Exploring the “Inmost Cave” and the Hero’s necessary descent into darkness

Ancient Greek initiation rites included a ‘Night Journey,’ a ritualised form of chthonic descent, or katabasis, an atavistic experience, apparently carried out in actual caverns or catacombs.

Ancient Greek initiation rites included a ‘Night Journey,’ a ritualised form of chthonic descent, or katabasis, an atavistic experience, carried out in caverns or catacombs.

This phase of the Hero’s journey brings the greatest tests of his resolve, courage, and character. Even if the he never faces literal death, he faces the death of his personality structures. Something will be sacrificed; some part of him will be left behind in the Inmost Cave. In this way, the Hero is initiated into his own inner mysteries, and is forever changed.

Stage Seven: Approach To The Inmost Cave

For Joseph Campbell’s initiates, this part of the journey was literal; his research was concerned with real tribesmen who went knowingly into bear caves to face death as a form of initiation into manhood. For the writer, the “inmost cave” is a metaphor that can be applied to the most dangerous place in your story the Hero will be lucky to emerge from with his life intact (or, if you’re not writing an action-adventure story, with his sense of self or something else he values highly, perhaps a love relationship).

“Approaching” this “inmost cave” therefore represents a testing ground for the Hero and his allies, as well as an opportunity for enemies to get the upper hand (for a time). Campbell referred to this experience as “being in the belly of the whale,” which refers to Jonah’s Biblical story of descent, much like Orpheus, into Stygian blackness. Vogler refers to the ‘cave’ as a ‘shamanic’ place, caught between life and death.

For his sin of running from God's request ("Refusing the Call") Jonah is sacrificed to the sea. A whale swallows him; Jonah sits for three days and nights, mulling over his promise to God. When he emerges from the belly of the whale, he accepts God's call, and, a changed man, commits himself to the quest God set out for him.

For his sin of running from God’s request (“Refusing the Call”) Jonah is sacrificed to the sea. A whale swallows him; Jonah sits for three days and nights in the whale’s belly, mulling over his promise to God. When he emerges from the belly of the whale, he accepts God’s call, and, a changed man, commits himself to the quest God set out for him.

From my research into Ancient Greek mystery cults, this moment in your plot aligns with the stage of initiation where the supplicant is expected to lose his or her psychological, and possibly physical, innocence during a complicated (and probably drugged) process that leads toward increased self-awareness, as well as an eventual change of status.

This usually involves being blindfolded and guided into a cave, to have one’s senses distorted by darkness and confusion.

For the character in your book, this metaphor might have to be extended and stretched a bit. In terms of the psychological motivations your character will have to exhibit, however, the “inmost cave” might be an apt metaphor for this phase of the journey. The “inmost cave” is the place of greatest ‘danger,’ as you define it, for the purposes of your story.

Some questions to ask yourself during this phase are:

  1. In what ways is the Hero, in facing external challenges, also encountering inner demons and defenses?
  2. Is there a physical Inmost Cave or headquarters of the villain which the Heroes approach?
  3. Is there some emotional equivalent (not all stories are going to include a villain’s lair, after all).
  4. Does conflict build, and do the obstacles get more difficult or interesting?

I think it’s important to keep in mind that this phase of the Hero’s journey is often a prolonged ‘battle’ scene of some kind, in which the Hero does internal (psychological) or external (fighting) battle with his or her opponent, so as to gain access to the “villain’s” lair. 

Until it became fashionable to be bitten and transformed into a vampire, loss of life was considered a scary venture.

Until it became fashionable to be bitten and transformed into a vampire, transformation from being alive to becoming the undead was considered a scary venture.

Stage Eight: The Ordeal

The Hero is finally in the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave, facing the “greatest challenge and the most fearsome opponent yet” (155) which might be a villain, or one’s own self-doubts. Vogler says the “simple secret” of the Ordeal is that, (similarly to the initiation ceremony), s/he must die to be reborn. Obviously, this will not always be a physical death; the death is to some part of the psyche, the old way of being. The popular version of this motif nowadays is the vampire story, which requires that the supplicant of the mystery give up something precious to her—her life—before she can be initiated into a new world, a new reality.

Most stories deal with the “death” of the character’s personality structure, which is also a large part of ancient initiation ceremonies. What you previously thought, believed, or hoped, was important, must be sacrificed so that a new, more self-aware you can be reborn. This is as true for writers as it is for their characters (and Vogler makes the point that the writer’s journey is a hero’s journey,’ of sorts).

