The Hero’s Journey of the Odyssey
The Road Forward Envision a champion, emerging from the sacked city of Troy, which he previously conquered under his shrewd control. Odysseus—father of Telemachus, husband of Penelope, leader of men– is now free after countless years of war to return to his homeland, Ithaca. Thus begins the longest journey of Odysseus’s life: a twenty year pursuit through many encounters with fantastic creatures, the cordial arms of the Phaaicians, and finally home to his yearning family in the Iron Age story of Homer’s The Odyssey.
Advance to the modern day life of cars and highways. Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie race car driven to succeed,Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie race car driven to succeed,Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie racecar finds himself in a three-way tie with “The King” and the infamous Chick. On his way to California, he finds himself unexpectedly detoured to the sleepy town of Radiator Springs on Route 66.
He must complete community service tasks to redeem himself, and find his way to California to zoom past the checkered flag and win the Piston Cup. After befriending such quirky Radiator Springs residents as Sally the Porsche, Doc Hudson, and Mater the Tow Truck, the eager young racer learns that sometimes life is more about the voyage than the outcome of the race. At first glance, the story of Odysseus and the story of Lightning McQueen may seem to have little in common.
However, according to writer and philosopher Christopher Vogler, there are remarkable similarities between the two. Through inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” theory that every story follows roughly the same story structure, Vogler was able to create a 3-part, 12-step format that makes all stories essentially the same. His theory of the Hero’s Journey was that of a Preparation, Journey, and Return.
When compared to the ancient example of Homer’s story of old, The Odyssey, Disney Pixar’s story of today, Cars, translates the Hero’s Journey archetype to today’s audience with striking similarities and only minor plot alterations as seen in the Preparation during the three-way tie race, the Journey through quiet Radiator Springs, and the Return to California for the Piston Cup Championship race. The Preparation stage of the Hero’s Journey involved the world of common day, a call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting with a mentor, and finally crossing the threshold.
In the stories of Odysseus and Lighting McQueen, both characters follow the general steps in the Preparation, but the most similarities fall under their ordinary worlds and refusal of the call. Odysseus has lived his life on the battlefield of Troy as a cocky general. When he finally leads his men to victory, he is given a bag of winds to help him sail by Cronion. Odysseus expresses arrogance in his ordinary world by not allowing anyone one on his crew to know what is in the bag, naturally making them curious: “All that time I had held the sheet in my hand and let no one else touch it” (Homer 112).
This shows his arrogance to be consequential in the ordinary world, because the crew ultimately ends up opening the bag out of curiosity. Odysseus only thinks in the best interest of himself and the majority of the men. This would allow him to be a strong leader in war, but among his crew, it causes destruction. 4000 years in the future, Lightning McQueen is a cocky rookie racecar, focusing only on his primary goal: winning. On the final few laps, McQueen refuses to change his tires at the pit stop so that he can find a spot at the front before the race continues.
His arrogance and over-confidence leads to a struggle in the final turn of the final lap. McQueen loses all of his tires and barely makes it to the finish line in time to tie with his two closest competitors, “The King” and Chick (Cars). Like Odysseus, only thinking about his personal gain during the race, he refuses to allow his pit crew to help him win and relies solely on his own self-assurance. He disregards the consequences while making his decision on what type of pit stop to perform.
Both Odysseus and McQueen are not able to succeed in this ordinary world of arrogance, but when they are dragged into situations they do not wish to be a part of, they refuse the call to adventure in comparable ways. Odysseus is given a call to adventure, the opportunity to return to his homeland Ithaca. He refuses this call because he believes the Gods are attempting to cause him a painful death upon his return: “How unlucky I am! What will be the end of all this?
I fear what the goddess said was true: she said I was to have trouble in full measure, before I could see my native land, and here it is all coming true…now I am doomed to die an ignominious death” (Homer 68). Odysseus thinks back to Athena’s prediction that he will have trouble on his journey back to Ithaca, and decides that the Gods are planning to have him die during the quest. This causes him to naturally want to venture to other places instead of Ithaca, so that he will not have to face his awaiting doom. Similar to Odysseus, Lightning McQueen refuses the call to adventure by speeding away.
He finds himself stranded in Radiator Springs on Route 66. He gets busted for speeding and is chased all the way through this sleepy town, tearing up the road making it impossible to drive on. When Doc Hudson and the jury of the courtroom decide that McQueen must stay and repair the road, McQueen makes a run for it but consequently runs out of gas on his way out of town (Cars). McQueen fears that having to stay and repair the road would cause him to miss the three-way-tie-breaker race for the Piston Cup. Both Odysseus and Lightning McQueen fear the call of adventure because they want what is best for them.
Whether it is fear of an untimely death or missing a crucial race, these characters do not fully commit themselves to the journey as part of the Preparation stage of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the Journey itself consists of tests and trials of the hero’s skill, an approach to the inmost cave, the supreme ordeal, and finally the hero taking possession of a reward. Although Odysseus and Lightning McQueen both take part in all of the stages in this Journey, their similarities are found predominately in the tests and trials of their abilities, and the rewards for their success.
