The Student-Hero’s Quest

Lindsay Burton is an MPhil in Children’s Literature at St. John’s College. She wears loose, comfy clothing so as to be constantly ready for heroic action and is fully preparing to refuse the return in her own Student-Hero journey.

“…human ‘nature’ is a nature continually in quest of itself, obliged at every moment to transcend what it was a moment before.” (W. H. Auden, The Quest Hero)

Are graduate students heroes? The current political climate in my home country would indicate that we are most assuredly not heroes, nor is the work we do heroic. Even if we allow for those well-funded, data-based STEM graduate students to be heroic, with their tangible results and real-world applications and whatnot, surely we must question the heroism of humanities graduate students, who produce reams of writing (both official, like 80,000-word dissertations, and unofficial, like this blog post) which are often decidedly unmarketable. Though, one does wonder what several million dollars’ worth of funding might prompt humanities students to produce…

I digress. Under the priorities of capitalism, those who study the humanities are ‘unheroic’. But capitalism was not truly designed to produce heroes; capitalism was designed to produce capitalists (synonyms for which include financiers, investors, and industrialists…I leave you to draw your own conclusion on the heroism of these figures). Underneath the economic machinery that seems to drive so much of the media we read and the decisions we make, we humanities grads (and, indeed, everyone else on the planet) remain merely human, with hopes and dreams that persistently buck any profit-driven yoke. Indeed, the very existence of humanities grads is evidence of the strength of these singularly human hopes and dreams.

So, if graduate students are heroes in pursuit of a degree (among other things), what is the shape of our quest? What are the particular characteristics of our monomyth? For those who are rusty on their Campbell, the hero’s journey has three distinct stages—Departure, Initiation, and Return—broken down into further specific categories. The remainder of this post will consider those categories from a combination of perspectives: firstly, of this graduate’s journey thus far, and secondly, of the imagined trajectory of a graduate hero continuing through the trenches of academia beyond where I have so far journeyed. (I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies accidentally included, particularly regarding the process of the PhD-Hero’s journey.)


Without further ado: The Student-Hero’s Quest

Stage One: Departure

  • The Call to Adventure: The Student-Hero is not yet a student, merely a citizen, perhaps a worker of some sort, who longs for deeper meaning and purpose in their everyday life. An email arrives in her inbox informing her of the deadline for international funding for Cambridge master’s programs. An application is summarily filled out, references are procured, and after prolonged weeks of waiting, an acceptance is issued: the Student-Hero has been summoned to the adventure.
  • The Refusal of the Call: Despite meeting the deadline for international funding, many Student-Heroes find themselves with little or no financial support forthcoming. Capitalism: 1, Student-Hero: 0.
  • Supernatural Aid: We’re all paying for this somehow. Insert your own financial magical talisman here (last minute grant, the lottery, a savings account…etc.).
  • Crossing the Threshold: After journeying across thousands of miles of ocean, not to mention facing the various demons of airport security, customs, passport control, luggage collection, public transportation, and the Heathrow Airport Animal Reception Centre (because what kind of hero would I be without my trusty animal sidekick?), this Student-Hero’s first heroic threshold was thoroughly crossed.
My trusty animal sidekick, Jane.
  • Belly of the Whale: A stage in which the student-hero must undergo their first instance of self-evaluation in the face of a set-back. Follow my analogy for a moment: have you been inside St. John’s College’s dining hall? It sure looks like the belly of a whale to me. Ribs and all. Matriculating into a college and becoming an official Cambridge student produced a set-back to my belly, primarily due to wine consumption. Time management also becomes more of a challenge at this stage.
Belly of the wooden collegiate whale.