The point for the Greeks was the “purification process, the change of status, even the identity” of the initiate; compare that to what your characters undergo, and you’ll see a similarity as they are forced to enter the darkest cave of their fears and engage with “the enemy,” which might even be a projected part of themselves.

The Ordeal is usually “the central event of the story, or the main event of the second act” (156). It represents a crisis where “things have to get worse before they can get better” (157). In a love story, the lovers have to be separated at this point, perhaps irrevocably, while one of them denies his or her feelings. This process might take the entire movie to resolve, with the one who is in denial either realising, at the end, that s/he really does love the other after all; or, conversely, in a tragedy or sad story, never coming to this profound inner awareness, never changing, never making the sacrifice that must be made if the character is to transform into a new, more committed ‘self’.

Even love stories have their transforming moments. Rochester and Jane will soon be parted, perhaps forever, by the truth he's been hiding.

Even love stories have life and death ordeals. In “Jane Eyre,” Rochester faces physical death, Jane the death of her dreams. Rochester and Jane will soon be parted, perhaps forever, by the truth he’s been hiding. Rochester will have to sacrifice a great deal to win back Jane’s love.

Stage Nine: Reward

Although adventure stories like The Hobbit literally show the Hero, Bilbo, gaining a reward of priceless gems and gold after facing his ordeal of a near-death experience at the hands of goblins, most stories are not quite so obvious. Once again, writers will mostly rely on metaphor to show how their Hero has “won” or claimed victory after surviving death in the “inmost cave.”

Step one on this part of the journey might be the Hero acknowledging those who haven’t made it out of the cave, the friends and allies who fell while supporting him. Similar to the pause to muster forces during the “approach to the inmost cave,” the period of Reward requires that the Hero, not done yet, stops and assesses what has happened so far, the extent to which s/he’s changed, while they figure out what to do next.

As you’d expect for someone who emerges from the life-changing experience of the Inmost Cave, perceptions, including self-perceptions, are altered. This alteration is necessary if the ‘reward’ of this phase of the Hero’s experience is to bear fruit. Whereas Vogler calls this experience “seizing the sword” (in reference to Arthurian or Grail quest stories, where receiving, seizing, or stealing a sword leads to the Hero’s ultimate fated victory), Campbell refers to it as a great gift, or “boon” which the Hero earns, and will, ideally, share with his village.

I had to translate Vogler’s phrase (“seizing the sword”) into Joseph Campbell’s language (“gaining the boon”), then compare all of that to Campbell’s inspiration, a French ethnographer and folklorist who wrote about the history of rites of passage, before I could understand what it is that Vogler’s really getting at in this phase of the Hero’s journey.

Questions to consider now include:

  1. What does the Hero of your story take possession of after facing death or his greatest fears?
  2. Does your hero realise he has changed?
  3. Is he self-reflective, does he recognize there are wider ramifications for his actions?
  4. Has your Hero learned to deal with his inner flaws?
  5. What does he learn by witnessing, causing, or experiencing death?
  6. How is your Hero transformed by his experiences; what does he turn into, what type of person?

Next blog post: Stages 10-12


The Hero’s Archetypal Journey

People are always suggesting books for me to read, for which I am grateful, because I can’t think of everything.

51473OvY5zL._SS500_Recently, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, insisted on being read, and it’s a good thing it did, because Christopher Vogler‘s how-to, inspired by his years as a story editor for Disney and Fox Studios, helped me reframe my ideas about my characters. I now see my characters very differently. Instead of thinking “This character must now do something, but what?” Vogler has helped me see my characters as archetypes with special functions and roles that they must do if the story is to fulfill its purpose.

Borrowing from Joseph Campbell, whose groundbreaking research on the psychological import of archetypes in the story tradition appears in his 1949 book on the universality of myths across cultures, The Hero With A Thousand FacesVogler adds to Campbell’s findings by incorporating research on the underlying themes of fairytales conducted by Vladimir Propp, scholar of Russian folktales. Vogler then weaves what is known about archetypal characters with his experience overseeing scripts for major movie studios Fox and Disney.


The book is unlike the movie in many ways, yet both contain archetypal characters.

Although the book seems more germane for screenwriters, Vogler’s ideas are what matters. If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you know the movie is very different than the book, but Vogler relies on this movie (and many others) to make his points about the function and role of archetypes.

