“You’re not cut out for this, Joan, and you know it.”
– from Romancing the Stone, screenplay by Diane Thomas
The problem of the hero now becomes how to respond to the Call to Adventure. Put yourself in the hero’s shoes and you can see that it’s a difficult passage. You’re being asked to say yes to a great unknown, to an adventure that will be exciting but also dangerous and even life-threatening. It wouldn’t be a real adventure otherwise. You stand at a threshold of fear, and an understandable reaction would be to hesitate or even refuse the Call, at least temporarily.
Gather your gear, fellow Seeker. Think ahead to possible dangers, and reflect on past disasters. The specter of the unknown walks among us, halting our progress at the threshold. Some of us turn down the quest, some hesitate, some are tugged at by families who fear for our lives and don’t want us to go. You hear people mutter that the journey is foolhardy, doomed from the start. You feel fear constricting your breathing and making your heart race. Should you stay with the Home Tribe, and let others risk their necks in the quest? Are you cut out to be a Seeker?
This halt on the road before the journey has really started serves as an important dramatic function of signalling the audience that the adventure is risky. It’s not a frivolous undertaking but a danger-filled, high-stakes gamble in which the hero might lose fortune or life. The pause to weigh the consequences makes the commitment to the adventure a real choice in which the hero, after this period of hesitation or refusal, is willing to stake her life against the possibility of winning the goal. It also forces the hero to examine the quest carefully and perhaps redefine its objectives.
It’s natural for heroes to first react by trying to dodge the adventure. Even Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of the Crucifixion, prayed “Let this cup pass from me.” He was simply checking to see if there was any way of avoiding the ordeal. Is this trip really necessary?
Even the most heroic of movie heroes will sometimes hesitate, express reluctance, or flatly refuse the Call. Rambo, Rocky, and innumerable John Wayne characters turn away from the offered adventure at first. A common grounds for Refusal is past experience Heroes claim to be veterans of past adventures which have taught them the folly of such escapades. You won’t catch them getting into the same kind of trouble again. The protest continues until the hero’s Refusal is overcome, either by some stronger motivation (such as the death or kidnapping of a friend or relative) which raises the stakes, or by the hero’s inborn taste for adventure or sense of honour.
Detectives and lovers may refuse the Call at first, referring to experiences which have made them sadder but wiser. There is charm in seeing a hero’s reluctance overcome, and the stiffer the Refusal, the more an audience enjoys seeing it worn down.
Heroes most commonly Refuse the Call by stating a laundry list of weak excuses. In a transparent attempt to delay facing their inevitable fate, they say they would undertake the adventure, if not for a pressing series of engagements. These are temporary roadblocks, usually overcome by the urgency of the quest.
PERSISTENT REFUSAL LEADS TO TRADEGY
Persistent Refusal of the Call can be disastrous. In the Bible, Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt for denying God’s Call to leave her home in Sodom and never look back. Looking backward, dwelling in the past, and denying reality are forms of Refusal.
Continued denial of a high Calling is one of the marks of a tragic hero. At the beginning of Red River, Tom Dunston refuses a Call to an adventure of the heart and begins a slide into almost certain doom. He continues to refuse Calls to open his heart, and is on the path of a tragic hero. It’s only when he finally accepts the Call in Act Three that he is redeemed and spared the tragic hero’s fate.
Actually Tom Dunston faces two calls to Adventure at once. The Call to the heart’s adventure comes from his sweetheart, but the one he answers is the Call of his male ego, telling him to strike out alone on a macho path. Heroes may have to choose between conflicting Calls from different levels of adventure. The Refusal of the Call is a time to articulate the hero’s difficult choices.
Refusal of the Call is usually a negative moment in the hero’s progress, a dangerous moment in which the adventure might go astray or never get off the ground at all. However, there are some special cases in which refusing the Call is a wise and positive move on the part of the hero. When the Call is a temptation to evil or a summons to disaster, the hero is smart to say no. The Three Little Pigs wisely refused to open the door to the Big Bad Wolf’s powerful arguments. In Death Becomes Her, Bruce Willis’ character receives several powerful Calls to drink a magic potion of immortality. Despite an alluring sales pitch by Isabella Rossellini, he Refuses the Call and saves his own soul.
ARTIST AS HERO
Another special case in which Refusal of the Call can be positive is that of the artist as hero. We writers, poets, painters, and musicians face difficult, contradictory Calls. We must fully immerse ourselves in the world to find the material for our art. But we must also at times withdraw from the world, going alone to actually make the art. Like many heroes of story, we receive conflicting Calls, one from the outer world, one from our own insides, and we must choose or make compromises. To answer the Call of what Joseph Campbell terms “the blandishments of the world.”
When you are getting ready to undertake a great adventure, the Ordinary World knows somehow and clings to you. It sings its sweetest, most insistent song, like the Sirens trying to draw Odysseus and his crew onto the rocks. Countless distractions tempt you off track as you begin to work. Odysseus had to stop up the ears of his men with wax so they wouldn’t be lured onto the rocks by the Siren’s bewitching song.
However, Odysseus first had his men tie him to the mast, so he could hear the Sirens but would be unable to steer the ship into danger. Artists sometimes ride through life like Odysseus lashed to the mast, with all senses deeply experiencing the song of life, but also voluntarily bound to the ship of their art. They are refusing the powerful Call of the world, in order to follow the wider Call of artistic expression.
