Buffy, Spike, Willow: three Hero's Journeys
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Long ago in a Usenet newsgroup far, far away, I wrote a piece comparing Buffy’s character arc to the Hero’s Journey, as described in The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. I’ve been developing that, and also giving some thought to how Spike’s and Willow’s stories match up.
For Buffy, the steps in the Hero’s Journey and the stages of her character development correlate so closely, you’d almost imagine that Joss Whedon had read Campbell’s book. ;) (In reality, I’d be most surprised if he hasn’t, or at least wasn’t very familiar with it). There are differences, of course – many of them related to her gender, since the traditional hero’s path as described by Campbell back in 1949 is rather more patriarchal in concept than would be appropriate to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, the overall outline is clear.
Spike’s development also follows the Hero’s Journey fairly closely, although with a lot of interesting reversals or subversions of the prescribed stages. Which is just what you’d expect of him, really... As for Willow, her path is less clear… perhaps inevitably since for much of the show she wasn't the lead character, and she was even more reluctant than Buffy to accept the mantle of hero.
This essay will be in three parts, corresponding to the three major divisions of the Hero’s Journey: Departure, Initiation and Return (or at least it will be once I’ve written parts 2 and 3).
This is the stage where an ordinary person recognises and accepts her destiny to become a hero, and leaves behind her normal life.
The Call to Adventure
The would-be hero is told of her destiny, and of the world beyond what she already knows.
It is easy to pinpoint this moment for Buffy: the moment Merrick the Watcher approaches her on the steps of her high school in Los Angeles. (Or if you prefer to go by the film, it’s when he appears in the girls’ locker room and throws a knife at her head.) Being told by a mysterious, strange old man that you have a sacred destiny is pretty much the classic example of the call to adventure.
For Willow, we could point to her first encounter with vampires – and more significantly, the discussion in the library afterwards where she (and Xander) refuse to give way to ‘Sunnydale forgettyitis’ or to dismiss the whole episode as “gang-related. PCP.” However, it’s perhaps more relevant to skip forward two seasons to ‘Becoming’, when Willow first realises her power to act heroically independently of Buffy. Perhaps appropriately, then, Willow’s ‘call to adventure’ comes not from a human, but from a magic ritual written on a computer disk.
Determining this moment for Spike is even more difficult. If we want to give the moment he finds out about the existence of the supernatural world, then it’s when he meets Drusilla in the alley back in the 19th century. However, for the purpose of the hero’s journey, we should instead pinpoint the moment where he’s first given the option of becoming an actual hero – a champion of good. There are several candidates for this: the earliest would probably be his proposal of an alliance with Buffy in ‘Becoming’. Of course his motives here are entirely selfish, and in the end he only helps Buffy to the minimum extent consistent with his promise, taking Drusilla out of the fight: but he still helped to save the world. And he learned that cooperating with the forces of goodness was a possible option for him in the future – something he’d remember in ‘Lovers Walk’. Spike’s ‘Call to Adventure’ is therefore something he himself decides upon, rather than being given by an outside force – marking him out even more as an unusual hero.
Refusal of the Call
At first, the hero is reluctant to accept her destiny.
Once again, Buffy follows the classic pattern. She tells Merrick she’s “destiny-free”… and given a chance to start again in Sunnydale, she again tells Giles that she’s “retired”. Indeed, all through season 1 she’s reluctant to accept her role as the Slayer, culminating in her heart-wrenching speech in ‘Prophecy Girl’ - "I'm 16 years old. I don't want to die."
If Buffy is reluctant to become a hero, Willow avoids it completely, She casts herself as a ‘Slayerette’, someone who “helps Buffy”: not someone who takes risks and acts heroically herself. Even though this self-image of hers is increasingly at odds with her growing power and self-confidence, it won’t be for many years until she finally overcomes her reluctance.
As for Spike, refusing the call to become a hero comes easily to him: the demon inside driving him to hate, kill and destroy sees to that.
The hero receives aid, often from a spiritual guide or wise mentor.
Here too, Buffy follows the archetypal hero’s journey, with Giles fulfilling the role of wise mentor – while Angel also contributes as the cryptic but ultimately loyal guide to the lands of adventure.
For Willow, the main source of spiritual aid seems to be Jenny. Both directly, in that Willow’s first spell is the Ritual of Restoration recovered by her; and indirectly, in that Jenny seems to be the only adult Willow ever respects enough to model herself on. Far from seeing Giles as her mentor, she apparently learns most of her early magic from books she ‘borrows’ from him without his permission and contrary to his wishes. Tara could also be considered in the role of Willow’s spirit guide, although unfortunately Willow doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral lessons she tries to impart, with regrettable consequences…
As for Spike, his spiritual guide on the path to herodom is obviously Buffy herself. Much to her initial reluctance - another sign of the unusual nature of Spike’s journey. He attempts to model himself on her and his own (sometimes warped) perception of what she would want him to do.
The Crossing of the First Threshold
Having overcome her initial reluctance and received supernatural guidance and aid, the hero is finally ready to leave mundane reality and enter fully into the world of myth and adventure.
For Buffy, I think that her first death is the most appropriate sign of reaching this stage. This is when she’s forced to confront the fact that she can’t combine being the Slayer with leading a normal life: indeed, that being the Slayer will result in her early death. And yet she accepts that fate, and willingly lets the Anointed One lead her into hell – only to return stronger than ever. And what can be more symbolic of crossing a threshold than death and re-birth?
I would say that Willow reaches this stage when she casts her first spell - to re-ensoul Angel - and lets the magic power enter her and change her forever. However, for her this is a more gradual, growing process rather than a dramatic change – in fact, you could skip ahead to season 5 and point to her decision to confront Glory one-on-one in ‘Tough Love’ as the moment she stops being just Buffy’s follower and helper, and instead takes action entirely on her own account.
Spike’s crossing of the first threshold can be identified as the moment he wakes up horrified at the realisation he’s in love with Buffy… from that moment on, his relationship can no longer be just an alliance of convenience, and he’ll be forced to change if he wants to achieve his goals.
The Belly of the Whale
During this stage, the hero has to acknowledge that she can no longer lead a normal existence, that the old rules no longer apply, and she must change in order to survive. This is often a frightening realisation, and can be the lowest point of the hero’s life. If she does not give way to despair, she will be transformed by the experience.
In ‘Becoming’, Buffy has everything stripped away from her bit by bit: lover, allies, friends, her place in society, her family. Yet at the end, she discovers the strength within herself to carry on and even triumph.
“That's everything, huh? No weapons, no friends. No hope. Take all that away and what's left?” “Me.”
If we accept that Willow crosses the threshold in season 5, then season 6 is her belly of the whale. Here she has to accept that the powers she has embraced can have seriously bad consequences for herself and others (all six billion others, in fact). She realises the necessity of change, yet also has to confront the fact that change is painfully difficult for her.
Spike reaches this low point in ‘Crush’ when he realises that he can no longer gain simple pleasure from slaughter and killing, even when Drusilla offers him a victim on a platter… and yet all his sacrifices seem in vain because Buffy isn’t interested in him either, and indeed regards him with contempt.
By the end of the Departure stage the protagonist has accepted the call to become a hero, and left behind her old life. However, she must still face many trials before achieving her ultimate reward, and these come in the next stage: Initiation.