The Retreat and the Return: the Eco-Hero’s Journey

What happens to the hero’s journey in an age of ecological crisis? What relevance has it now? How do we need to revision it?

I’ve written a few times about the Hero’s Journey on this site, primarily in the context of whether the nature of the journey differs for men and women. I’ve suggested that the classic monomythic Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey in some respects fails to reflect the journeys taken by women (more outward-looking than inward-looking, just as one example). I’ve also suggested that Campbell’s framework for the Hero’s Journey is inevitably associated with the values, conventions and perspectives of the sources from which it draws – and also, the values, conventions and perspectives which predominated at the time and in the place he was writing. And so the concept of ‘hero’ and, following from this, of heroic action, fitted perfectly with the dominant (American) Western culture of the day. But times have changed, and there is a strong argument that this traditional concept of the hero, and the heroic trajectory of Western civilisation, is at the root of much that is wrong with the world. It reflects values that are patriarchal, conquering, martial. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman attacked the concept of the Hero throughout his work, stating that it is egocentric, narcissistic, self-referential. ‘Because the movement of classic heroism is forward and upward,’ he argued, ‘the most difficult of all tasks for heroic consciousness is looking inward.’

And much, as ever, lies in the name: the word ‘hero’ derives from the Greek hḗrōs, demi-god: a ‘man of superhuman strength or physical courage’. But we are not struggling with ways to become superhuman. What we are struggling with are the ways in which we can become more fully human in a deeply connected more-than-human world. The Journey then goes one step further: it moves beyond the inward-looking nature of psychology, and becomes ecopsychology – in which looking inward is associated at the same time with looking outward at our place within the web of life. And so what we are looking for in this age of ecological crisis is a post-heroic, post-patriarchal vision of the Hero’s Journey – one that in some ways moves us closer to the Heroine’s Journey as envisioned by Maureen Murdock and others, and yet transcends and extends that too.

As ever, we’re really not starting from scratch. Long before Campbell dreamed up his monomyth, there were other forms of archetypal journey. Perhaps the best-known of all is that contained within the Tarot. I’m referring to the Tarot here not as a divinatory tool, but as an old and rich repository for archetypal imagery. To me, the Journey contained within the Tarot is both deeper than Campbell’s, and more focused on inner development. This Journey is represented by the Major Arcana of the Tarot, beginning with the Fool, as a sequence: rather than a Hero’s Journey, it is (much more wisely) known as the Fool’s Journey: the pilgrim soul making its rather more humble way through life.

In simplified brevity: the Fool’s Journey begins with the Fool as the representation of innocence. He or she (for simplicity, let’s stick to ‘he’) sets off and encounters (through the Magician and High Priestess) the two poles of existence – masculine and feminine, light and dark, action and stillness, conscious and unconscious. He embraces the mother (the Empress) and the father (the Emperor). He begins his formal education in the traditions of his time (the Hierophant); he embraces the urge for sexual union (the Lovers); he achieves control and mastery and rides victoriously through the world (the Chariot); he begins to learn the Strength that comes from taming his inner passions … And yet sooner or later, the Fool begins to question this outward life and begins to search for answers, turning inwards (the Hermit), glimpsing the great patterns and connectedness of the world (the Wheel of Fortune). He looks back over his life and comes to a decision (Justice): he must learn to let go, and enter the Underworld (the Hanged Man). He puts his old life behind him, and a process of rebirth begins (Death). Emerging from the Underworld is a balancing act (Temperance) between the old material world (the Devil) and the new. The Fool finds release in crisis – a sudden change or upheaval (the Tower) which leads to revelation and to hope and inspiration (the Star). The Moon stimulates his creative imagination, but he needs the grounding of the Sun to keep it in healthy balance. And so the Fool is reborn, and makes a deeper Judgement about the purpose of his life. With that, he returns to the World, having integrated the disparate parts of himself so that he is able to bring something valuable and necessary back into it.

To me, ‘The World’ is a card which represents the anima mundi: a term which ancient philosophers and alchemists used to refer to the spiritual essence of the world – the ‘Soul of the World’. They conceived of the anima mundi as a spirit embedded in matter which animated everything from the stars to the plants and animals of the Earth. And so the Fool’s Journey, to me, represents a journey back to a sense of genuine, grounded belonging to the planet of which we are a part.

But whether you prefer to think of it as part of the Hero’s Journey or the Fool’s Journey, for those of us who live in these troubling times, awareness of the damage that our civilisation is inflicting on the planet can precipitate the crisis that ultimately leads to a descent to the Underworld. And that descent, for the ‘eco-hero’, is usually characterised by rage and despair. Rage at those who continue to destroy the planet; despair at our apparent powerlessness to do anything about it. That is absolutely right and appropriate; it’s critically important that we allow ourselves feel that rage and the despair, and find ways to express them, in the same way as we have to feel and work our way through grief in order to properly assimilate it. We have to let our hearts break open.

