During this stage, the hero undergoes a series of moral and physical tests in order to prove her worthiness to win through to the ultimate prize.
The Road of Trials
Here the hero undergoes a series of tests or ordeals. She may fail some of them, succeed at others.
"Yeah, he's some kind of demon looking for an all-powerful thingimibob and I've got to stop him before unholy havoc's unleashed and it's another Tuesday night in Sunnydale." In other words, pretty much the entire show can be seen as part of this stage, for all three of our heroes. Although not all the tests are matters of killing things or pummelling enemies, of course: learning to master yourself and your failings are equally challenging.
The Meeting with the Goddess
The hero experiences the power of unconditional love, and learns to accept herself for who she is.
For Spike, it’s easy to see who the ‘goddess’ in question must be: Buffy. It’s his love for her – and her belief in him – that motivates him to keep on searching for redemption. Although it’s not so much acceptance of himself that drives him, but its opposite: the disgust with himself that finally leads him to his soulquest.
Willow, too, follows the classic pattern. Her relationship with Tara gives her self-worth and self-confidence, and a belief in her own strength and power that she’s never really felt before. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that for her, as the next stage will prove.
Buffy, on the other hand, poses something of a problem. The simple approach, considering that she’s a heterosexual woman, would be to substitute ‘god’ for ‘goddess’ in the name of this stage: but Buffy’s feelings of self-worth generally come despite her relationships, not because of them. (At least until we reach ‘Touched’ and ‘End of Days’, but that’s jumping too far ahead for this framework.) Indeed, it can be argued that this is one area where the show’s feminist ethos needs to subvert rather than simply reverse the concept. For the classical male hero, being loved by another person will help him to achieve full acceptance of his own self-worth, but for a female hero it's more of a trap. She must learn to value herself for herself, and not in terms of being defined by a man. By this argument, Buffy meets this stage when she turns down Ben’s proposal of a date in ‘I Was Made To Love You’.
Woman as the Temptress
The hero must resist being beguiled away from her journey by the physical or material temptations of life.
Oddly enough, this is one stage where we don’t need to reverse the gender of its name in order to fit Buffy’s situation: the person that does more than any other to tempt her from her path is Faith. Of course, Buffy was often tired of being a hero, and only her sense of duty stopped her from surrendering or running away from her responsibilities… but it was Faith that lured her - for a while, until the death of Alan Finch - into becoming an anti-hero, and using her powers for selfish ends.
If Buffy was tempted from her path for an episode or two, Willow nearly lost her soul to it. She was never very good at making a distinction between using her powers to help others, and using them to help herself – probably, in the beginning, because she assumed that since she was one of the good guys and generally knew better than most people what was going on, her motives would always be above reproach. While the classical image of ‘woman as the temptress’ is someone like Circe in the Odyssey, deliberately trying to seduce the hero, for Willow it’s Tara who unwillingly plays this role: Willow’s insecurity in her love for her leads her to stray very far from the hero’s path.
For Spike, one moment of temptation is again ‘Crush’, when Drusilla attempts to convince him that he’s still a bad dog with a bite. However, the point where he strays most badly from his journey towards herodom – and, ironically, receives his greatest push to carry it through to the end – is ‘Seeing Red’. And the ‘woman’ who tempts him from the path is not so much Buffy herself, as his own warped, soulless conception of who Buffy is and how best to win his way back into her heart.
Atonement with the Father
The hero must confront the ultimate power or authority figure, and accept his judgement - even though this means her death.
Buffy’s path as a hero has been shaped all along by her subordination to her destiny: to being the Slayer – which means being a weapon in the hands of the Watchers’ Council. Rather than seek the approval and blessing of the ultimate authority figures in her life, however, Buffy defies them and takes control of her own destiny. This is therefore the turning point in her path. We can pinpoint two parallel moments when this happens: the first is ‘Checkpoint’, where she is expected to submit to Quentin Travers’s judgement, but instead wins his recognition that she holds the true power. And the second is much later – in its way, a reprise of the earlier scene. It’s where she confronts not the mortal Watchers but the timeless Shadow Men who created them. In both scenes she is rewarded with knowledge, an insight into the powers of her enemy – but not the way to beat them; that she will have to come up with herself. Even if it means jumping off Glory’s tower in Dawn’s place, or going alive into Hell.
