d have to kill her to get it!” It’s when the Ghostbusters realize there’s more going on than just random ghost sightings, and that an ancient Babylonian god is returning to destroy humanity.

In other words, this is when sh*t starts to get real for your hero.

2. Think of “the approach” as a kind of mid-term examination.

Up to this point, the hero should experience ever-increasing tests, acquiring knowledge of the world, its rules and mastery of skills she may need for her ultimate test. The approach can be seen as a sort of “dry run” or “dress rehearsal” before the final test.

3. It may also foreshadow elements of the ultimate test the hero faces later in the story.

In the book and movie Divergent, the heroine Tris is literally training as an initiate of a faction in her society known as “Dauntless.” Before the major and final confrontation in the story, Tris and her fellow initiates play a war game. There are elements in the game that presage what happens at the end of the story.

4. The hero begins to find acceptance as a part of the extraordinary world.

By winning the game and then participating in the Dauntless ritual of zip-lining across the city, Tris officially becomes a member of her faction. In The LEGO Movie, after laughing at Emmet’s ideas, this is the point where his allies acknowledge Emmet’s value, not only as part of their team, but as a leader.

5. Who’s a real ally and who’s a real enemy begins to become clear to the hero.

Though it’s possible for betrayals and surprising acts of loyalty to still happen later on in the story, it’s here where relationships begin to cement. In Shrek, this is when Donkey finally forces Shrek to acknowledge their friendship, his love for Fiona, and their alliance with Dragon. This is when Tris and Four realize they have feelings for each other. This is when Katniss realizes that Peeta has never been her enemy during The Hunger Games. In the first Harry Potter book, this is when Harry, Ron, and Hermione truly become friends.

6. The characters will use this time to plan.

In The LEGO movie, Emmet outlines his plan to the other characters for stopping Lord Business from destroying their world. In Star Wars: A New Hope, this is when the rebels conceive their plan to take out the Death Star.

7. It is not unusual for there to be some down time before the major confrontation.

Again, use this as an opportunity to solidify relationships between the characters. This is an ideal point for a love scene, for instance. In another “dry-run/dress rehearsal” scene in Divergent, Tris and her mentor Four go through a simulation similar to her final test so she can fool the faction leaders she is not a divergent (belongs to more than one faction). After they successfully complete the simulation, Tris and Four talk about themselves on a personal level and kiss for the first time. This is the point in The Hunger Games when Katniss and Peeta hide out in a cave while Katniss takes care of the injured Peeta and they begin to become close.

8. The hero and his allies may confront some of the most frightening threshold guardians.

In Game of Thrones, as Bran approaches his final destination beyond the Wall, he and his allies are attacked by zombie-like skeletons. Dorothy is kidnapped by the flying monkeys. Harry, Ron and Hermione have to play the life-size game of Wizard’s Chess–which could kill them–before Harry can move on to find the Sorcerer’s Stone.

9. The hero’s mentor may die at this point.

Which makes sense, when you think about it. The hero is about to face the major confrontation with the antagonist, and needs to do it without depending on her mentor. Of course, it is not mandatory for the mentor to die (or even to disappear completely) but any way they are taken off the canvas for a time will do.

In Divergent, while Tris never really loses Four, two of her other mentors (spoiler, so I won’t say who) are both killed.

10. The hero may acquire a new mentor.

In Game of Thrones, Bran loses one of his mentors, Jojen Reed, to the skeletal creatures just before he finds the Three-Eyed Raven, who he has seen in dreams and visions up to this point. Bran thinks the Three-Eyed Raven will cure his paralyzed legs, but instead he tells him he will teach him to fly.

11. The hero will very likely experience fear and doubts at this stage of the journey about her ability to continue on into the inmost cave.

This is one reason for the story’s respite, so the hero can reflect on her abilities, her plans, her allies, her enemies and what steps she needs to take next. This also ratchets up the tension for readers, as they wonder if she will successfully defeat the antagonist during the next stage of the journey.

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