The Hero’s Apprentice

Here is the second of my “hero” series of papers. This one is all about kids’ books. Yay! I hope you enjoy it! ~ MM

The Hero’s Apprentice

Mythology in Classic and Popular Children’s Literature, as seen through Works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel

“Sometimes powerful magic is accomplished by simple means.”

~ Brandon Mull, Fabelhaven



From King Arthur to Snow White, what we in modern society identify as “classic myth” has gone hand-in-hand with children’s literature from the very beginning of the genre. Mythological legends have captivated the imaginations of children – and thus written themselves into our collective consciousness – for generations. Yet while we acknowledge these fables of old as myth, every child’s story of today also shares ancestry with mythology at its core. Whether written by Aesop or J.K. Rowling, children’s literature remains mythology, those stories that grab at the very heart of imagination and never let go. In this paper I will identify and discuss some examples of this mythological strain within children’s literature, utilizing the works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel.

The beginning of every myth is what both Campbell and Frankel term “the Call to Adventure”. This Call is defined by Campbell as, “a blunder—apparently the merest chance—reveal[ing] an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood.” (Campbell 57) As Campbell goes on to say, this blunder is never happenstance, but a manifestation of repressed desires and conflicts within the hero(ine).

Some examples of The Call to Adventure in children’s mythologies are, Maniac’s accidental trip to the black part of town in Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (Spinelli 10-11), Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland (Carroll 10), and Percy Jackson’s accidental anger-powered reveal of his godhood in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief:

   I tried to stay cool. The school counselor had told me a billion times, “Count to ten, get control of your temper.” But I was so mad my mind went blank. A wave roared in my ears.

    I don’t remember touching her, but the next thing I knew, Nancy was sitting on her butt in the fountain, screaming, “Percy pushed me!” (Riordan 9)

The next stage of the journey is called the Refusal of the Call by both Campbell (61) and Frankel. (324) This is the moment that the hero (or heroine in Frankel’s case), balks from the adventure: “This moment is too frightening, and will take time to absorb. Thus, the heroine flees deep inside herself, refusing to take the final step…” (Frankel 391) This step is not included in all myths, but there are times wherein it is very integral to the plot.

Some examples of the Refusal of the Call in children’s myths are, May’s return home after finding the letter calling her to Briery Swamp Lake in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s May Bird and the Ever After (Anderson 24), Edmund’s initial choice to follow the White Queen in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis 67), and Meg’s initial distrust of Ms. Whatsit in Madeline  L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time:

   –For crying out loud, she thought,—this old woman comes barging in on us in the middle of the night and Mother makes it as though there weren’t anything peculiar about it at all. I’ll bet she is the Tramp. I’ll bet she did steal those sheets. And she’s certainly no one Charles Wallace ought to be friends with, especially when he won’t even talk to ordinary people. (L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time 15)

If the call is not refused (and sometimes even when it is), the next step in the hero(ine)’s journey is what Campbell calls Supernatural Aid, (65) and Frankel calls The Mentor (442). This is the emergence of the protector, the wise one, etc, who will guide and help the hero(ine) on the adventure. Campbell defines this character as “… the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance—a promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost.” (Campbell 67)

Some examples of The Mentor in children’s myths are Merlin the Sorcerer from the classic Arthurian myths, Niamh of the Golden Hair from the Celtic myth of Oisin (Froud and Lee 47), Lemony Snickett from Lemony Snickett’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events (Snickett), and J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous wizard Gandalf who appears in many of his works, including The Hobbit:

   “Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard a very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.” (The Hobbit 3)

The next stage, both Campbell (69) and Frankel (749) call The Crossing of the First Threshold. This is when the hero(ine) makes the choice to set out on the adventure, having been prepared by the Mentor for the ordeals ahead. “Beyond… is dark less, the unknown, and danger…” (Campbell 69) This crossing is the true beginning of the adventure, where the hero(ine) has come to the point of no return.

Some examples of Crossing the Threshold in children’s myth are, Taran leaving Caer Dallben for the dark kingdom of Annuvin in Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron (Alexander 29), Tonino the hunchback’s choice to take up the faerie song in the Spanish fairy tale, Tonino and the Fairies as retold by Ralph Steele Boggs and Mary Gould Davis (Boggs and Davis 143), and Will’s choice to leave his house and venture into the new, unknown landscape that appeared overnight in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising:

   There was total silence. As deep and timeless as the blanketing snow; the house and everyone in it lay in a sleep that would not be broken.

