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Monday, January 24, 2011

Exploring the Hero’s Forest

Please welcome guest blogger Robin Matheson

The Journey Cycle isn’t just a useful plotting structure. It is a metaphor for the transformation that we write about everyday in our stories.

When I talk about the Journey Cycle, I like to talk about it in familiar terms and so I turn to Fairy Tales—the original not the Disney versions, please.

The forest is a powerful metaphor for transformation in many fairy tales. Jack Zipes, an authority on the subject, states: The forest is always large, immense, great and mysterious. No one ever gains power over the forest, but the forest possesses the power to change lives and alter destinies. [Zipes, The Brother’s Grimm, p. 65]

Whether we write historical, contemporary, paranormal, futuristic or fantasy stories, our protagonists must enter some kind of forest, whether literal or figurative, to experience the power of transformation that comes from completing the journey.

From a worldbuilding point of view, then, it is critical that we choose the right kind of forest for our protagonist to journey through.

Consider Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) from the 2009 movie Avatar.

Jake, a paraplegic, is asked to take over his brother’s contract with the Avatar Program on the moon Pandora after his brother is murdered. His sole reason for being chosen as a replacement is because he and his brother were twins. He thus possesses the same genetic makeup as his sibling and can therefore link with the avatar specifically created for his brother and thus save the company that created the genetically engineered blue-skinned giant from losing its investment.

In the voice over prologue Jake tells the audience he dreams of flying—

His first mental link with the human/Na’vi hybrid avatar gives him a freedom he has lost and he, not surprisingly, takes immediate advantage of his mobility.

But he was a marine and despite the loss of his legs, his training and instincts, which include obeying orders, remain intact. As he later tells Mo’at, he’s no scientist and, because of his late entry into the program, hasn’t logged any training time with an avatar or learned the Na’vi language.

Note that, before he fully understands either side of the issue, Jake falls back on his default inclination and agrees to use his unique position in the Avatar Program to collect intelligence on the Na’vi for Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). The Colonel’s promise that he will see that Jake receives the operation he needs to restore the use of his legs is a powerful incentive.

Given these factors, what kind of forest does Jake need to face?

In this case Jake enters a literal forest on Pandora. One that is indeed large and mysterious, full of fascinating foreign plants and predatory animal life.

But Pandora’s forest is a place Jake is ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to survive in, in spite of his previous tours of duty as a marine. Both these points are crucial to the ultimate success of his journey.

Why? Well, for one thing his lack of preparation ultimately brings him into direct contact with the Omaticaya clan simultaneously allowing him to fulfill his assignment for the Colonel and offering him the rare opportunity to really learn about the Na’vi and their world.

In examining Jake’s relationship with the forest and the Na’vi, notice how his internal and external goals intertwine like the roots of Hometree. The forest journey offers difficult challenges. It is by accepting, meeting and conquering each challenge that Jake is finally transformed, literally when he is permanently transferred from his human body to his avatar at the end of the film.

© Robin Matheson

Award winning author Robin Matheson holds an honors specialist degree in Classical Civilization and English and a Master of Education. She's taught numerous courses at college, overseas and more recently online courses on writing. One of Robin's greatest passions is traveling. In addition to their home base, she and her family have also lived in South East Asia and South Africa.

The Journey Cycle, presented by Robin Matheson, runs from January 31, 2011 through February 27, 2011


Anonymous said...

Great post. Love this description. Maybe because I'm such a fan of the movie, but it helped me understand what you are trying to say even more! :)

Thanks for the post.

Robin Matheson said...

Thanks, Lynn for the great compliment and for dropping by. :) It is a wonderful movie, isn't it?

msullivan said...

So interesting, Robin. Thank you for these insights, especially using the real forest in Avatar to illustrate how the hero's forest can also be metaphorical.

Nina Pierce said...

Wow, what a great way to explain that. I loved your examples using Avatar. (And not just because I'm a huge fan of the movie ... well, okay, maybe that.) ;)

Robin Matheson said...

Hi Mary and Nina -- so glad you both found this example informative. The post took intensive research -- I had to watch the movie, again. LOL

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Love this. Like Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There is always a journey of transformation in a good story.
Avatar is a perfect example

Robin Matheson said...

Hi Julia -- thanks! And yes, Campbell was among the first to recognize the journey pattern in world mythology. Avatar draws on those classics.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

I love forests so I could quickly relate to your post even though I hadn't looked at forests in this way before. Thanks for the wonderful insight. I know it's something that will stay with me.

Robin Matheson said...

Hi Leigh -- your comment about loving forests has got me thinking about all the different kinds of forests/jungles I've visited...and what I've learned from each. Thanks for stopping by.