This is the third and final part of my look at the hero's journeys undertaken by Buffy, Willow and Spike. The final stage is the Return from death (real or symbolic) to the normal world, where the hero brings with her the gifts and insights that she has won during the quest.
I've also put together this image of Spike's hero's journey to accompany the one of Buffy I did originally:
Full-size (1024 x 768) version available here
Refusal of the Return
The hero is at first reluctant to return to the normal world with all its miseries.
It is clear that this applies with full force to Buffy: when she is brought back from heaven her first instinct is to climb Glory’s tower, jump off it again and go straight back to heaven. "Everything here is bright and hard and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch... this is Hell."
Willow, likewise, is extremely reluctant to return from England to face the friends she tried to kill. When Giles persuades her that it’s her duty nonetheless, her subconscious even drives her to use magic to hide herself from them. More generally, throughout season 7 Willow is reluctant to fully engage with her own powers.
The same applies to Spike, although in his case it’s shame, guilt and madness that prevent him from returning immediately to the world he left behind. The soul he won to make himself worthy of Buffy now drives him to think he’s unworthy of her, and so he cowers over the mouth of Hell hiding from her and from himself.
The Magic Flight
Enemies try to prevent the hero’s escape, and she must defeat or evade them in order to return to the world.
In the Buffyverse, it seems there’s even a word for this: thaumogenesis. "You don't belong here. Did they tell you you belonged here? Did they say this was your home again? Did they say there would be room for you? Were you offered pretty lies, little girl? Or did they even give you a choice?" On a more subtle and long-term basis, Spike also seeks to prevent her returning to her life, and instead tries to keep her “in the darkness, with me”; Buffy’s own feelings of self-hatred are another of the enemies blocking her escape.
Like Buffy, Willow also faces both an obvious, immediate barrier to her return, and a long-term psychological one. Gnarl, a demon who is immune to magic and attacks by removing his victims’ skin, is so clearly the perfect karmic punishment for Willow’s actions at the end of season 6 that it’s possible her own subconscious summoned him – the same way it cast the avoidance spell – and then sent her to seek him out herself, alone and unprepared. Longer-term, The First seeks to reinforce her own self-doubt to prevent her from using her magic again.
The First also seeks to prevent Spike’s return to normality; first by driving him mad with visions and confusing messages; when that fails, by using the trigger to turn him into a murderer - probably in the hope that Buffy would be forced to stake him; and when that too fails, by inciting Wood (and possibly inciting Giles too, off-camera) to attempt to kill him.
Rescue from Without
Friends and allies rescue the hero and help her to return to the normal world.
Buffy’s return to the world is a gradual process, helped (and hindered) by different people at different times. Willow’s magic, helped by Xander, Anya and Tara, provides the initial means of return, but leaves her depressed and suicidal. Spike’s supportiveness and willingness to listen helps her through the early stages of return, but then turns into a trap for her self-esteem. Riley’s continued belief in her in ‘As You Were’ gives her hope at her lowest point; and then her mother’s words of support in ‘Normal Again’ give her the strength to carry on, and to choose life.
For Willow, the most symbolic moment of this is when Buffy joins her
in on her bed at the end of ‘Same Time, Same Place’, links hands and lets her draw on her strength to help her heal. As well as the practical assistance, this is also a huge sign of Buffy’s trust and acceptance of Willow, considering that the last few times Willow touched someone to draw on their power like this, she almost killed Giles, killed Rack and was threatening to kill Dawn.
As you’d expect, Buffy plays a key role in helping Spike’s return to normality. By showing her faith in him, by coming to rescue him from The First’s cave in ‘Showtime’, and by entrusting him with the amulet, making him her champion and telling him she loves him in ‘Chosen’. However, I think that his friendship with Fred in LA might be even more important as a stage in Spike’s journey back to humanity; it’s not based on tragic destiny and being love’s bitch, but on simple mutual respect and desire to help each other.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The hero finally returns home, but finds it hard to integrate herself back into her old life.
For Buffy, the symbolic crossing of the threshold is when she pulls herself out of the grave, along with Dawn, in the eponymous episode. Of course, she still faces an entire season’s worth of challenges, and has yet to overcome the most fundamental problem at the core of her existence: how to reconcile her chosen destiny to protect the world with her desire for a normal life, family and friends.
If Willow’s metaphorical death and rebirth were triggered by the murder of Tara, her return to normality can be symbolised by the first kiss she shares with Kennedy. Of course she immediately turns into Warren, showing that her struggle to integrate the world of magic with the mundane world is far from over…
The ‘typical’ hero starts out as a normal person, and becomes more than human. Spike starts as a supernatural creature (at least, as we see him on the show) and gradually moves closer to normal humanity. His relationship with Buffy has been central to that journey; she has been his guide and his inspiration. In order for him to finally progress to the end of his journey, though, it is necessary for him to graduate beyond her guidance and learn to look within himself for the answers. Therefore, their final farewell on the steps out of the Hellmouth, followed by his literal death and rebirth, marks Spike’s crossing of the return threshold. The fact that he returns, initially, as a non-corporeal ghost is a fairly unsubtle metaphor for the difficulty the hero faces in adjusting back to normal life.
Master of the Two Worlds
The hero finally learns to share her knowledge with others, achieve a balance between the material and spiritual lives, and live at peace.
For Buffy, this is the central struggle of season 7. She must accept the reality and nature of her power and claim it for her own, rather than being defined by it and by its creators. She must learn how to lean on other people for support and help, instead of trying to be self-reliant and do everything herself because she can’t trust anyone else. And most importantly, she must discover how to share her power with other people and empower them to make their own decisions. “So here's the part where you make a choice..."
Willow’s journey to mastery is still in progress at the end of the series, but the spell she casts in ‘Chosen’ marks a major step towards it. She overcomes intense fear and self-doubt to cast it; and unlike most of her previous spells, it is neither self-serving nor aimed at causing pain and destruction to others. Instead, she uses her own knowledge and mystical gifts to directly empower other people – giving them the strength to make real choices in their own lives, perhaps for the first time.
All his unlife, Spike has tried to mould himself to meet others’ expectations. Without Buffy’s inspiration he would never have made it this far: but now it’s time for him to shape his own destiny. He starts doing this when he fights Angel for the Shanshu, when he accepts ‘Doyle’s’ plan to help the helpless – but I think the key moment for him is when he starts to say that he’ll commit to the fight against evil because it’s what Fred would have wanted… then changes his mind, and says (in a tone which almost sounds surprised at himself) “It's what I want.” He’s committed himself wholeheartedly to the mission, and not just to being the mission’s boyfriend.
Freedom to Live
Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live.
For Buffy, the freedom to live is summed up in one iconic image, a close-up of a smile. The show may be ending, but her life is just beginning.
We don’t really see Willow reach this point, not yet. She’s begun to master her gifts, her powers, and control the darkness within her, but hasn’t yet fully come to terms with it.
The moment that best sums up Spike’s mastery of himself and acceptance of the world comes in ‘Not Fade Away’. During Spike’s last day alive as a mortal man, the poem he wrote for Cecily was torn from his hands and read out to a mocking audience. Now, in what may well be his last day ‘alive’ as a vampire, he reads it out himself, willingly, to an appreciative crowd before going to face his almost certain death in a dark, rain-swept alley. He’s integrated both the poet and the warrior sides of himself; he has become complete.
By completing the cycle of the Hero’s Journey, our heroes have tested themselves, made the ultimate sacrifice, and returned to share the gift with all of us. They have changed the world and transformed themselves.