The Hero’s Journey in Game of Thrones: Jon Snow


Here we fans sit, nervously awaiting the arrival of Season 6 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, and D. B. Weiss have left us stuck in our own limbo-winter, wondering if our hero, Jon Snow, is dead or alive (or some version of alive). It sure feels like Jon Snow has been snuffed out before his time—but why do we feel that way?

The character of Jon Snow fits the archetype of the classic hero. And we always want the hero to win. Yet by most instinctive measures it doesn’t feel like Jon Snow has won anything yet, because it doesn’t feel like his journey is finished. But what is the hero’s journey, exactly? The mythologist Joseph Campbell designed a paradigm to identify the stages of the Hero’s Journey, also known as the monomyth. In this article, we will compare Jon’s Snow’s journey through Game of Thrones to Campbell’s monomyth paradigm and attempt to answer three questions: first, does Jon Snow’s journey fit into the monomyth at all? Second, if Jon Snow’s journey fits, how closely does it mirror the traditional experience of the Campbellian Hero? Third—and this is the BIG question—if Jon Snow is still alive, what clues can the monomyth offer us about his character’s future in season 6 and beyond?

What is the Hero’s Journey? It’s a basic narrative pattern common across cultures and time that seems to be shared by all heroic characters. The pattern is easy for us to understand because we are already familiar with the voyages of our favorite literary heroes. Joseph Campbell sums up the monomyth concept here:

"“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.”—Joseph Campbell"

The monomyth model is divided into three Parts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. These parts house 17 stages: (Part I): The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, The Crossing of the First Threshold, The Belly of the Whale; (Part II): The Road of Trials, The Meeting with the Goddess, Woman as the Temptress, Atonement with the Father, Apotheosis, The Ultimate Boon; (Part III): Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, The Crossing of the Return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, and Freedom to Live. The Royal Society of Account Planning created a lovely Monomyth chart below (the journey tracks counter-clockwise). It provides a nice visual touchstone despite incorrect spelling and some finance-influenced descriptions of the stages.

It is important to remember that the Campbellian Hero’s Journey is highly flexible, so not all stages need appear in order or appear at all, while some events can encompass many stages.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, screenwriter Christopher Vogler distilled Campbell’s 17-stage monomyth down into a more modern and manageable 12-stage model, and we will occasionally refer to this more streamlined version as well.
Please note what we are looking at here is how the Hero’s Journey fits the Jon Snow character as he is presented in Game of Thrones, NOT in A Song of Ice and Fire. This article deals only with the TV show version, which means the book stories and characters have been altered—telescoped, pared down, and folded into each other in a variety of ways. And, as the TV show outpaces George R. R. Martin’s novels, the influence of producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss increases while the influence of GRRM decreases.

"“David and D.B. are even bloodier than I am.”—George R. R. Martin"

The characters in George R.R. Martin’s saga are down-and-dirty, practical, and often politically-minded. They’ve staked out their corner of the fantasy genre and endeared themselves to fans to a degree perhaps unmatched since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Martin’s propensity for turning the genre on its head, killing off major characters, mucking up quests, and letting the ‘bad guys’ win way too often have made his books deliciously and frightfully unpredictable. GRRM is aware of the legacy of the Hero’s Journey and the stereotypes of his genre and dislikes them:

"“Nothing bores me more than books where you read two pages and you know exactly how it’s going to come out. I want twists and turns that surprise me, characters that have a difficult time and that I don’t know if they’re going to live or die.”—George R. R. Martin"

We’ve already witnessed how GRRM enjoys screwing with the Hero’s Journey: Ned Stark found that out the hard way. That might make any attempt to wedge GRRM’s characters into Campbell’s old model something of a challenge. But, what the heck, we’re up for it.

And here’s why it’s fun to try: the Hero’s Journey is not an unassailable formula carved in stone on the side of a pyramid—it is a flexible, living idea about how mankind’s greatest myths bubble up out of the shared human condition, which spans space and time, and even from the structural depths of the cosmos itself. It seems impossible that George R. R. Martin, steeping his stories in mythology as he does, could completely avoid Campbell’s theoretical ballpark.

All the same, Martin’s instincts for twists and turns make this story a dangerous place for his characters. With Benioff and Weiss equally interested in upending traditional narrative expectations (Benioff said “Game of Thrones was The Sopranos in Middle Earth”—and we all know how The Sopranos ended), the next step in Jon’s Snow’s Hero’s Journey is most surely unpredictable.

