The hero’s journey can be divided into three basic phases: departure, intiation, and return. In the departure phase, the hero receives the call to adventure and eventually leaves the familiar world. In the initiation phase, the hero passes through a series of tests and trials eventually leading up to the climax and final confrontation with the Big Bad (if there is one). But after the hero wins and receives the ultimate boon (aka MacGuffin), there’s nothing left except to go back home and share that boon with the rest of mankind.
Except…after having such an awesome adventure, he just doesn’t wanna.
Joseph Campbell called this stage the Refusal of the Return. It’s a lot like the Refusal of the Call in the departure phase, except in reverse: instead of being reluctant to cross the threshold of adventure into the unfamilar world, the hero doesn’t want to cross the threshold in the opposite direction going back home. Campbell put it this way:
When the hero-quest has been accomplished…the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds.
But the responsibility has been frequently refused. Even Gautama Buddha, after his triumph, doubted whether the message of realization could be communicated, and saints are reported to have died while in the supernal ecstasy. Numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.
Anyone who’s ever been two years old should know the feeling. You’re at the playground, having fun, when out of the blue your mom says that it’s time to go. So what do you do? Throw a hissy fit, of course! Grab onto the cold hard steel of the swingset, and don’t let go until she drags you kicking and screaming all the way to the car.
The hero may have fallen with the new world the moment he left his home behind, but he might also have hated it initially. In stories where the hero actually does stay, this allows the author to give him a character arc: at first, he hated the new world, but gradually he warmed up to it, until by the end he was changed so much by the adventure that he decided to settle down there.
In milieu stories (see Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient), this often manifests as Going Native, while in stories that are more plot or character driven, it’s more likely to manifest as Can’t Stay Normal. When the hero eventually comes around and goes home anyway, it frequently morphs into Stranger in a Familiar Land. The polar opposite is But Now I Must Go, though that trope tends to apply more to side characters than the main protagonist.
Ultimately, however, adventures are like stories: they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The hero may want it to keep on going forever, but that is not this trope. Even if the hero does stay in the lands of adventure, those lands eventually become his new home. It just can’t be avoided.
For that reason, there’s an important element of bittersweetness to this stage of the hero’s journey–one which, if done well, can add a crowning moment of heartwarming or turn the story into a real tear jerker. Or both, actually. It all depends on how invested the reader is in the story by the end. If the reader feels like she’s been right there with the hero all this time, then you can expect the tears to flow no matter which way he ultimately goes.
I pretty much played this trope straight in Genesis Earth. Most of my other books feature a Refusal of the Return moment of one kind or another, but the hero usually ends up going home anyway. If there even is a home to return to, of course. I don’t know why, but a lot of my stories are about characters who are searching for home. Maybe that’s because at heart, I’m still a wanderer. It will be interesting to see how that changes over the coming years.
The song at the top, by the way, is from Disney’s Tarzan, a movie which plays this trope straighter than most. In fact, this trope is practically Disney’s bread and butter.