   Will… went out of the backdoor, closing it quietly behind him, and stood looking out through the quick white vapor of his breath.

   The strange white world lay stroked by silence… Will set off … without looking back over his shoulder, because he knew that when he looked, he would find that the house was gone. (Cooper 22)

The next step in the hero(ine)’s journey Campbell calls The Road of Trials (82), while Frankel names it Allies and Enemies (863). A conglomeration of this step for both hero and heroine would describe it as the place where the hero(ine) meets new friends, learns of his/her enemies, and adventures around the new World wherein he/she has found themselves, touching on small but significant quests and trials. For her example of Allies and Enemies, Frankel cites the Mayan myth of Ix Chel, a goddess who, though great trials against her abusive husband the Sun, became the strong protector of women. (Frankel 863-883)

Some examples of the Road of Trials / Allies and Enemies in children’s myth are, Frodo’s voyage between Bag End and Rivendell in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (Fellowship 99-286), the little Hero’s adventures as a mouse in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Dahl 53-153), and the monsters and friends whom Prince Petit Jean encounters in Canada’s myth The Golden Phoenix by Marius Barbeau, as retold by Michael Hornyansky:

   In the middle of the cavern stood a fierce beast… When it saw him it bellowed… “You may not pass!” (Hornyansky 281-282)

Campbell’s next steps are titled The Meeting with the Goddess (Campbell 88), Woman as the Temptress (93), Atonement with the Father (96), and Apotheosis (climax) (107), while Frankel’s are Taming the Beast: The Shapechanger as Lover (981), Unholy Marriage: Confronting the Father (1166), The Deepest Crime: Abuse and Healing (1297), With This Ring: Sacred Marriage (1455), and Of Carpets and Slippers: Flight and Return (2051). For the sake of clarity and concision, I will discuss these steps together under my own heading of Details of the Quest. These are those situations, underlying issues and major character introductions that lead up to and support the main story arc. Under this umbrella are such components as the introduction of co-protagonists and romantic partners, main character emotional and psychological points, and leads to the plot climax, including and especially overshadowing.

Some examples of Details of the Quest in children’s myth are the first meeting of Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke in Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terebithia (Patterson 16), Louis’ father stealing the trumpet for his son in Fred Marcellino’s The Trumpet of the Swan (Marcellino 92-94), and the ominous haiku right before Ralph’s race in Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse:

   “A little brown mouse

   Smells cheese and steps in a trap.

   Snap! Now he is dead.”

   Ralph was so horrified that he curled in a tight ball to top his trembling How was he supposed to run a race if he was shaking all over? (Cleary 90-91)

It is of interesting note that here Frankel adds steps that are not included separately in Campbell’s analogies, though each holds a place somewhere within his theory as a whole. These steps, which Frankel calls Facing the Self, (Frankel 1606) are called, in order, The Endless Summons: Descent into Darkness, (1606) I’ll Get you, my Pretty: Confronting the Deadly Mother, (1752) Ceasefire with the Self: Healing the Wounded Shadow, (1872) and The Elixir of Life: Reward. (1995) By creating specific steps for the emotional, Frankel outlines how the heroine battles inwardly and outwardly often in two different arenas, while the hero, whom Campbell reflects in his meeting of the physical and emotional as one within his steps, battles all things, inside and outside, at the same time.

Some examples of Facing the Self in children’s myth are, Coraline’s duality in fighting the Other Mother while accepting her True Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Meg’s spiritual and emotional torture as she fights to save her bother Charles Wallace in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door (L’Engle, A Wind in the Door, 174-197), and Katniss’ many-tiered trials in the arena in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:

   The swelling. The pain. The ooze. Watching Glimmer twitching to death on the ground. It’s a lot to handle before the sun even clears the horizon. (Collins 191)

In the next step, Campbell and Frankel again merge, with Campbell’s step titled The Ultimate Boon, (117) and Frankel’s titled Forever Cycling: Rebirth. (2166) Both steps describe the ultimate physical success of the hero(ine), which is to gain the powers of the god(dess) – often taking the form of a kind of talisman or magic weapon. “To achieve the greatest success, the heroine becomes a ‘goddess’ herself. In this way she achieves enormous power and becomes a guardian for the next generation.” (Frankel 2216)

Some examples of The Ultimate Boon / Forever Cycling: Rebirth in children’s myth are, the childrens’ ascension to “the England within England” in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. (Lewis 226), Bastion’s magical, godlike rebuilding of Fantasia in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and Mary’s transformation into a goddess-like life-giver for both the garden and Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden:

   “I thought [the garden] would be dead,” he said.