Willow’s confrontation with “the father” is made explicit in the dialogue: “Uh-oh, daddy’s home. I’m in wicked trouble now”. Like Buffy, she comes face to face with the authority that has both shaped and constricted her development up to this point: but where her best friend calmly and assertively claimed her rights, Willow is sulky, vindictive and aggressive. Rather than accept Giles’s judgement, she rips his power away from him. She fails in the test: but thanks to Xander’s self-sacrificing love, she gets a second chance. She accompanies Giles willingly to England, even though she believes he is taking her to her death.
Who’s the ultimate authority figure in his life that Spike must confront? No prizes for guessing it’s Buffy again – or at least his conception of her, in his crypt after the attempted rape in ‘Seeing Red’. He has to face the fact that he’s broken his word – “I don’t hurt you”, and failed to live up to the standards that he set himself - modelled on what he believed Buffy wanted. He lacks the morale compass to be good, yet he can no longer muster up the simple evil glee in causing pain that old Spike would have felt. He believes he’s failed in Buffy’s eyes, and so the only appropriate punishment is for the old soulless Spike to die.
The hero knows complete bliss and peace, a rest after her journey and trials.
To identify this stage for Buffy, we just need to let her own words speak for themselves:
"I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn't mean anything, nothing had form... but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved... and I was finished. Complete. I don't understand about dimensions or theology or any of ... but I think I was in heaven."
Willow doesn’t experience anything at this level of bliss. However, her time with the Coven in England does seem to be a period of rest and reflection for her, not to mention self-growth. (In seasons 1-6, Willow says ‘God’ or ‘My God’ as an expletive quite frequently; after her stay at the Coven, she always says ‘My Goddess’ instead. Looks like she converted to Wicca as a religion…) There is an argument to be made, incidentally, that Willow’s true apotheosis doesn’t come until right at the end, in ‘Chosen’ (“That was nifty!”), and so her true Hero’s Journey is incomplete when the show ends.
As for Spike, it’s even harder to pinpoint the moment of apotheosis. If we assume that the basic structure of his Hero’s Journey puts the end of the ‘Initiation’ stage at his soulquest, then the best candidate would be during the Demon Trials in that cave in Africa, when he’s fighting for his life and – being Spike – probably loving every minute of it. So not exactly ‘bliss and peace’, but the functional equivalent for him.
The Ultimate Boon
The hero achieves the awareness or gift that she originally set out for, and has now proven herself worthy of.
“Love. Give. Forgive. Risk the pain. It is your nature. Love will bring you to your gift.” It’s clear when Buffy receives her ultimate gift – the title of the episode in question kind of gives that away – but it’s less clear what the gift is. It could be the reward of going to heaven. It could be that she found a way to save the world. Again. Or it could be that she reached the final fulfilment of her destiny as a Slayer. Every human dies, Slayers usually sooner than most. But Buffy jumped into death with open eyes, knowing she was saving the world and – more important for her own unique status as the Slayer with family and friends – saving the life of her sister. For any Slayer, it was that One Perfect Day.
Except of course her story didn’t end there…
And the boon Willow wins? “No mortal person has ever had this much power. Ever. I actually feel it surging through every cell of my body... Every molecule... Like I'm connected to everything... It feels like... I can feel... everyone.” Of course she isn’t granted her power as a gift, she steals it – but then again, so did Prometheus. Although to the best of my knowledge of the myths, Prometheus’s first action after stealing fire was not to try and set the whole world ablaze with it… Again, it can be argued that Willow didn't truly reach this stage until she acquired not only the power itself, but the self-belief to use it for good, during 'Chosen'.
We’re back on surer ground when we look at Spike’s ultimate boon – it’s clearly winning back his soul.
The Initiation stage ends with the hero having passed all the trials, surmounted every obstacle, resisted every temptation, confronted the Ultimate Power, passed beyond the world and received her final reward. For most people, that’s all that can be expected, even for heroes. But to become a true Hero with a capital ‘H’, she must transcend death itself and return to the world. That will be covered in the third and final part of this essay: Return.