There are certainly dangers inherent in approaching any story structure with a pre-set theory in mind, and I’ll do my best to simply highlight where I think Jon Snow’s story line fits the monomyth without trying to force square pegs into round holes. I’ll refer to the hero as ‘he’ because Jon Snow is male, but the journey applies to both sexes (albeit a bit differently), and we’ll use it to take a look at Daenerys Targaryen in a later installment.

That said, let’s get to it. Once again, our question-quest: does the journey of Game of Thrones character Jon Snow follow the stages of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and, if so, how closely? If it does fit, what might it predict, if anything, about the fate of Jon’s character if he escapes death at the end of Season 5?


1a) WORLD OF COMMON DAY: the hero, unfinished and incomplete, lives in his ordinary world before receiving the call to adventure. (This is a stage described by Vogler, not Campbell, but the world of common day is such a typical starting point for stories I decided to use the stage here.)

The Jon Snow story in Game of Thrones begins in a traditional framework: we see Jon in his ordinary world as the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark among his adopted family at Winterfell (S1/Ep1 “Winter is Coming.”) Jon dreams of ‘taking the black’ as a member of the legendary Night’s Watch.

1b) CALL TO ADVENTURE: the hero is presented with a challenge, problem, or adventure and he can no longer remain within the safety and comfort of the World of the Common Day. He embarks on a journey into a new and frightening realm.

"“The first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated “The Call to Adventure”—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. The fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground … but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delight.”—Joseph Campbell"

In the epic tale of Beowulf, this is the stage where the hero Beowulf embarks on his journey to Heorot Hall to assist King Hrothgar against the monster Grendel. In Game of Thrones, Jon Snow wins the permission of his father and rides north, believing his calling is to join the Night’s Watch and defend the southern kingdoms (S1/Ep2: “The King’s Road”). The Hero’s call to adventure often occurs while the world or land is dying or under threat. We have already glimpsed the return of the White Walkers in the previous episode. Winter is coming.

2) REFUSAL OF THE CALL: the hero, not fully committed, considers turning back, but a mentor convinces him to remain.

"“I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.” —Harry Potter to Hagrid"

In the first season of Game of Thrones, Jon’s commitment to his calling is repeatedly and severely tested. Upon his arrival at the Wall, Jon experiences disillusionment with the members of the Night’s Watch. When Jon is assigned to the order of stewards, he is dismayed and nearly abandons Castle Black. But Jon remains and takes the 8,000-year-old oath of the Night’s Watch.

"“You knelt as boys. Rise now as men of the Night’s Watch.”—Bowen Marsh (S1/Ep7: “You Win or you Die”)"

3) SUPERNATURAL AID: Once the hero is committed to the quest, a mentor or guide shall appear who often awards him a magical talisman to aid with his journey.

"“For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little or crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” –Joseph Campbell"

In “Baelor” (S1/Ep9) Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, established as Jon’s primary mentor, bequeaths his family’s sword, Longclaw, to Jon. This is a powerful talisman, made of Valyrian steel and forged with unknown properties.

Jon Snow’s commitment to his call is soon tested again, and another mentor steps in to illuminate his choices: when Jon learns that his brother Robb is heading south to war, he is torn between his oath to the Night’s Watch and his loyalty to his brother. He is given advice by Maester Aemon of the Citadel:

"“I am maester of the Citadel, bound in service to Castle Black and the Night’s Watch. I will not tell you to stay or go. You must make that choice yourself, and live with it for the rest of your days—as I have.”–Master Aemon (S1/Ep9: “Baelor”)"

Jon remains at Castle Black until he learns about Lord Eddard Stark’s execution by Joffrey Baratheon (S1 finale/Ep10: “Fire and Blood.”) Enraged, Jon comes closer still to refusing the call when he rides into the night, intent on deserting the Night’s Watch and joining Robb, but mentors of a different kind—Jon’s black brothers—intercept him and keep him faithful.

4) CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD: the hero reaches the limits of his known horizon: beyond lies darkness, danger and the unknown. (A famous example is Frodo and the Hobbits leaving the Shire to travel to Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.)

Jon Snow crosses the First Threshold by riding out of Castle Black’s gate and heading north beyond the Wall. In this case, the threshold is extremely literal.

"“… I want you and your wolf with us when we ride out beyond the Wall tomorrow… So I’ll only ask you once, Lord Snow, are you a brother of the Night’s Watch or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?” – Jeor Mormont (S1/Ep10: “Fire and Blood”)"

5) THE BELLY OF THE WHALE: when crossing the magical threshold, the hero enters a womb to be reborn, so rather than conquering what lies beyond, the hero is swallowed into the unknown and may appear to have died.

