Joseph Campbell’s Theoretical Patterns
“In this essay I will be comparing the movie Avatar with the theoretical initiation pattern of the hero in myth, and Otto Rank and Joseph Campbell’s theoretical patterns for explaining myths. Avatar’s hero, Jake Sully, follows many of the steps in the initiation pattern of a hero. In Avatar, Jake Sully experiences a call to adventure, supernatural aid, crossing of a first threshold, a road of trials, a pull to settle down and have an ordinary life, an ultimate boon, and an apotheosis.
Jake also faces and reaches a greater understanding of death. However, Avatar does not include a refusal to the call of adventure, a return home, and creates a confrontation with a father figure, rather than an atonement. I will describe how these steps occur within the film, and when relevant, provide a comparison to how the initiation pattern of a hero was demonstrated in the Odyssey. As I provide this analysis I will discuss moments in the film in comparison to the pattern of the hero described by Otto Rank and Joseph Campbell. Avatar contains narrative relevant to Otto Rank’s theories surrounding the morality of a hero killing his father, and Joseph Campbell’s theories about the timeline of the hero, that the hero will travel to a distant land, and that he will merge with a maternal goddess and a fierce god.
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Avatar takes place in the future, with our protagonist being Jake Sully, an ex-marine confined to a wheelchair after a spinal injury. He is offered the chance to go to a distant planet, named Pandora, to be a bodyguard for scientists doing research. Because the planet’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans, the scientists design a way to put their consciousness into body grown from a test tube. The body, called an avatar, has been grown from a mix of the DNA from the scientist and from humanoid aliens native to Pandora, called Na’avi.
The bodies look like the Na’avi, who are blue humanoid figures with tails. Jake’s job on Pandora would include using an avatar body and he would be paid a large sum of money. This is Jake’s call to adventure, and he accepts, despite appearing slightly uncomfortable. The hero’s journey begins in way that follows Campbell’s pattern, where the hero “marches forth to a strange, new world, which he has never visited or even known existed” (Segal, 87).
When Jake arrives on Pandora, he learns about the company working there to harvest a valuable mineral called Unobtanium. The humans on the planet are either part of the company, scientists, and marines who have become “hired guns working for the company”.
The Colonel, Quaritch, does not appreciate the scientists’ efforts to promote peace between the humans and the Na’avi; he is only interested in forcing the Na’avi to relocate, because their home is a large tree that rests on the largest site of Unobtanium. Quaritch asks Jake to get him intel on the Na’avi that he can use to force them to move. In exchange, Quaritch will guarantee Jake a surgery that will enable him to walk again in his human body. Jake agrees to help him.
Jake enters his avatar body and escorts the scientists into the forest for their research, but ends up getting separated when he has to flee from animals. He is alone at night in the wilderness when a female Na’avi finds him. There is a large amount of hostility between the humans and the Na’avi, so she prepares to shoot him with a poisonous arrow. Then a fluffy white seed lands on the end of her arrow and she freezes. The seed is from a tree sacred to the Na’avi, and she interprets its arrival as a sign from their goddess, Eywa. This is the first instance of supernatural aid that occurs for Jake. Eywa stepping in on Jake’s behalf is similar to how Athena helped Odysseus return home (Homer, The Odyssey, 5.25).
The female Na’avi introduces herself as Neytiri, part of the Omaticaya clan. Neytiri brings Jake to the leaders of the clan, her parents. They consider killing Jake and he begs them to give him a chance to show that he can learn from them and be a better person. The Omaticaya clan decides that Neytiri will try to teach Jake their way of life, so that he can understand them. With this, Jake crosses the first threshold in the heroic journey. He has survived his first night in the wilderness and convinced the Na’avi to let him learn from them.
Jake trains under Neytiri, experiencing a road of trials and tests to become a hero. He describes that his “feet are getting tougher, can run farther every day. I have to trust my body to know what to do”. These are very intense trials, and Jake describes that “with Neytiri it’s learn fast or die”. He is learning the Na’avi language, how to shoot arrows, climb trees, read trails, track and hunt. Neytiri also teaches him about the flow of energy and the spirit of the animals. Jake calls that “tree hugger crap”.
Jake’s trials and training culminate with a final test, where he has to tame and ride a large winged beast called an Ikran. Jake succeeds, which means he only needs a ceremony to make him officially part of the clan. Meanwhile, he has been reporting intel to Quaritch and has informed him about the sacred place of the Na’avi, the Tree of Souls. Quaritch thinks this info could be used to force the Na’avi to move from their Hometree.
Quaritch says that Jake that he has done enough and can return, and get his surgery. I think that this moment functions as a temptation to have an ordinary life and turn away from the path of the hero, similar to how Odysseus was tempted to stay forever with the Lotus Eaters or Circe (Homer, The Odyssey, 9.101, 10.515). In both of those scenarios, Odysseus was offered the chance for a pleasant life, if he could accept not being a hero, and never returning home. Jake resists that temptation and decides that wants to stay longer to complete the process to become part of the clan.
Jake has the ceremony and Neytiri tells him that the Omaticaya say that you are born twice. “The second time is when you earn your place among the people, forever”. This echos the Jungian theories that separate the journey of life into two halves. The first half is everything leading up to establishing independence, which is achieved when one secures a job and a mate. (Segal, 85). If this was a story according to Rank, the journey would end when the second half of life is reached (Segal, 87).
That point would be now, when Jake completes his ceremony and becomes a full fledged clan member, able to choose a mate and take his place among the Na’avi. According to Campbell, the heroic journey would begin now, when the second half starts. Everything leading up to this would be the “youthful heroism to mere preparation for adult heroism” (Segal, 87). This seems to be a reasonable analysis of Avatar as well, because Jake’s true heroics occur after this moment.