Dorothy is “the Hero,” of course. The Wizard of Oz is a “Mentor,” as is Glinda, The Good Witch, but the Wizard also functions as a “Shapeshifter” and a “Threshold Guardian.” Tin Man, Scarecrow, and The Cowardly Lion are all “Allies.”

The Hero’s Journey is a pattern that seems to extend in many dimensions, describing more than one reality. It accurately describes, among other things, the process of making a journey, the necessary working parts of a story, the joys and despairs being a writer, and the passage of a soul through life.

How do these archetypes work? According to Vogler, there are only so many types of characters who show up in the hero’s story. Each character might fulfill more than one archetypal function, as with The Wizard, who not only helps, but also challenges Dorothy, and actively tries to block her progress.

There are only so many actions one needs, or should expect, from one’s characters, though; each character exists to, in some fundamental way, facilitate the Hero’s experience, if not by helping with goodwill, then by hindering and testing the Hero’s resolve (a remarkably useful factor most Heros only appreciate in hindsight). The journey can be either inner or outer, but must involve leaving the comfortable world of the known for the scary world of that which is unknown, untried, untested. Along the way, the Hero must encounter obstacles. In response, the Hero changes, becoming more than s/he would have done if ‘the call to change’ had never come.

The cast of characters in each story, therefore, is made up of the following, in one guise or other:

The Hero: In psychological terms, the archetype of the Hero represents what Freud called the Ego. Ultimately, a Hero is one who is able to transcend the bounds and illusions of the ego, but at first, Heroes are all ego. The journey of many Heroes is the story of their separation from the family or tribe. The Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness.

Mentor (Wise Old Man or Woman): Mentors represent the Self, the god part within us. They are our conscience, and function to guide us on the correct path. They stand for the Hero’s highest aspirations. They represent what the Hero might become if he persists on the Heroic path.

Typically, the Mentor gives the Hero an important “gift” of some kind s/he will need to succeed on the journey (think of Dorothy’s red slippers; Glinda functions as a Mentor to Dorothy on her journey, keeping her, literally and figuratively ‘on the correct path’). In Star Wars, Obi Wan gives Luke his light-saber. The gift might also be one of advice, or of planting a seed of wisdom the Hero will one day need.

Threshold Guardian: This can be any testing situation, and it can also be a character. Vogler says that this psychological state represents ‘neurosis,’ but is not necessarily represented by a person. The Threshold Guardian might be a bad storm, or a test of any kind that blocks or creates an obstacle the Hero can stand up to and learn from. The Threshold Guardian might even transform into an Ally, if the Hero turns the energy of the obstacle around. In The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard functions as a Threshold Guardian at one point, an Ally later on, after Dorothy has successfully navigated obstacles.

Herald: The Herald—no surprise—is someone or something who/that brings news of some kind, in order to move the plot along. Vogler says the Herald’s deeper purpose is to allow the Hero to hear the ‘call for change,’ so The Herald pushes the story along, by forcing new, and necessary, information upon the Hero.

[This is the point at which I became unblocked, for I realised that what the story needed at that precise moment where I’d left off months before was someone to come in and motivate my reluctant Hero/protagonist. My protagonist was not moving the plot along because he was doing something Vogler calls “Refusing the call” to take up the Hero’s challenge. Vogler says that even though this, on its own, is fine, it must be a temporary condition.

The Hero can and should, initially, refuse the call, otherwise you don’t get to see him struggle with the seriousness of what’s about to happen to him. He has to eventually take up the call, though, otherwise you don’t have much of a story. I was probably letting my protagonist’s reluctance take over at that point, but also, I just lacked direction. I knew I had to get him to go do something, but what?

In fact, thinking of my ‘hero’ as a protagonist was, and is, part of what’s blocking me, because I don’t know specifically what protagonists “do,” other than acting in response to the antagonist. So the model I learned has limited my ability to write this particular story, I discovered.]

Shapeshifter: The Shapeshifter, unsurprisingly, is the most complex in some ways of all the archetypes Vogler discusses. First, the Shapeshifter represents the anima or animus, and is always a nebulous, changing character that the Hero cannot quite pin down or understand. Vogler says the Shapeshifter is quite often the love interest of the Hero, and personifies doubt or uncertainty, bringing suspense and tension to the plot. Will the Shapeshifter emerge as an Ally, for example, or is the Shapeshifter the Hero’s hidden enemy? Shapeshifters therefore show up most often in film noir and thriller genres.


Who is this woman? Jimmy Stewart almost loses his mind trying to find out.

