“See, you got three or four good pals, why then you got yourself a tribe – there ain’t nothing’ stronger than that.” –
– from Young Guns, screenplay by John Fusco
Now the hero fully enters the mysterious, exciting Special World which Joseph Campbell called “a dream landscape of curiously fluid ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trails.” It’s a new and sometimes frightening experience for the hero. No matter how many schools he has been through, he’s a freshman all over again in this new world.
We Seekers are in shock – this new world is so different from the home we’ve always known. Not only are the terrain and the local residents different, the rules of this pace are strange as they can be. Different things are valued here and we have a lot to learn about the local currency, customs, and language. Strange creatures jump out at you! Think fast! Don’t eat that, it could be poison!
Exhausted by the journey across the desolate threshold zone, we’re running out of time and energy. Remember our people back in Home Tribe are counting on us. Enough sight-seeing, let’s concentrate on the goal. We must go where the food and game and information are to be found. There our skills will be tested, and we’ll come one step to what we seek.
The audience’s first impressions of the Special World should strike a sharp contrast with the Ordinary World. Think of Eddie Murphy’s first look at the Special World of Beverly Hills Cop, which makes such a drastic contrast to his former world of Detroit. Even if the hero remains physically in the same place throughout the story, there is movement and change as new emotional territory is explored. A Special World, even a figurative one, has a different feel, a different rhythm, different priorities and values, and different rules. In Father of the Bride or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, while there is no physical threshold, there’s definitely a crossing into a Special World with new conditions.
When a submarine dives, a wagon train leaves St. Louis, or the starship Enterprise leaves the earth, the conditions and rules of survival change. Things are often more dangerous and the price of mistakes is higher.
The most important function of this period of adjustment to the Special World is testing. Storytellers use this phase to test the hero, putting her through a series of trials and challenges that are meant to prepare her for greater ordeals ahead.
Joseph Campbell illustrates this stage with the tale of Psyche, who is put through a fairy-tale like series of Tests before winning back her lost love, Cupid (Eros). This tale has been wisely interpreted by Robert A. Johnson in his book on feminine psychology, She. Psyche is given three seemingly impossible tasks by Cupid’s jealous mother Venus and passes the Tests with the help of beings to whom she has been kind along the way. She has made Allies.
The Tests at the beginning of Act Two are often difficult obstacles, but they don’t have the maximum life-and- death quality of later events. If the adventure were a college learning experience, Act One would be a series of entrance exams, and the Test stage of Act Two would be a series of pop quizzes, meant to sharpen the hero’s skill in specific areas and prepare her for the more rigorous midterm and final exams coming up.
The Tests may be a continuation of the Mentor’s training. Many Mentors accompany their heroes this far into the adventure, coaching them for the big rounds ahead.
The Tests may also be built into the architecture or landscape of the Special World. This world is usually dominated by a villain or Shadow who is careful to surround his world with traps, barricades, and checkpoints. It’s common for heroes to fall into traps here or trip the Shadow’s security alarms. How the hero deals with these traps is part of the Testing.
ALLIES AND ENEMIES
Another function of this stage is the making of Allies or Enemies. It’s natural for heroes just arriving in the Special World to spend some time figuring out who can be trusted and relied upon for special services, and who is not to be trusted. This too is a kind of Test, examining if the hero is a good judge of character.
Heroes may walk into the Test stage looking for information, but they may walk out with new friends or Allies. In Shane, a shaky partnership between the gunfighters Shane (Alan Ladd) And the farmer (Van Heflin) Is cemented into a real friendship by the shared ordeal of saloon-shattering brawl. When John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves gradually makes alliances with Kicking Bear (Graham Greene) And the wolf he names Two Socks.
Westerns frequently make use of a long-standing bond between a hero and a sidekick, an Ally who generally rides with the hero and supports his adventures. The Lone Range has Tonto, Zorro has the servant Bernardo, the Cisco Kid has Pancho. These pairings of hero and sidekick can be found throughout myth and literature: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Prince Hal and Falstaff, or the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh and his wild companion Enkidu.
These close Allies of the hero may provide comic relief as well as assistance. Comical sidekicks, played by character actors such as Walter Brennan, Gabby Hays, Fuzzy Knight, and Slim Pickens, provide humour lacking in their stalwart, serious heroes they accompany. Such figures may freely cross the boundaries between Mentor and Trickster, sometimes aiding the hero and acting as his conscience, sometimes comically goofing up or causing mischief.
The Testing stage may also provide the opportunity for the forging of a team. Many stories feature multiple heroes or a hero backed up by a team of characters with special skills or qualities. The early phases of Act Two may cover the recruiting of a team, or give an opportunity for the team to make plans and rehearse a difficult operation. The World War II adventure films The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape show the heroes bonding into a coherent team before tackling the main event of the story. In the Testing stage the hero may have to struggle against rivals for control of the group. The strengths and flaws of the team members are revealed during Testing.
In a romance, the Testing stage might be the occasion for a first date or for some shared experience that begins to build the relationship, such as the tennis match between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall.
