The Belly of the Whale

Lately, as many of you know, Gotham’s Be a Hero contest has me obsessing about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the core narrative at the heart of our favorite myths and stories.

Specifically, I’m preoccupied with the point on the journey Campbell called the Dark Night of the Soul. It comes after the Hero accepts the call to adventure, after he or she survives several tests, but before the big showdown.

Campbell sometimes called the Dark Night of the Soul “the belly of the whale” because it happens when the hero is actually swallowed by a beast. Think Hercules jumping into the sea monster and slicing it open from the inside out, or the Zulu mother whose children are swallowed by a magical elephant, and she pursues them into the animal’s stomach.

It’s a moment of stillness forcing the Hero to consider the true costs of his adventure. He feels the weight of the quest. He grieves his losses. And he suffers regrets. By this time, the hero has made mistakes, often devastating ones, and during the Dark Night of the Soul, he reckons with them.

Continuing on the journey means more suffering and, probably, death. During the Dark Night of the Soul, he decides to forge ahead anyway.

“Instead of passing outward, the hero goes inward, to be born again,” Campbell wrote. “The Dark Night of the Soul comes just before revelation. When all seems lost, then comes the new life.”

For me, the dark night of the soul is the point in the journey when the hero is truly courageous. Sure, it takes bravery to conquer the Medusa or use a Tesseract to leap into a whole different dimension. But it’s in the Dark Night of the Soul that the hero truly understands the cost of his past recklessness, and the huge stakes of the battle ahead. He could still quit. He doesn’t.

I love this part of the story. You can be half-god like Perseus or a superhero like Wonder Woman—in the Dark Night of the Soul, your supernatural powers or superhuman strength mean nothing. What matters is only what you discover within.

Sound familiar, writers? Embarking on a strange and terrifying path. Encountering struggle, and embracing it. Figuring things out, gaining momentum, then struggling again. Understanding the risk, and choosing to press ahead anyway. Triumphing only when you’ve reached deep within yourself.

The writer’s journey is a Hero’s Journey. The darker the hour, the more the world needs stories, because stories lift us up. Next time you’re in your own dark night of the soul, remember that, and push on. On the other side is revelation, not just for you, but for us all.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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