What to Read When Teaching the Hero's Journey

In a previous blog post, I discussed how I teach the Hero’s Journey and a project that my students complete to demonstrate their understanding of it. Below are a list of novels, short stories, and poems which each have a protagonist set off on or forced into an adventure and change as a result of it, not necessarily for the better.

Novels
To Kill a Mockingbird: This story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression when quality of life was low and racism was high. The story’s perspective is that of a little girl named Scout Finch who is forced into adventure when her father, Atticus, a prominent lawyer in the community, takes on a case to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. The whole Finch family has to weather the backlash of Atticus’s decision which in turn leads to young Scout being educated in the essential goodness and evil of humanity.

Don Quixote: The protagonist of the novel is Don Quixote, a man so obsessed with fantasy novels of chivalrous knights that he sets out on a quest of his own imagining. Although Don Quixote is only a hero in his own mind, the series of misadventures he embarks upon leaves an impact on himself and the unfortunate people he forces his delusions upon.

Lord of the Flies: After a plane full of young boys crash lands on a deserted island, the protagonist, Ralph, is tasked with leading the group and ensuring their survival until help arrives. Life outside of civilization proves to be trying for the boys as baser instincts and the struggle for power begin to take hold of them. As the boys’ integrity and innocence begin to dissolve, Ralph learns of the savagery within himself and the rest of humanity.

Short Stories
A Sound of Thunder: This thrilling short story by Ray Bradbury tells of a group of hunters who travel back in time to hunt the ultimate prey, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. As with most adventures in time travel, the hunters’ actions have far reaching effects, educating them in the harsh lesson that even the smallest actions have consequences.

Marigolds: On the brink between child and woman, the protagonist, called Lizabeth by her brother, tries to come to terms with the reality of her impoverished life as a black girl living in rural Maryland during the Great Depression. Unable to cope with her helplessness and degradation, she sets out on an endeavor to destroy the only thing she had known to be beautiful, destroying her innocence in the process and spurring her on into adulthood.

Thank you, Ma’am: After a purse theft gone wrong, a boy named Roger is at the mercy of the indomitable Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. Rather than call the police, Mrs. Jones drags Roger to her home to wash him, feed him, and then send him away with money along with an enduring lesson on choices and kindness.

Poems
The Odyssey: Homer’s epic poem is one of the oldest examples of the Hero’s Journey archetype. Odysseus, the protagonist of the epic, is a hero who after having fought in the battle of Troy wishes to return to his kingdom of Ithaca and to his wife Penelope. However, all manner of perils lie in his way including monsters, temptresses, and the wrath of an angry sea god. Unlike most Homeric heroes, Odysseus actually changes over the course of his journey, learning the importance of controlling his temper and pride.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a hedonistic and ravenous king who rules his kingdom cruelly, but is soon changed after the gods bless him with a friend who is nearly a match for the god-king’s greatness, the beastman Enkidu. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on fantastic adventures until Enkidu is struck with illness by the gods and perishes. Mourning his friend and fearing his own death, Gilgamesh embarks on a final adventure to achieve immortality but instead gains the closest to immortality that a mortal can hope for.

Inferno: The protagonist of the poem, Dante, must delve into the deepest pits of hell in order to reach heaven where Dante’s wife, Beatrice, awaits him. Through the horrifying yet vivid imagery of the underworld, Dante learns of the nature of justice as well as evil and God’s will.

If you are looking for a fun and engaging classroom activity, check out last week's blog post!