Heroes, having made the adjustment to the Special World, now go on to seek its heart. They pass into an intermediate region between the border and the very centre of the Hero’s Journey. On the way they find another mysterious zone with its own Threshold Guardians, agendas, and Tests. This is the Approach to the Inmost Cave, where soon they will encounter supreme wonder and terror. It’s time to make final preparations for the central ordeal of the adventure. Heroes at this point are like mountaineers who have raised themselves to a base camp by the labours of Testing, and are about to make the final assault on the highest peak.
Our band of Seekers leaves the oasis at the edge of the new world, refreshed and armed with more knowledge about the nature and habits of the game we’re hunting. We’re ready to press on the heart of the new world where the greatest treasures are guarded by our greatest fears.
Look around at your fellow Seekers. We’ve changed already and new qualities are emerging. Who’s the leader now? Some who were not suited for life in the Ordinary World are now thriving. Others who seemed ideal for adventure are turning out to be the least able. A new perception of yourself and others is forming. Based on this new awareness, you can make plans and direct yourself towards getting what you want from the Special World. Soon you will be ready to enter the Inmost Cave.
Functions Of Approach
In modern storytelling, certain special functions naturally fall into this zone of Approach. As heroes near the gates of a citadel deep within the Special World, they may take time to make plans, do reconnaissance on the enemy, reorganize or thin out the group, fortify and arm themselves, and have a last laugh and a final cigarette before going over the top into no-man’s-land. The student studies for the midterm. The hunter stalks the game to its hiding place. Adventurers squeeze in a love scene before tackling the central event of the movie.
The Approach can be an arena for elaborate courtship rituals. A romance may develop here, bonding hero and beloved before they encounter the main ordeal. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant meets a beautiful woman (Eva Marie Saint) On a train as he escapes from the police and the enemy spies. He doesn’t know she works for the evil spies and has been assigned to lure him into their trap. However, her seduction backfires and she finds herself actually falling in love with him. Later, thanks to this scene of bonding, she becomes his Ally.
THE BOLD APPROACH
Some heroes boldly stride up to the castle door and demand to be let in. Confident, committed heroes will take this Approach. Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop crashes into the precints of his enemy a number of times at the Approach phase, conning his way past Threshold Guardians and flaunting his intention to upset his opponent’s world. Cary Grant in Gunga Din marches into the Inmost Cave of his antagonists, a cult of assassins, singing an English drinking song at the top of his lungs. His bold Approach is not pure arrogance: He puts on the outrageous show to buy time for his friends Gunga Din to slip away and summon the British army. In true heroic fashion Grant’s character is sacrificing himself and tempting death on behalf of the group.
The Approach of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven is not so much arrogant as ignorant. He rides into the Inmost Cave of the town during a rainstorm, and is unable to see a sign forbidding firearms. This brings him to an ordeal, a beating by the sheriff (Gene Hackman) That almost kills him.
PREPARATION FOR THE ORDEAL
Approach may be a time of further reconnaissance and information-gathering, or a time of dressing and arming for an ordeal. Gunfighters check their weapons, bullfighters dress carefully in their suits of lights.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
The Wizard of Oz has such a well-developed Approach section that we’ll use it throughout this chapter to illuminate some of the functions of this stage.
Having made some Allies in the Testing stage, Dorthy and friends leave the woods on the boarder of Oz and immediately see the glittering Emerald City of their dreams. They Approach in joy, but before they reach their goal, they face a series of obstacles and challenges that will bond them as a group, and prepare them for the life-and-death struggle yet to come.
BEWARE OF ILLUSIONS
First they are put to sleep by a field of poppies sown by the Wicked Witch’s magic. They are brought back to consciousness by a blanket of snow, courtesy of Glinda the Good.
The message is clear: Don’t be seduced by illusions and perfumes, stay alert, don’t fall asleep on the march.
Dorothy and friends reach the City, only to find their way blocked by a rude sentry, a perfect Threshold Guardian (who looks suspiciously like Professor Marvel from Act One). He is a satirical figure, an exaggerated image of a bureaucrat whose job is to enforce stupid, pointless rules. Dorothy identifies herself as the one who dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East, and she has the Ruby Slippers to prove it. This wins the respect of the sentry who admits them immediately, saying “Well that’s a horse of a different color!”