This element of Campbell’s Hero’ Journey carries through many episodes of Game of Thrones. Once north of the Wall, Jon Snow ‘vanishes’ for a long period of time—at least that’s how it seems to his black brothers, who are stuck back in the Common World. The much-emphasized transition from boy to man is under way, but, more importantly, Jon has begun a journey of self-discovery.

"“… instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.” –Joseph Campbell"

Jon Snow has now moved into the second phase of the Hero’s Journey: Initiation.


6) THE ROAD OF TRIALS: the Hero must undergo a series of tests, some of which he will fail, to prepare him for his transformation.

“Once having crossed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.” —Joseph Campbell

The Road of Trials thread continues throughout the second part of the Hero’s Journey: some of Jon Snow’s tests include temporarily losing Longclaw to Craster, the killing of Qhorin Half-hand, facing Mance Rayder, scaling the Wall, and betraying the trust of both Mance and Ygritte. As Campbell implies, it’s a rich period for the character.

"“The ordeal is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold … for many-headed is this surrounding Hydra; one head cut off, two more appear—unless the right caustic is applied to the mutilated stump. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.” —Joseph Campbell"

7) THE MEETING WITH THE GODDESS: the Hero experiences losing himself in unconditional love, usually represented by finding the woman he will always love the most, his ‘soul-mate.’

In “The Old Gods and the New” (S2/Ep6) Jon Snow pursues a wildling captive and becomes separated from Qhorin Halfhand’s company. The wildling is a woman, Ygritte, who soon becomes the greatest love of his life.

"“The ultimate adventure, when all barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis … within the darkness and the deepest chamber of the heart.” —Joseph Campbell"

Can Ygritte represent the Queen Goddess of the World? Of course she can, because she is a woman:

"“The meeting with the Goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati) …”—Joseph Campbell"

The Goddess can appear in many forms and win the hero’s heart: a great example is Don Quixote’s lady love, Dulcinea, for whom he quests and envisions as the most beautiful woman in the world, but in reality she is a peasant girl named Aldonza.

Ygritte’s mantra of “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” is interesting in the light of what the Queen Goddess of the World is, knowledge-wise, to the Campbellian Hero:

"“Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know.” —Joseph Campbell"

8) WOMAN AS THE TEMPTRESS: the hero faces sexual temptations which threaten to make him stray from or abandon his quest.

Once again we find Ygritte center stage, this time in the role of the temptress. The age-old male idea that the Hero must remain ‘pure’ and that female flesh is an unwholesome distraction is present in Game of Thrones, at least in the context of Westerosi society. Remember the part of the Night’s Watch oath that goes “I shall take no wife,” which is vague in in its parameters (does it require celibacy, or simply forbid marriage).

"“…when it suddenly dawns on us … that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the facts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, pure soul.” —Joseph Campbell"

Ygritte, every bit the Earth Mother, with her raw wildling heritage, unadorned beauty, and sexual appetite for Jon Snow, brings love into the equation. Jon Snow, a flawed man whose oath of purity is sworn to the crumbling edifice of what the Night’s Watch was once supposed to be, is unable and unwilling to resist her.

Woman as temptress is a powerful and often terrible force (incest, adultery) in the male-focused stories of Oedipus, Lancelot, and Hamlet. And while the Ygritte/Jon Snow love is untainted, there is no doubting her role as temptress, as she happily seduces him away from his oath and, if she has her way, away from his attachment to the Crows.

"“You swore some vows—I want you to break them.” Ygritte, to Jon Snow (S3/Ep5: “Kissed by Fire”)"

9) ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER: the hero must confront someone with the ultimate power over his life, often a father figure. (This stage looms large in the story lines of Star Wars and Oedipus Rex)

Ygritte takes Jon Snow to the King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder, a former member of the Night’s Watch. Mance appears as a father figure because he’s a sharp reflection of Jon Snow himself. Both men left the Watch to take up with the wildlings, the difference being that Mance was sincere and that Jon was just playing a part. They both have leadership skills, but they put them to different uses—Mance united the wildlings, and Jon will soon head up the Watch.

Atonement is the center point of the Hero’s Journey. As the hero, Jon Snow must face someone of immense strength who also holds the power of life and death over him. Jon is brought before Mance as a prisoner. Mance decides to trust Jon and keeps him at his side like a son, and Jon has great respect for Mance despite his own personal commitment to the Night’s Watch.