After the ceremony, Neytiri brings Jake to the Tree of Souls. Jake has a confrontation with the afterlife when he is able to hear the voices of the dead from within the tree. This experience has a similar effect as Odysseus talking to the spirits from the underworld (Homer, The Odyssey, 11.751). Both Jake and Odysseus reach a new point of understanding about death and life. This experience seems to push Jake to finally accept the beliefs of the Na’avi. Neytiri reminds Jake that now that he is part of the clan he will have to choose a mate, and he reveals his desire to be with her.
Jake ends up having sex with Neytiri at the Tree of Souls. Neytiri tells him that they “are mated for life”. While this would appear to be a confrontation with a sex goddess, it feels as though Jake’s desire for Neytiri pushes him to become a hero. The temptation that could lead Jake into living a normal life with no kleos lies in Colonel’s offer for Jake’s new legs. At this point though, Jake is confused and asks himself what he is doing because he does not know what his end goal is anymore, leading himself to believe that he has succumbed to temptation.
When Jake and Neytiri wake up, they discover a giant bulldozer destroying the Tree of Souls. Jake destroys the camera on the bulldozer, so the marines can no longer direct it. This choice eliminated his alliance with the military, and sides Jake with the Na’avi. This puts Jake at odds with the Colonel, creating a tension between the hero and a father figure. Quaritch is furious and decides to attack the Hometree. Jake knows that Quaritch is going to attack, and he is tries to convince the Na’avi to listen to his advice to fight off the humans.
They are not listening to him, so he decides he needs to do something drastic. Jake leaves the clan to go find the largest winged beast, a ferocious creature called Toruk. Jake conquers and rides him and brings him back to show the Na’avi. Toruk functions as Jake possessing the ultimate boon. By being able to master Toruk, Jake has gained the respect from all of the Na’avi, including other clans, and he can convince them to fight with him.
Toruk also plays the part of the male god in Campbell’s pattern. Campbell claims that the hero would experience a loving maternal goddess and a merciless god (Segal, 87-88). The hero first has sex with the goddess and marries her, and then kills and eats the god. In both scenarios the hero mystically becomes one with the deity. This connection with the goddess is represented through the sex and marriage with Neytiri at the Tree of Souls. The reintegration with the god is shown through the bond that Jake establishes with Tanuk.
Jake prays to Eywa before leading the Na’avi to fight the humans. Eywa answered Jake’s prayer and sent him supernatural aid again, in the form of all the creatures of the planet fighting against the marines. Jake has another confrontation with Quaritch within the battle and Jake and Neytiri kill Quaritch. This can be seen as symbolically showing a confrontation between the hero and the father figure. I believe that Colonel Quaritch represents both the father figure and the temptation that could draw Jake away from being a hero.
Because he was in the marines, Jake looks up to the Colonel’s status and quickly became obedient to the older man. If we consider Quaritch as a father figure, it could be horrifying that Jake has to kill him. However, the killing of the father figure is an important part of myth from Rank’s pattern, where “symbolically, or unconsciously, the hero is heroic not because he dares to win a throne but because he dares to kill his father” (Segal, 85). Rank feels that patricide is understandable when the hero is killing someone who would kill him. (Segal 85) Within the context of Avatar, this scene emphasises that Jake is abandoning what he has known in order to do what he feels is right.
Jake and the Na’avi win the battle and the humans are evicted from the planet, with the exception of Jake. The Na’avi perform the ceremony at the Tree of Souls to ask Eywa to place Jake’s consciousness into his avatar body permanently. This serves as an apotheosis because Jake has been elevated from an ex-marine human to a Na’avi married to the daughter of the clan chief and possessing the respect of all of the Na’avi. This follows Rank’s pattern where part of the heroism is that the hero is a victim of bad fate and manages to rise from obscurity to the throne (Segal, 85).
The ending is contrary to Campbell’s pattern, where the hero must return to the everyday world in order to complete his journey (Segal, 88-89). In Avatar, Jake stays in this new world that feels like a mystical liminal zone and does not go back to Earth. However, Campbell also emphasizes that the hero is able to both surrender to the unconscious and return to the everyday world because there is no longer a distinction between the two worlds (Segal, 89). With this in mind, maybe Jake’s life in Pandora has become the everyday world and his new reality. The ending does follow Campbell’s plot where the hero saves everyone, contrary to Rank’s hero, who succeeds while everyone else pays the price for his success (Segal, 90).
In conclusion, Avatar follows closely to the heroic paradigm of initiation because Jake receives a call to adventure, supernatural aid through the assistance of Eywa, crosses a threshold by surviving an encounter with the Na’avi, a road of trials being trained by Neytiri, a pull to leave his journey from Quaritch, an ultimate boon in the form of Toruk, and an apotheosis when he permanently becomes a Na’avi. He also experiences an encounter that makes him understand death, when he hears the voices of the dead from within the Tree of Souls. Jake does not return home to Earth, but instead stays on Pandora.
He has to fight Quaritch, which symbolically represents a confrontation with a father figure. Avatar follows Otto Rank’s pattern of myth through the hero killing the father figure, and having the hero rise from obscurity to a place of power and leadership. Avatar follows Joseph Campbell’s theoretical pattern of myth where the hero has traveled to a new land, heroic action takes place in the second half of the hero’s life, and the hero merges with a goddess and a god, shown through Jake’s relationship with Neytiri, his prayers to Eywa and his conquering and bonding with Toruk. Jake also is shown as a hero who saves saves everyone.”