Thoughts on Mythic Structure: Return with the Elixir

This is the 11th and final post in my series on mythic structure, or monomyth.

1. After being reborn and purified through a resurrection experience, our hero finally returns from the Extraordinary World.

The journey has ended. The circle is complete. The hero has, in some sense, returned to the point where she started.

2. It is not unusual for heroes to find themselves waking up in the Ordinary World after their adventure in the Extraordinary World.

After clicking the ruby slippers, Dorothy wakes up in her bed in Kansas. After returning from the past and rescuing Doc Brown from death, Marty also wakes up in his bed. Also returning from the past, Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married wakes up in the present in a hospital bed.

There is definitely a dream-like quality to the Extraordinary World. Even if the hero is not literally waking up from sleep, he is waking up to the reality of his own world.

3. The hero may discover the Ordinary World has changed profoundly.

Although his family members are all the same people, Marty discovers they are quite different from when he left them to journey into the past. Peggy Sue’s estranged husband wants to reconcile.

4. OR (and this is more likely in contemporary/non-fantasy stories)–they discover their perception of the Ordinary World has changed profoundly.

After killing the shark in Jaws, Brody, who was terrified of the water, swims back to shore, marveling at the beauty of the world that once held his deepest fears. Dorothy, who wanted nothing more than to leave home, vows never to leave it again.

It can be a negative perception. In Local Hero, Mac returns to his fast-paced lifestyle and rising career in America, which seemed ideal to him at the beginning of the story. As soon as he gets home, he calls the sleepy Scottish village he just left, already missing it and his new friends.

Most famously, perhaps, is when George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is allowed to return to life after wishing he had never been born. The Ordinary World is exactly the same as when he left it, only now he loves it.

5. How the hero interacts with the Ordinary World has definitely changed.

This is a culmination of the hero’s character arc. In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder was initially afraid of walking through the streets of New York, seeing any stranger who talked to her as a threat. On her return, the street hawkers who used to terrify her just make her smile. George Bailey has learned to accept the bad with the good of his world, and runs joyfully through the streets.

6. The return may be the end of one chapter, but also the beginning of a new one.

This is common in a series. One journey may have ended, but another is on the horizon. On their return as winners in The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta realize they must continue the fiction of their romance to continue surviving and to keep their families safe.

Even if the story is not a series, the return may compel the hero to strike out again into the world of the adventure. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the hero returns home, only to grab some books and take another journey into the future.

An important relationship may end for the hero just as he forms a new one. In Casablanca, hero Rick says goodbye to his love Ilsa forever, but joins with former nemesis Louis to fight against the Nazis.

7. The hero’s return with the “elixir” often results in a renewal of the Ordinary World.

One of the most literal cases of this is when Percival returns to Camelot with the Holy Grail and persuades King Arthur to drink from it. The kingdom, which had been devastated with famine, blooms again.

In a modern story, the “elixir” can be many different things: knowledge, understanding, treasure, a declaration of love, a reunion, renewed relationship(s), a vow to continue the good fight. Anything that may impact the hero’s world can work.

8. The elixir may be something dangerous that needs to be resisted by the hero.

At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has taken possession of the most powerful wand in the world. Instead of keeping it, he destroys it, so no one will ever be tempted to gain that much power again.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark is ultimately crated and stored in a huge government facility so that no one will attempt to use its power again.

9. Marriage is a common motif at the end of the journey.

Not just because it fulfills the notion of “happily ever after.” Marriage of an evolved hero is a harkening back to ancient stories where the tribe is strengthened through children descended from the hero.

10. The death(s) of the hero(es) may also bring about renewal of the Ordinary World–or save it from destruction.

By sacrificing himself, Jack in Lost not only save the island and his friends, he also stops a terrible evil from overtaking the rest of the world.

In Seven Samurai (and its American remake, The Magnificent Seven) several of the heroes die while driving out bandits that had been draining a small village of all its resources. Their sacrifice allows the village to prosper once again.

Well, that’s it for this series! I really enjoyed writing it and hope it is useful to other writers. Please remember to check out the other posts in this series:

The Ordinary World

The Call to Adventure & The Refusal of the Call

Meeting with the Mentor

Crossing the First Threshold

Tests, Allies and Enemies

Approach to the Innermost Cave

The Ordeal


The Road Back



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