Message: Past experience on the journey may be the hero’s passport to new lands. Nothing is wasted, and every challenge of the past strengths and informs us for the present. We win respect for having made it this far.
The satire of bureaucratic nonsense reminds us that few heroes are exempt from the tolls and rituals of the Special World. Heroes must either pay the price of admission or find a way around the obstacles, as Dorothy does.
ANOTHER SPECIAL WORLD
Dorothy and company enters the wonderland of the City, where everything is green except for a horse pulling a carriage, the famous Horse of a Different Colour who changes hue every time you look at him. The Driver also looks like Professor Marvel.
Message: You’ve entered yet another little Special World, with different rules and values. You may encounter a series of these like Chinese boxes, one inside the other, a series of shells protecting some central source of power. The multi-coloured horse is a signal that rapid change is coming. The detail of several characters looking alike, or the same character taking a variety of roles, is a reminder we are in a dream world ruled by forces of comparison, association, and transformation. The protean changes of Professor Marvel suggest that a single powerful mind is at work in Oz, or that Dorothy’s dream, if that’s what it is, has been deeply influenced by his personality. Professor Marvel has become an animus figure for Dorothy: a focus for her projections about mature male energy. Her father is dead or absent and the male figures around the farm, Uncle Henry and the three farmhands, are weak. She is seeking an image of what a father can be, and projects Professor Marvel’s paternal energy onto every authority figure she sees. If the Good Witch Glinda is a surrogate mother or positive anima for her, these variations of Professor Marvel are surrogate fathers.
Dorothy and friends are primped, pampered, and prepared for their meeting with the Wizard, in the beauty parlours and machine shops of the Emerald City.
Message: Heroes know they are facing a great ordeal, and are wise to make themselves as ready as they’ll ever be, like warriors polishing and sharpening their weapons, or students doing final drills before a big exam.
Our heroes, feeling pretty good now, go out singing about how the day is laughed away in the merry old land of Oz. Just then the Witch screeches over the city, skywriting from her broomstick, “Surrender Dorothy!” The people back away in terror, leaving our heroes alone outside the Wizard’s door.
Message: It’s good for heroes to go into the main event in a state of balance, with confidence tempered by humility and awareness of the danger. The isolation of the heroes is typical. No matter how hysterical the celebrations in Oz, they always seem to be damped by an appearance of the Witch, a real party pooper. She is a deep disturbance in Dorothy’s psych which will ruin every pleasurable moment until dealt with decisively. The isolation of the heroes is typical. Like Gary Cooper trying to line up support from cowardly townspeople in High Noon, heroes may find good-time companions fading away when the going gets tough.
Our heroes knock at the Wizard’s door and an even ruder sentry, another ringer for Professor Marvel, sticks his head out. His orders are “Not nobody, not no how” is to get to see the Wizard. Only the information that he’s dealing with “the Witch’s Dorothy” convinces him to go confer with the Wizard. While he’s gone, the Lion sings “If I Were Kind of the Forest”, expressing his aspirations.
Message: The credentials of experience may have to be presented repeatedly at successive rungs of power. When delayed by obstacles, heroes do well to get acquainted with their fellow adventurers and learn of their hopes and dreams.
EMOTIONAL APPEAL TO A GUARDIAN
The Sentry returns to report that the Wizard says, “Go away”. Dorothy and her companions break down and lament. Now they’ll never have their wishes met and Dorothy will never get home. The sayd story brings floods of tears to the Sentry’s eyes, and he lets them in.
Message: Sometimes, when the passport of experience no longer works to get you past a gate, an emotional appeal can break down the defenses of Threshold Guardians. Establishing a bond of human feeling may be the key.
AN IMPOSSIBLE TEST
Our heroes cross yet another threshold, being ushered into the throne room of Oz by the Sentry, now their friend. Oz himself is one of the most terrifying images ever put on film – the gigantic head of an angry old man, surrounded by flames and thunder. He can grant your wish, but like the kings of fairy-tales, is miserly with his power. He imposes impossible tests in hopes that you will go away and leave him alone. Dorothy and friends are given the apparently unachievable task of fetching the broomstick of the Wicked Witch.
Message: It’s tempting to think you can just march into foreign territory, take the prize, and leave. The awesome image of Oz reminds us that heroes are challenging a powerful status quo, which may not share their dreams and goals. That status quo may even live inside them in strong habits or neuroses that must be overcome before facing the main ordeal. Oz, Professor Marvel in his most powerful and frightening form, is a negative animus figure, the dark side of Dorothy’s idea of a father. Dorothy must deal with her confused feelings about male energy before she can confront her deeper feminine nature.