 Stage Two: Initiation

  • The Road of Trials: MPhil students in the Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature stream must complete two essays and a master’s thesis during the completion of their degree. PhD students have their upgrade viva, innumerable drafts, and their thesis defense. Road of trials, indeed.
  • The Meeting with the Goddess Supervisor: Whether or not one’s supervisor qualifies as a deity is a judgment that each Student-Hero must make for themselves, although I defy any graduate student to not feel some amount of trepidation on the day of their very first supervision.
  • Woman Pub as Temptress Locus of Temptation: Pub, here, is interchangeable with the following: Formal Hall, swap, disco, happy hour, Christmas party, Spoons, weekend trips to the continent, sleep.
  • Atonement with the Father Revisions: To quote Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster—the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id)”. Meaning, the Student-Hero must accept that their writing is imperfect, but not be too hard on themselves. Just do the revisions, Student-Hero. (Do them. Do them nowwww.)
  • Apotheosis: This stage has two meanings for the Student-Hero. Firstly, it represents the entire reason for going on this journey in the first place: we learn. We develop. We become, or at least begin to become, researchers. Real ones. Secondly, it represents that obscure vocabulary word (or three) that no matter how many times you’ve googled it, you know you will have to google it again when it pops up in a paper. (Looking at you, nugatory.)
  • The Ultimate Boon: A pass. A distinction. Graduation. A degree. Dare I say it–further funding. As a current MPhil student, my ultimate boon shifts daily between a distinction and a stress-free holiday. Out of respect for the hallowed nature of this stage in the journey, I will say no more, only nod solemnly and continue on with fingers crossed.

Stage Three: Return

  • Refusal of the Return: For Campbell, the return involves the hero bringing their dearly-won knowledge or prize “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.” For the Student-Hero, this stage can come in many forms. For MPhils, the return is often a return to the real world. The real world? A job outside academia? 9-to-5? What are these concepts? Must we give them any credence? Alternatively, this stage may represent a reluctance to consider publishing one’s work for public consumption. A third alternative for this stage is the Student-Hero having to discuss their work at a family holiday dinner. It’s worth pointing out, as Campbell did, that “the responsibility has frequently been refused,” citing the Buddha himself as someone who refused the return. The Student-Hero should keep this in mind if their Aunt Mabel asks them to explain what, exactly, carnivalesque means for the third time that evening.
  • The Magic Flight: Referring to the flight out of the realm of journey, or a separation from the journey with one’s magical knowledge intact. The process of disentangling one’s life from a degree program can be tricky, particularly as it often involves a major move, sometimes to a different country. Even transitioning from a master’s program to a PhD requires a shift in lifestyle and daily expectations. This stage can also apply to the process of publication, which feels less like a magic flight and more like a vaguely enchanted crawl.
  • Rescue from Without: In a more meta sense, one’s friends and family are vital for a return to the realm of normalcy, no matter which stage of the Student-Hero’s journey a grad student finds themselves on. Having a support system is crucial. See above re: my animal sidekick.
  • The Crossing of the Return Threshold: Regardless of which degree program the student is in, and regardless of where the student ends up afterwards, all degree programs end. They are finite (even if yours doesn’t feel very finite at the moment). There will be a moment when the student is cut loose from the program, and though that moment might not have as much fanfare as the crossing of the initial threshold to begin the journey, the gut-deep feeling of nervousness will be similar. This time, though, the Student-Hero has their knowledge, their research, their writing, maybe even a publication to their name. They have the thing they came to obtain: a degree, a talisman in its own right that represents all that they have accumulated over the past several years. Like all heroes, the Student-Hero often views their possession of this talisman with a decent amount of cynicism, but that does not lessen their achievement.
  • Master of Two Worlds: In the middle of this journey myself, I can only imagine that this stage represents a kind of heavenly, transcendental time management process that results in all chores being done on time, regular exercise, healthy meals, deadlines regularly met, and eight hours of sleep while still producing good research. (I’ll pause here while all of the post-docs, lecturers, and independent researchers reading this post laugh at me through their computer monitors or smart phone screens.)
  • Freedom to Live: At this stage, the Student-Hero’s journey has come to a close. Like the Luke Skywalkers, Lyra Belacquas, and Harry Potters before them, the Student-Hero can now continue getting through this thing we call life. You, the Student-Hero, are now fully equipped to analyze your own life through a literary lens, perhaps as a hero’s journey, or maybe as something more explicitly carnivalesque or multimodal. You can even analyze real hero’s journeys in real books! Most importantly, though, you are in a position to contribute to humanity’s knowledge of itself. You are a hero for that, because we are not here to collect multicolored pieces of paper with numbers on them, despite all Christmas advertising to the contrary. What we are here for, I’m not qualified to say, but learning to recognize the heroes among us, fighting for our inner humanity and our identity in a sea of political and economic turmoil, just might be part of it.


Auden, W. H. “The Quest Hero.” Tolkien and the Critics; Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, edited by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2008.

“Hero’s Journey.” Wikipedia, 2 Dec. 2017. Wikipedia,

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