   “Mary thought so at first,” said Colin, but it came alive.” (Burnett 255)

Then comes Frankel’s final step, which she calls Apotheosis: Mistress of Both Worlds. (Frankel 2274) Campbell, however, splits this final step into chapters, under the simple title of “Return”. (Campbell 127) These chapters are titled Refusal of the Return (127), The Magic Flight (133), Rescue from Without (138), The Crossing of the Return Threshold (142), Master of the Two Worlds (148), and Freedom to Live. (152) Both stress the importance of the hero(ine)’s return to their own world, and the bringing of the Boon into it for the greater good of all. This Boon can be physical or spiritual, or both. Either way, it is the ultimate reward – the reason the hero(ine) quested in the first place – and it changes the hero(ine) – and his/her world – forever for the better.

Some examples of this Boon in children’s myth are, Alanna’s earned trust, as a girl, from Prince Jonathan in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The first Adventure (Pierce 273), the physical and metaphoric healing of Johnny’s deformity in Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain (Forbes 254), and Peter’s forever mother in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan:

   As you look at Wendy you may see her hair becoming white… for all this happened long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring-cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland… When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and so it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless. (Barrie 217)

And so we see that in children’s literature, perhaps more than any other genre, The Hero(ine)’s Quest is perfectly embodied. Still, this is perhaps not to be wondered at. After all, Joseph Campbell said it best when he wrote, “The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale … [for] they are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.” (Campbell 21)


Works Cited

Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron. New York: bantam Doubleday Dell Books (1999). Print.

Anderson, Jodi lynn. May Bird and the Ever After. New York: Scholastic (2005). Print.

Barrie, Sir J.M. Peter Pan. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons (1911). Print.

Boggs Ralph Steele and Mary Gould Davis. “Tonino and the Fairies”. Once Upon a Time: The young Folks’ Shelf of Books.  Ed. Margaret E Marrtignoni and Elizabeth H. Gross. New York:The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company (1962). Print.

Burnett, Francis Hodgson. The Secret Garden. Philidelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company (1962). Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pdf file.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland (1864). Weekly Reader Books (1965). Print.

Cleary, Beverly. Ralph S. Mouse. New York: Scholastic (1998). Print.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic (2998). Print.

Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. New York: Scholastic (1989). Print.

Dahl, Roald. The Witches. New York: Puffin Books (1983). Print.

Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. New York: Penguin Books (1996). Print.

Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain. New York: Dell Publishers (1971). Print.

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Adventure through Myth and Legend . Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2010. Pdf file, Kindle Edition.

Froud, Brian and Lee, Alan. Faeries. New York: Abrams (2010). Print.

Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print.

Hornyansky, Michael and Marius Barbeau. “The Golden Phoenix”. Once Upon a Time: The young Folks’ Shelf of Books.  Ed. Margaret E Marrtignoni and Elizabeth H. Gross. New York:The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company (1962). Print.

L’Engle, Madeline. A Wind in the Door. New York: Del Publishing (1973). Print.

—. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Laurel Leaf Imprint, Random House Publishers (2005). Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Last Battle. New York: Harper Trophy (1984). Print.

—. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: The MacmMillain Company (1966). Print.

Marcellino, Fred. The Trumpet of the Swan. New York: Harper Trophy (2000). Print.

Patterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Harper Trophy (1977). Print.

Pierce, Tamora. Alanna: The First Adventure. New York: Simon Pulse (1983). Print.

Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief. New York: Disney Hyperion (2006). Print.

Snickett, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events. 14 vols. Scholastic (1999). Print.

Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books (1976). Print.

—. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books (1982). Print.


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