The status quo might be a aging generation or ruler, reluctant to give up power, or a parent unwilling to admit the child is grown. The Wizard at this point is like a harassed father, grouchy about being interrupted and having demands put on him by youth. This angry parental force must be appeased or dealt with in some way before the adventure can proceed. We must all pass tests to earn the approval of parental forces.
Parents sometimes set impossible conditions on winning their love and acceptance. You can’t ever seem to please them. Sometimes the very people you naturally turn to in a crisis will push you away. You may have to face the big moment alone.
The heroes pass on to the eerie region surrounding the Wicked Witch’s castle. Here they encounter more Threshold Guardians, in the witch’s creepy servants, the flying monkeys. Dorothy is kidnapped and flown away by the monkeys, and her companions are beaten and scattered. Tin Woodsman is dented and Scarecrow is torn limb from limb.
Message: As heroes Approach the Inmost Cave, they should know they are in shaman’s territory, on the edge between life and death. The Scarecrows being torn to pieces and scattered by the monkeys recalls the visions and dreams that signal selection as a shaman.
Shamans-to-be often dream of being dismembered by heavenly spirits and reassembled into the new form of a shaman. Dorothy being flown away by the monkeys is just the sort of thing that happens to shamans when they travel to other worlds.
The terrorized heroes are discouraged and confused after the monkey attack. Scarecrow’s scattered limbs are reassembled by the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion.
Heroes may have disheartening setbacks at this stage while approach the supreme goal. Such reversals of fortune are called ‘dramatic complications’. Though they may seem to tear us apart, they are only a further test of our willingness to proceed. They also allow us to put ourselves back together in a more effective form for travelling in this unfamiliar terrain.
Dorothy is not trapped in the castle. The Witch, mirroring the action of her look-alike Miss Gulch, crams Tot into a basket and threatens to throw him in the river unless Dorothy turns over the Ruby Slippers. Dorothy agress to hand them over but the Witch is zapped by Glinda’s protective spell when she tries to take the shoes. The Witch realizes she’ll never get the shoes while Dorothy’s alive and sets before her the hourglass with its rushing red sand like dried blood. When the last grain runs out, Dorothy will die.
Message: Another function of the Approach stage is to up the stakes and rededicate the team to its mission. The audience may need to be reminded of the “ticking bomb” of the story. The urgency and life-and-death quality of the issue need to be underscored.
Toto in the basket is a repeated symbol of intuition stifled by the negative anima of the Witch/Miss Gulch. Dorothy’s fear of her own intuitive side keeps stuffing away her creativity and confidence, but it keeps popping up again, like Toto.
The Ruby Slippers are a deep dream symbol, representing both Dorothy’s means of getting around in Oz and her identity, her unassailable integrity. The shoes are a reassuring Mentor’s gift, the knowledge that you are a unique being with a core that cannot be shaken by outside events. They are like Ariadne’s Thread in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a connection with a positive, loving anima that gets you through the darkest of labyrinths.
Toto escapes from the basket as he did in Act One and runs out of the castle to join forces with the three friends who are still piecing together the Scarecrow. Toto leads them to the castle, where they are daunted at the task of getting the helpless Dorothy out of the forbidding, well-defended place. The responsibility of moving the adventure forward has fallen to Dorothy’s three Allies; this place is so terrible that there’s no help here from kindly wizards and witches. They have gotten by as clowns; now they must become heroes.
MESSAGE: Toto again acts as Dorothy’s intuition, sensing that it’s time to call on Allies and lessons learned to get her out of a trap. The Approach stage is also time to reorganize a group: to promote some members, sort out living, dead, and wounded, assign special missions, and so on. Archetypal masks may need to be changed as characters are made to perform new functions.
With her freedom of action removed, Dorothy has switched archetypal masks here, trading the Hero mask for that of the Victim, the archetype of helplessness. The three companions have also traded masks, being promoted from Tricksters clowns or Allies, to full-fledged Heroes who will carry the action for awhile. The audience may find that assumptions about the characters are being overturned as surprising new qualities emerge under the pressure of Approach.