While many heroes express fear, reluctance, or refusal at this stage, others don’t hesitate or voice any fear. They are willing heroes who have accepted or even sought out to “victimized heroes”. However, the fear and doubt represented by the Refusal of the Call will find expression even in the stories of willing heroes. Other characters will express the fear, warning the hero and the audience of what may happen on the road ahead.
A willing hero like John Dunbar from Dances with Wolves may be past the fear of personal death. He has already sought out death in the first sequence of the movie as he rides suicidally in front of Rebel rifles and is miraculously spared. He seeks out the adventure of the West willingly, without refusal or reluctance. But the danger and harshness of the prairie is made clear to the audience through the fate of other characters who represent Refusal of the Call. One is the mad, pathetic Army officer who gives Dunbar his scribbled “orders”. He shows a possible fate for Dunbar. The frontier is so strange and challenging that it can drive some people insane. The officer has been unable to accept the reality of this world, has retreated into denial and fantasy, and refuses the frontier’s Call by shooting himself.
The other character who bears the energy of Refusal is the scroungy wagon driver who escorts Dunbar to his deserted post. He expresses nothing but fear of the Indians and the prairie, and wants Dunbar to Refuse the Call, abandon his enterprise, and return to civilization. The driver ends up being brutally killed by the Indians, showing the audience another possible fate for Dunbar. Though there is no Refusal by the hero himself, the danger of the adventure is acknowledged and dramatized through another character
Heroes who overcome their fear and commit to an adventure may still be tested by powerful figures who raise the banner of fear and doubt, questioning the hero’s very worthiness to be in the game. They are Threshold Guardians, blocking the heroes before the adventure has even begun.
In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder accepts the Call and is totally committed to the adventure for the sake of her sister in Colombia. However, the moment of fear, the way station of Refusal, is still elaborately acknowledged in a scene with her agent, who wears the fearful mask of a Threshold Guardian. A tough, cynical woman, she forcefully underlines the dangers and tries to talk Joan out of going. Like a witch pronouncing a curse, she declares that Joan is not up to the task of being a hero. Joan even agrees with her, but is now motivated by the danger to her sister. She is committed to the adventure. Though Joan herself does not Refuse the Call, the fear, doubt, and danger have still been made clear to the audience.
Joan’s agent demonstrates how a character may switch masks to show aspects of more than one archetype. She appears at first to be a Mentor and friend to Joan, an ally in her profession and her dealings with men. But this Mentor turns into a fierce Threshold Guardian, blocking the way into the adventure with stern warnings. She’s like an overprotective parent, not allowing the daughter to learn through her own mistakes. Her function at this point is to test the hero’s commitment to adventure.
This character serves another important function. She poses a dramatic question for the audience. Is Joan truly heroic enough to face and survive the adventure? This doubt is more interesting than knowing that the hero will rise to every occasion. Such questions create emotional suspense for the audience, who watch the hero’s progress with uncertainty hanging in the back of their minds. Refusal of the Call often serves to raise such doubts.
It’s not unusual for a Mentor to change masks and perform the function of a Threshold Guardian. Some Mentors guide the hero deeper into the adventure; others block the hero’s path on an adventure society might not approve of – an illicit, unwise, or dangerous path. Such a Mentor / Threshold Guardian becomes a powerful embodiment of society or culture, warning the hero not to go outside the accepted bounds. In Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy’s Detroit police boss stands in his way, orders him off the case, and draws a line which Murphy is not supposed to cross. Of course Murphy does cross the line, immediately.
THE SECRET DOOR
Heroes inevitably violate limits set by Mentors or Threshold Guardians, due to what we might call the Law of the Secret Door. When Belle in Beauty and the Beast is told she has the run of the Beast’s household, except for one door which she must never enter, we know that she will be compelled at some point to open that secret door. If Pandora is told she must not open the box, she won’t rest until she’s had a peek inside. If Psyche is told she must never look upon her lover Cupid, she will surely find a way to lay eyes on him. These stories are symbols of human curiosity, the powerful drive to know all the hidden things, all the secrets.
Refusal may be a subtle moment, perhaps just a word or two of hesitation between receiving and accepting a Call. (Often several stages of the journey may be combined in a single scene. Folklorists call this “conflation.”) Refusal may be a single step near the beginning of the journey, or it may be encountered at every step of the way, depending on the nature of the hero.
Refusal of the Call can be an opportunity to redirect the focus of the adventure. An adventure taken on a lark or to escape some unpleasant consequence may be nudged into a deeper adventure of the spirit.
A hero hesitates at the threshold to experience the fear, to let the audience know the formidability of the challenges ahead. But eventually fear is overcome or set aside, often with the help of wise, protective forces or magical gifts, representing the energy of the next stage, Meeting the Mentor.
QUESTIONING THE JOURNEY
- How does the hero Refuse the Call in Fatal Attraction? Pretty Woman? A League of Their Own? Is Refusal of the Call or reluctance a necessary stage for every story? For every hero?
- What are the heroes of your story afraid of? Which are false fears or paranoia? Which are real fears? How are they expressed?
- In what ways have they refused Calls to Adventure, and what are the consequences of Refusal?
- If the protagonists are willing heroes, are there characters or forces that make the dangers clear for the audience?
- Have you refused Calls to Adventure, and how would your life be different if you had accepted them?
- Have you accepted Calls to Adventure that you wish you had refused?