A great Shapeshifter example comes from the Hitchcock movie Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart’s character projects his own inner turmoil onto Kim Novak’s character, as she morphs from one woman into another. She functions to keep him off balance, while her erstwhile “boyfriend” gets away with murder, literally.

Another Shapeshifter is Michael Douglas’ character in Romancing The Stone; will he or won’t he rescue the damsel in distress? Is he or isn’t he faithful? Shapeshifters might turn into Allies; you never know.

Shadow: The Shadow exists to perform complicated functions for the Hero. For one thing, the Shadow might be his own inner demons, suppressed subconscious urges. The Shadow might also represent the traditional Antagonist, or Villain, upon whom Vogler, focusing on the psychology of the Hero, might project his angst onto another character.

The Wicked Witch of the West makes such a great Shadow, not only for Dorothy, but also for the Munchkins. But she shows her humanity by caring what happens to her sister, and we feel a little bit of consternation when she dissolves into a melted puddle.

The Wicked Witch of the West makes such a great Shadow, not only for Dorothy, but also for the Munchkins. But she shows her humanity by caring what happens to her sister, and we feel a little bit of consternation when she dissolves into a melted puddle.

The Shadow exists to provide conflict and ‘bring out the best’ in the Hero, giving him a ‘worthy opponent in the struggle.’ The Shadow might also be the self-destructive element of the Hero’s personality, although the story is “only as good as its villain,” so the Shadow, whether it’s written as a character or a character flaw in the Hero, plays a crucial role in driving the story.

The Shadow is made more interesting if s/he has a redeeming quality, shows empathy, or in some way is humanized. Here, I’m thinking of Snape, in Harry Potter, who is built up over the course of the story as Harry’s nemesis, and yet, in fact, harbors secret love for Lily Potter, Harry’s mother. 

Ally: Allies are often the Hero’s companion, providing comic relief, a sparring partner, or even a conscience. Allies function in useful ways; they’re there when the Hero wants to unburden himself, or needs someone to talk to. Allies move the plot along by suggesting things for the Hero to do. Allies can be sent on fact-finding expeditions of their own. Allies often perform a task the Hero, for some reason, cannot perform on his or her own (like Toto, who escapes the Wicked Witch’s lair, and runs off to get help).

According to Vogler, Allies function psychologically as the otherwise unused parts of our personalities, but they can also be parts of the personality that come to the fore when they’re most needed (an internal strength the Hero doesn’t know she possesses, as happens for Dorothy at the end of the movie, when her Mentor, Glinda, tells her she always had the power to return home. Similarly, Harry Potter fights off Dementors in the guise of his ‘father,’ never knowing it’s he himself repelling the Dementors in Book Three, The Prisoner of Azkaban).

Allies Hermione and Ron are there to suggest alternate ways of doing something, and prop Harry up when he becomes dispirited or angry; in this way, they function to allow the Hero to be more than he would have been without them tagging along. They are allowed to express things the Hero might be feeling, but cannot say, and ’round out’ the Hero’s character.

Trickster: This archetype represents the spirit of mischief and introduces into a story that’s become emotionally difficult or grim the potent desire for change. The Trickets draws  attention to any imbalance in the plot or characters, and the absurdity of a stagnant psychological situation. The Trickster is the natural enemy of the status quo. In stories, Tricksters are embodied most often in the form of clowns and sidekicks, but can also be the Hero of their own journey.

In The Hobbit, the story threatens to bog down because chief dwarf Thorin is determined not to let anyone share the dwarves’ recaptured stronghold of wealth once guarded by Smaug. Smaug is now dead, but if Thorin doesn’t allow his merry band to leave their Lonely Mountain fortress, they will starve.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Tolkien excelled at creating the hero’s journey, even though his heros were only 4 feet tall. Illustration by David T. Wenzel (click the picture to see his website with its other glorious images)


Bilbo, having already worn the mask of the Trickster/Hero, dons the One Ring, and slips off to the camp of the Elven King, with whom he parleys, offering the Elves a way to negotiate with intractable Thorin: the fabulous Arkenstone, which, by rights, belongs to the Dwarves. This Trickster action restarts the plot, and the action-adventure, which had threatened to bog down irretrievably due to Thorin’s stubbornness, can now move once again. Bilbo frequently upsets the status quo throughout the course of The Hobbit, by questioning the dwarves’ beliefs, making mistakes, stealing,  and creating riddles that so befuddle Gollum, the creature realises too late that his Precious has been stolen.

Join me in the next section, “Challenging Your Hero on the stages of his journey.”

Related articles