The sense that the heroes must face some things without the help of protective spirits is reminiscent of many mythic tales of trips to the underworld. Human heroes often have to go it alone on a mission from the gods. They must travel to the land of the dead where the gods themselves are afraid to walk. We may consult doctors or therapists, friends or advisors, but there are some places where our Mentors can’t go and we are on our own.
Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Woodsman now creep up to observe the threshold of the Inmost Cave itself, the drawbridge of the Wicked Witch’s castle, defended by a whole army of ferocious-looking Threshold Guardians, wearing bearskin hats and gloves and growling their grim marching song.
Message: Heroes can expect the villain’s headquarters to be defended with animal-like ferocity. The castle itself, with its barred gate and drawbridge like a devouring mouth and tongue, is a symbol of the elaborate fortifications around an all-consuming neurosis. The defenses around the Witch’s negative anima makes the Wizard’s guards and palace look inviting by comparison.
WHO IS THE HERO AT THIS POINT?
The three reluctant heroes evaluate the situation. The Lion wants to run, but the Scarecrow has a plan which requires Lion to be the leader. This makes sense since he is the most ferocious-looking, but he still wants to be talked out of it.
Message: The Approach is a good time to recalibrate your team, express misgivings, and give encouragement. Team members make sure all are in agreement about goals, and determine that the right people are in the right jobs. There may even be bitter battles for dominance among the group at this stage, as pirates or thieves fight for control of the adventure.
However, here the Cowardly Lion’s efforts to escape responsibility are comic, and point up another function of the Approach: comic relief. This may be the last chance to relax and crack a joke because things are about to get deadly serious in the Supreme Ordeal phase.
GET INTO YOUR OPPONENT’S MIND
As part of their Approach, the three heroes try to cook up a plan as they move closer to the gate. Three sentries attack them, and after a struggle in which costumes fly through the air, our heroes emerge wearing the uniforms and bearskin hats of their enemies. In this disguise, they join the platoon of marching sentries and stride right into the castle.
Message: Here the heroes employ the device of “getting into the skin” of Threshold Guardians before them. Like the Plains Indians donning buffalo robes to creep close to their prey, the heroes literally put on the skins of their opponents and slip in among them. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This aspect of the Approach teaches that we must get into the minds of those who seem to stand in our way. If we understand or empathize with them, the job of getting past them or absorbing their energy is much easier. We can turn their attacks into opportunities to get into their skin. Heroes may also put on disguises to conceal their real intentions as they get close to the Inmost Cave of the opponent.
The three heroes now discard their disguises and make their way to the chamber of the castle where Dorothy is imprisoned. The Tin Woodsman uses his axe to chop through the door.
Message: At some point it may be necessary to use force to break through the final veil to the Inmost Cave. The hero’s own resistance and fear may have to be overcome by a violent act of will.
With Dorothy rescued, and the foursome united again, they now turn their attention to escape. But they are blocked in all directions by the witch’s guards.
Message: No matter how heroes try to escape their fate, sooner or later the exits are closed off and the life-and-death issue must be faced. With Dorothy and companions “trapped like rats”, the Approach to the Inmost Cave is complete.
The Approach encompasses all the final preparations for the Supreme Ordeal. It often brings heroes to a stronghold of the opposition, a defended centre where every lesson and Ally of the journey so far comes into play. New perceptions are put to the test, and the final obstacles to reaching the heart are overcome, so that the Supreme Ordeal may begin.
QUESTIONING THE JOURNEY
- Campbell says that in myths, the crossing of the Firs Threshold is often followed by the hero passing through “the belly of the whale.” He cites stories from many cultures of heroes being swallowed by giant beasts. In what sense are the heroes “in the belly of the whale?” in the early stages of Act Two in Thelma and Louise? Fatal Attraction? Unforgiven?
- Campbell describes several ideas or actions surrounding the major ordeal of a myth: “Meeting with the Goddess,” “Woman as Temptress,” “Atonement with the Father.” In what ways are these ideas part of Approaching the Inmost Cave?
- In your own story, what happens between entering the Special World and reaching a central crisis in that world? What special preparations lead up to the crisis?
- Does conflict build, and do the obstacles get more difficult or interesting?
- Do your heroes want to turn back at this stage, or are they fully committed to the adventure now?
- In what ways is the hero, in facing external challenges, also encountering inner demons and defenses?
- Is there a physical Inmost Cave or headquarters of the villain which the hero Approach? Or is there some emotional equivalent?