Heroes can also make bitter enmities at this stage. They may encounter the Shadow or his servants. The hero’s appearance in the Special World may tip the Shadow to his arrival and trigger a chain of threatening events. The cantina sequence in Star Wars sets up a conflict with the villain Jabba the Hutt which culminates in The Empire Strikes Back. Enemies include both the villains or antagonists of stories and their underlings. Enemies may perform functions of other archetypes such as the Shadow, the Trickster, the Threshold Guardian, and sometimes the Herald.
A special type of Enemy is the rival, the hero’s competition in love, sports, business, or some other enterprise. The rival is usually not out to kill the hero, but is just trying to defeat him in the competition. In the film The Last of the Mohicans, Major Duncan Hayward is the rival of hero Nathaniel Poe because they both want the same woman, Cora Munro. The plot of Honeymoon in Vegas revolves around a similar rivalry between the hapless hero (Nicolas Cage) And his gambler opponent (James Caan).
The new rules of the Special World must be learned quickly by the hero and the audience. As Dorothy enters the land of Oz, she is bewildered when Glinda the Good asks, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” In Dorothy’s Ordinary World of Kanas, there are only bad witches, but in the Special World of Oz, witches can also be good, and fly in pink bubbles instead of broomsticks. Another Test of the hero is how quickly she can adjust to the new rules of the Special World.
At this stage a Western may impose certain conditions on people entering a town or a bar. In Unforgiven, guns cannot be worn in the sheriff’s territory. This restriction can draw the hero into conflicts. A hero may enter a bar to discover that the town is totally polarized by two factions: the cattlemen vs. the farmers, the Earps vs. the Clantons, the bounty hunters vs the sheriff, and so on. In the pressure cooker of the saloon, people size each other up and take sides for the coming showdown. The cantina sequence in Star Wars draws on the images we all have of Western saloons as places for reconnaissance, challenges, alliances, and the learning of new rules.
Why do so many heroes pass through bars and saloons at this point in the stories? The answer lies in the hunting metaphor of the Hero’s Journey. Upon leaving the Ordinary World of village or den, hunters will often head straight for a watering hole to look for game. Predators sometimes follow the muddy tracks left by game who come down to drink. The watering hole is a natural congregating place and a good spot to observe and get information. It’s no accident that we call neighbourhood saloons and cocktail lounges our “local watering holes.”
The crossing of the First Threshold may have been long, lonely, and dry. Bars are natural spots to recuperate, pick up gossip, make friends, and confront Enemies. They also allow us to observe people under pressure, when true character is revealed. How Shane handles himself in a bar fight convinces a farmer to become his Ally and stand up to the bully cattlemen. In the tense bar-room confrontation in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker sees flashes of Obi Wan Kenobi’s spiritual power and Han Solo’s “look out for Number One” mentality. The bar can be a microcosm of the Special World, a place through which everyone must pass, sooner or later, like the saloon in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, says the title of the play on which Casablanca is based.
Bars also play host to a number of other activities including music, flirting, and gambling. This stage in a story, whether it takes place in a bar or not, is a good place for a musical sequence that announces the mood of the Special World. A nightclub act may allow the introduction of a romantic interest, as in Jessica Rabbit’s sensational torch song in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Music can express the dualities of the Special World as well. At this stage in Casablanca the polarities are movingly presented in a musical duel between the passionate “Marsellaise” sung by the French patriots and the brutal “Deutschland uber Alles” sung by the Nazis.
In the lonely outposts of adventure, saloons or their equivalent may be the only places for sexual intrigue. Bars can be the arena for flirting, romance, or prostitution. A hero may strike up a relationship in a bar to get information, and incidentally acquire an Ally or a lover.
Gambling and saloons go together, and games of chance are a natural feature of the Testing stage. Heroes may want to consult the oracles to see how luck will favour them. They want to learn about the wheel of fortune, and how luck can be coaxed their way. Through a game the stakes can be raised or a fortune can be lost. In the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, a cosmic family feud is set in motion by a rigged game of chance between two sets of brothers. (The bad guys cheat.)
The phase of Tests, Allies, and Enemies in stories is useful for “getting to know you” scenes where the characters get acquainted with each other and the audience learns more about them. This stage also allows the hero to accumulate power and information in preparation for the next stage: Approach to the Inmost Cave.
QUESTIONING THE JOURNEY
- What is the Testing phase of Sister Act? A League of Their Own? Big? Why do heroes pass through a period of Tests? Why don’t they just go right to the main event entering Act Two?
- How does your story’s Special World differ from the Ordinary World? How can you increase the contrast?
- In what ways is your hero Tested, and when does she make Allies or Enemies? Keep in mind there is no “right” way. The needs of the story may dictate when alliances are made.
- Are there loner heroes who have no Allies?
- Is your hero a single character or group such as a platoon, a crew, a family, or a gang? If it is an “ensemble piece” like The Breakfast Club or The Big Chill, when does the team become a coherent group? How does your hero react to the Special World with its strange rules and unfamiliar people?