Odysseus faces a trial of his humility when he is forced to make a decision whether to embrace Nausicaa’s knees or to introduce himself politely: “Should he throw his arms around her knees, and crave mercy of the lovely girl? Or should he stand where he was, and ask her politely to give him some clothes, and to tell him the way to the city? ” (Homer 76). Odysseus makes the judgment to address Nausicaa politely in case he might offend the girl by embracing her knees. This demonstrates that Odysseus is learning how to be humble and gentle, and much to his surprise, it turns out beneficial for himself.
Like Odysseus, Lightning McQueen makes a so-called “ally” named Mater the Tow Truck. When the rusty tow truck took the boot off McQueen, it gave the racecar the full opportunity to escape the town. However, when faced with the decision to leave for California, or stay to have a fun time with Mater, McQueen choses to stay (Cars). McQueen’s decision to stay and go cow-tipping with Mater shows his trustworthiness; Mater now knows that he can fully trust McQueen in the future. Odysseus and Lightning McQueen both collect the reward of returning home after completing the supreme ordeal.
Odysseus is given the choice by King Alcinoos to either marry Princess Nausicaa, or to receive the means to return home: “I wish that you, just as you are with such sympathy between us, would agree to take my daughter and become my son, and stay here!… Do not be anxious. You shall have an escort, and I will fix the time for you tomorrow. Then you shall just sleep soundly while they row you over the calm sea, until you reach your native land and your home” (Homer 87). Odysseus choses to fulfill his original goal and complete his journey home to Ithaca.
Much like Odysseus’s reward, Lightning McQueen receives the opportunity to make his way to California or to remain in Radiator Springs. But unlike Odysseus, he chooses to stay (Cars). He remains in the sleepy town to continue and expand upon his relationships with the residents of the town, particularly Sally the Porsche and Mater the Tow Truck. The two journeys are remarkable parallel in the choices the hero must make. The Return of the Hero’s Journey comprises of the road back to the ordinary world, the resurrection of a hero’s character, and the return with an elixir.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus undergoes a resurrection when he kills his wife’s suitors and is reunited with her: “She was conquered, she could hold out no longer when Odysseus told the secret she knew so well… Odysseus was even more deeply moved, and his tears ran as he held her in his arms, the wife of his heart, so faithful and so wise” (Homer 257) This is second time he has allowed his tears to flow, the first being when he made himself known to his son, Telemachus. This signifies Odysseus’s change in character from an arrogant general to a loving and faithful husband and father.
Lightning McQueen’s character resurrects as well. On the final lap of the Piston Cup Championship, “The King” tumbles off of the track, and he is no longer able to drive through the finish line. Although Lightning McQueen was only a couple feet from zooming past the checkered flag, he notices “The King” on the side of the track and decides to go back for him. He pushes “The King” all the way through the finish line to victory, so that “the King” is able to finish the last race of his career (Cars).
McQueen proves the change in his previously cocky character by giving up his victory to help someone else. Instead of indulging in selfish behavior, McQueen chooses to come to the aid of a fellow racecar. After character resurrection, the heroes are ready to receive the return with an elixir. Odysseus finds this elixir by making peace with his father Laertes and the suitor’s family: “After all this Pallis Athenaia, daughter of Zeus Almighty, in the likeness of Mentor and with Mentor’s voice, made peace between both parties and ended the strife forever” (Homer 271).
Odysseus is able to convince Laertes that is truly him, and Laertes seems happy that his son and grandson are working together, thus begins a great bond between father, son, and son’s son. The parents of the suitors hold an assembly to discuss how to respond to this. Their small army tracks Odysseus to Laertes’ house, but Athena, disguised again as Mentor, decides to put a stop to the violence. Antinous’s father is the only one killed, felled by one of Laertes’ spears.
Athena makes the Ithacans forget the massacre of their children and recognize Odysseus as king. Peace is thus restored. Restoration also occurs in Radiator Springs. McQueen returns to this town to renovate it and to use his fame to bring tourists to help the town thrive and grow. Sally’s Cozy Cone Motel fills up with all of the tourists wanting to stay overnight. Luigi’s Casa Della Tires receives a visit from his idol, an Italian Ferrari. Flo’s V8 Cafe is booming with business (Cars). The elixir is given when Radiator Springs earns its spot back on the map.
Although living in completely different worlds, Odysseus and Lightning McQueen experience similar resurrections and returns as part of the Return stage of the Hero’s Journey. Hero’s Journey archetype, acknowledged by Campbell and Vogler, translates to today’s audience with comparable similarities throughout the Hero’s Journey: his venture forth from the ordinary world, experiencing tests and trials in an unfamiliar world, and his return home a changed man. Homer’s The Odyssey and Disney Pixar’s Cars are essentially the same story of a hero, told in different fashions.
This is evident in virtually every story ever written, told, or illustrated. Vogler’s 12 steps are apparent regardless of time, situation, or the hero’s character. As stated by writer Don Williams, “The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination. ” Works Cited Cars. Prod. Darla K. Anderson. Dir. Joe Ranft and John Lasseter. Perf. Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, and Larry the Cable Guy. DVD. Disney’s Pixar, 2006 Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. W. H. D. Rouse. New York: The Penguin Group, 1937. Written by Phoebe M. Dorn