For tonight’s blog entry, I’m returning to the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Specifically, I’m going to be talking a little bit about what Joseph Campbell referred to in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, as the “Belly of the Whale,” after the biblical story of Jonah. (Though in my bible, the book of Jonah never mentions a whale, the passage refers to the creature as a fish throughout, for example Jonah 1:17 “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”)
Despite that overtly literal reference, what Campbell means by “Belly of the Whale” doesn’t necessarily mean a literal swallowing. Like much in mythology, it’s a metaphorical image. Typically, this represents the point in the hero’s journey where the hero has answered the call to adventure, and now must defeat the obstacles that represent the guardians of the threshold between the everyday world the hero has known and the world of the truly unknown where the adventure takes place.
Frequently, this is the moment that represents the greatest personal danger to the hero, as they have yet to mature enough to face the trials ahead that the guardians represent a gateway to. Indeed, Campbell compares being in the belly of the whale as akin to dying. Truly, this can be a character’s darkest hour.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. George Lucas famously used Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey as the template for the original Star Wars movie. So, at what point does our protagonist, Luke Skywalker enter the belly of the whale in that story? Well, that moment actually almost has a literalized image of crossing into the belly of a great beast when the Millennium Falcon (and Luke) are pulled inside the Death Star by the station’s tractor beam.
For a more literary, and perhaps less obvious example, take Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, the point in which he enters the belly of the whale is not, as you might think, when he is imprisoned, but four years into his imprisonment when he realizes he has no hope of release and falls to his darkest hour, replete with an attempt to kill himself. The threshold is less physical and more to do with Dantes well-being.
Conquering these moments (I guess the literal event in the Jonah story would be the whale vomiting, but I don’t think “puking whale” sounds good as a term for a putative and important story beat) often become the first truly heroic action of your protagonist, and will often be the highlight of the novel’s first act. It represents the first point in a movie where the triumphant, awe-inspiring music first appears on the soundtrack. In my opinion, the hero escaping the belly of the whale and crossing the threshold into the narrative world should be the moment when your reader punches the air and shouts “Yes!” (Not that I’ve done that and got some very odd looks in a public library or anything…)
So, do you have a formal point in your story where the protagonist is facing their darkest hour before crossing over into the true heart of the hero’s journey? Is the belly of the whale in your story as literal as the examples in Star Wars or the biblical story of Jonah? Perhaps a less obvious one, as is the case for Dantes?
(Photograph by Keran McKenzie)