There are many different interpretations of the Tarot and the Fool’s journey; since we are talking here about how we translate that journey for our times – times that are defined by a crisis that goes beyond the material and environmental to the spiritual and cultural – I recommend to you the Tarot of Hermann Haindl. Haindl’s Tarot deals specifically with ecological themes, with the problems of a civilisation undergoing a crisis which is derived from a masculine-dominated mentality, one based on hierarchies and dominance, rather than cooperation and respect. He draws on a variety of spiritual traditions to explore all the ways in which we can reconnect ourselves to the natural world. The central theme of the Haindl Tarot is the renewal of the Earth – not just the material Earth, but the spiritual Earth. During a recent brief descent to my own Underworld (because the Fool’s Journey, unlike the Hero’s Journey, is not only cyclical but fractal) I found myself face to face with Haindl’s version of the card ‘Mourning’: the three of swords. Rachel Pollack (a necessary guide to Haindl’s Tarot) writes this about the card: ‘For Hermann Haindl the deepest mourning comes for the world’s suffering … The card shows us the need to confront such experiences and come to terms with them … When faced with an impossible situation there is no shame in pulling back. Retreat may be a necessity … We need to experience mourning. Then the natural cycle will turn again to strength and joy.’

When faced with an impossible situation there is no shame in pulling back. Retreat may be a necessity. But note that there is a difference between a retreat and a rout. A retreat is an organised withdrawal of forces, so that their strength can be preserved while regrouping takes place, and so that they can be used another day. A rout is a running away, a scattering, an every-man-for-himself flight, without any direction or purpose to it other than simply to flee the enemy.

So let’s say that rather than a rout, we’ve managed a retreat. A retreat, a withdrawal, a descent to the Underworld, an entry into the cocoon … call it what you will; it serves the same purpose, and it has a long history in many spiritual traditions around the world. We’ve gathered ourselves up and entered that dark place where we’ve taken the time to lick our wounds, raged at the world and our role in its demise, despaired at our perceived powerlessness to make a difference. All of this is a necessary and important part of the Journey. But we cannot stay in retreat forever. A key part of the Journey is the Return. If you do not make the Return, then you have not made the Journey.

You can’t return if you’re still stuck in the Underground world of rage and despair. As long as we remain in a constant state of rage and despair, we’re still in the Underworld, and our retreat begins to look more like a rout. The descent to the Underworld is just one stage on the journey; it’s a critically important stage, but we must move on. For the eco-hero or eco-heroine, getting stuck in the Underworld – being unable to find a way out of the rage and despair, or clinging to it because it’s curiously comfortable, or Romantic – is perhaps the greatest trap of all. It’s all too easy to stay in the Underworld; it feels like protection. You can get comfortable with retreat. There are people who make a career of it. It’s a stuck place to be. The trick is to move on. Only then can we gain wisdom enough to have something that’s worth saying, something to teach others. Otherwise, by continuing to foist our rage and despair on the world without having made the Return journey which transmutes it into something useful with which we can work, we become like the Pied Piper, luring away the children who are the future of the community and of the planet and keeping them with us, there in the darkness.

So in the post-heroic Fool’s Journey, the Return requires us to transmute the rage and despair. No, I absolutely don’t mean not ever feeling the grief again, or the guilt; I certainly don’t mean never feeling anger. There is an important place for all of these emotions in our lives; they are part of what it is to be human. I mean developing the ability to let it go. Rage, despair, guilt, grief – they’re all inward-looking. They’re all about us. But the Return in the post-heroic Fool’s Journey involves moving beyond ourselves and taking our place in the community of people and plants and animals and non-human others who constitute life on this planet. It involves becoming one of those people who go on. ‘… In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, writes Samuel Beckett, in The Unnameable. And this is the wisdom of those who take the Journey – or let it take them – and something which only those who have moved out of the Underworld can know. You must go on, and in going on, you must also learn to serve the world to which you return. But our ability to successfully serve also involves the recognition that we cannot individually save the world. We need to face that too. And if it’s heroism you’re after, that is arguably the truest heroism of all: to go on anyway, in full knowledge of the fact that whatever we do, we may not be able to save the planet from ourselves.

There’s an interesting mental place which follows (and sometimes intermingles with) rage and despair if you follow the Journey through the Return. It’s focus. Clarity. A sense of grounded being. We need all of these things because the crisis of our civilisation isn’t just an ecological crisis, a material crisis: it’s a spiritual crisis, a cultural crisis. To change it we have to change hearts and minds. But we can’t change hearts and minds by locking ourselves up forever in rage and despair. We can only change hearts and minds by coming out of retreat, by embracing the Return with all its challenges – because the Return was never intended to be a happy-ever-after ending to the story. I repeat: the Fool’s Journey is cyclical, fractal. We get to go through it all again, at every stage of our lives, in order that we can continue to transform not only ourselves, but the world around us. In order to fully engage with our own little bit of that world, wherever and whatever it might be. Passionately, with all our skills. Small. Local. Here. Now. We have to step out of our own heads and into our bodies-in-the-world. Be present. Show up. Participate – not in action for the sake of action, or other displacement activities that represent a false Return. We need to dig in. To forge community. To spread … not hope in opposition to rage and despair, but light. A refusal to stay in the dark. A refusal to give in. An insistence on going on. This isn’t about being emotionally disconnected, foolishly optimistic, irritatingly upbeat. It’s about being realistic – because when we return from the Underworld we don’t forget that dark knowledge – we retain it. But it’s knowledge that we’ve also learned to transform. We’ve done the alchemy. We’ve grown. And the trick in the Return is to find the way to manifest our growth: to manifest our vision of possibility out here in the real world.

At some level, it really is as simple as that.


14 thoughts on “The Retreat and the Return: the Eco-Hero’s Journey

  1. The Fool’s Journey is such a good title since it reminds us of the humility required to keep turning up and stepping out over the cliff’s edge! I also appreciate your mention of the cyclical and fractal nature of this journey ~ always happening on so many levels in our lives. Beautiful reflections here as ever Sharon. I think you might also enjoy the Wildwood Tarot re eco-themes ~


    1. Thanks, Sara. I’ve seen the Wildwood & many other beautiful tarots. I suppose what makes Haindl’s deck different for me is both the long tarot tradition it comes from, and also the fact that it represented his own life journey, which was deeply interesting. He was originally a Nazi soldier, captured and kept as a prisoner of war by the Russians. Intense suffering, equally intense ‘return’ – and a lifelong vision and physical journeying reflected in the art. He doesn’t just embrace one indigenous tradition, but many. Which means that for me there is such a lot of wisdom in it. But yes to the Fool’s humility! And willingness also always to start again, in innocence.


  2. I’ve also used and like John Mathews Wildwood deck for it’s eco thoughtfulness but I will definitely look at this new one. As always, your words inspire me to think carefully and deeply.


  3. Thanks for posting this. Very relatable. My current life has been very much a soul journey from initial despair and alienation from a mainstream culture based on a flawed anthropocentric system back to nature, into the transformative depths of the Otherworld and back again. And the coming back is hard. Journeying does not provide solutions but it does give inspiration and the will to go and work small changes at a grass roots level.


  4. Thank you Sharon – reading you is always such a gift; an education and a blessing and an invitation all in one. You’ve taught me to see the tarot deck with which I’m familiar in a new light, I feel blessed to receive the wisdom you share and the permission you grant to feel and express the uncomfortable stuff, and I feel and acknowledge the invitation to keep making the return, even when it hurts.


  5. thanks Sharon, this is a beautiful post. I also like Sara’s comment above that we must “keep turning up and stepping out over the cliff’s edge!” We find, inevitably, that the universe will hold us. 🙂


  6. Well done. Clarity and light turned on the problematic of the ‘Hero’s Journey.”

    I agree, the key is in passing through mourning and the rage and/or despair that leaves in its wake. I would only add that there is a momentum on the far-side of this. Joy awakened by the process of disillusionment. This Joy energizes illumination. A well-spring for insight into clarity.


  7. I’m always a little behind in my reading, but I did enjoy reading this. I agree with you that the hero’s journey is sometimes fraught with patriarchal connotations that are sometimes a source of imbalance in the ways that we seek to “become more fully human in a deeply connected more-than-human world.” But my reading of Campbell is a little different than yours. He spoke not just of the outward western hero’s journey, but also the more inward eastern hero’s journey – and recognized the need for balance between the two. In fact, the facing of outer demons – or enemies – only parallels and mirrors the facing of inner demons, and the two processes cannot be separated. When they are, the hero’s journey becomes pathological, in the way that Hillman talked about.

    I also see the true hero’s journey as an inherent balancing of Masculine and Feminine. In fact, as Campbell spoke about it, the hero’s journey often entails an initiation of the masculine by the Feminine. This initiation involves both a descent into the Underworld of the unconscious emotional depths, an awakening of the intuitive, mythopoetic imagination, and a discovery of the interconnectedness of the web of Life, of which the hero is only part. Obviously, the process would be somewhat different for women, but would still entail a balancing of Masculine and Feminine.

    The first part of the journey, heeding the call, venturing forth to conquer demons (outer and inner both), and claiming/retrieving the treasure is the Masculine journey of individuation. But the Return is very much about the Feminine – bringing the treasure of one’s newly discovered uniqueness back in service to the larger community, both human and more-than-human. Like you say, the journey is incomplete without the Return, and the Return is not possible without a hieros gamos between inner Masculine and Feminine.

    I like your suggestion that the Fool’s Journey of the Tarot could possibly provide an alternative template for the hero’s journey. So does the astrological worldview, the I Ching, and other archetypal systems that recognize the cyclical nature of the soul’s journey – since within this circular model, masculine and feminine, yin and yang, indeed all the polarities are at least potentially integrated, while the individuality of the hero is balanced through the hero’s integration into the larger circle of which it is but part.

    I can (privately) send you my take on the hero’s journey from an astrological perspective, if you are interested. In the meantime, thank you for a thought-provoking piece.


    1. Joe – thanks for these thoughts. I wrote about the masculine/ feminine divide in the hero’s journey in a previous post so won’t repeat that here, but should say that part of the problem with Campbell from the perspective of interpreting him is that with time he changed and expanded on some of his views, and towards the end of his life especially seemed much more balanced than in his earlier work. So there’s arguably a possible reading for everyone! And yes please, do email me your thoughts on the hero’s journey.


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