However, that commitment wins out and Jon eventually betrays both Mance and Ygritte. After the furious battle at the Wall and Ygritte’s death, Jon walks back into Mance’s camp unarmed, intending to assassinate the King Beyond the Wall. To do this, he relies on Mance to show mercy by not killing him immediately, but rather letting him get close. Mance shows him this mercy, but quickly figures out Jon’s true intentions.

"“Oh, that’s why you’re here. I reckon you could do it before any of them could stop you. They’d kill you of course. They’d kill you slow. But you knew that when you came in here. Are you capable of that, Jon Snow? Killing a man in his own tent when he’s just offered you peace? Is that what the Night’s Watch is? Is that what you are?” —Mance Rayder (S4/Ep10: “The Children”)“One must have faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy … It is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope from the helpful female figure (Ygritte), by whose magic (pollen charms or power of intercession) he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation … One endures the crisis—only to find, in the end, that the father (Mance) and mother (Ygritte, in one form of the Goddess) reflect each other, and are in essence the same …”—Joseph Campbell."

The power of the newly-dead Ygritte may still play a role in Jon Snow’s survival when facing Mance Rayder at this moment in the story: the fact that Ygritte loved Jon Snow may be one of the reasons why Mance does not kill him. When Stannis burns Mance at the stake, Jon mercifully frees Mance from his suffering with an arrow to the heart. In his last moments of life, Mance looks up and sees Jon on the ramparts.

"“The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned.” —Joseph Campbell"

10) APOTHEOSIS: the hero suffers a death, either physically or spiritually, and achieves a state of knowledge and understanding to equip him upon his return.

And now we arrive at the final scene of Game of Thrones, Season 5. Jon Snow is dead or very nearly so. Olly, Alliser Thorne, and fellow Watch mutineers ran daggers through Jon repeatedly; he has dropped into the snow with his lifeblood flooding out of him. Is this the end for our hero and his journey? It could be: heroes can die and leave their quests (arguably) unfulfilled, such as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars and Homer’s character of Hector in the Iliad.

"“Oh, you think he’s dead, do you?” – George R.R. Martin, responding as to why he killed Jon Snow"

According to the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, the definition of apotheosis is: “the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god; the ideal example; epitome; quintessence.” Let us, for the sake of our monomyth theory, assume that Jon Snow will somehow come back from his apparent death transformed (the theories on how this might happen are legion). Christopher Vogler describes Apotheosis (an area of the Journey Vogler calls ‘the Supreme Ordeal’) this way:

"“This is the critical moment in any story, an Ordeal in which the hero must die or appear to die so that he may be born again.”"

If the hero rises, reborn, the world of men may yet find a savior from the White Walkers.

"“Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.” –Joseph Campbell"

BEYOND SEASON 5: Let’s remember our three original reasons for taking a look at Jon Snow’s journey in Game of Thrones through the prism of the monomyth paradigm. First, does Jon Snow’s journey fit into the Hero’s Journey at all? Looking at the evidence, it is fair to say it does fit, and not badly at that.

Second, if Jon Snow’s journey fits, how closely does it mirror the traditional experience of the Hero? Jon Snow’s experience is very much one of a traditional hero. Each stage of his journey fits in nicely with each stage of the Hero’s Journey up through the Apotheosis—we haven’t had to stretch too much, if at all.

Thirdly, if Jon Snow is still alive, what clues can the monomyth offer us about his future in Season 6 and beyond? This is the big one. Let’s take a look.

The structure of Game of Thrones can be seen to roughly fit the overall three-part structure of the Hero’s Journey model. Part 1 (Departure) = GoT Season 1, Part 2 (Initiation) = GoT Season 2-5 (remember that Campbell said that this part is “a favorite phase of the myth-adventure,” so it makes sense that it would take up a lot of space), and Part 3 (Return) = GoT Remaining Seasons.

It appears that the end of Season 5, as Jon Snow lies dying, leaves us in the middle of the Apotheosis stage. Assuming Jon survives or dies and is resurrected, the next stage in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth would be The Ultimate Boon, (the final stage of Part 2 of the Hero’s Journey). In the Ultimate Boon, the hero achieves the goal of his quest; for Jon Snow, this would probably be finding a way to protect Westeros from the White Walker threat. The boon often appears in the form of an elixir, ability, knowledge, or a symbolic object such as the Holy Grail. The hero must then eventually return to the Common World and use the boon to everyone’s advantage.

If Jon Snow lives, it’ll probably be the result of his own special constitution and/or the powers of R’hllor and Melisandre. However Jon might return, we should expect him to come back transformed in some way, and to bring with him a newly acquired ability or knowledge picked up in the realm of the dead. A great example of this type of transformation is Gandalf the Grey returning from death as the more powerful Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Whatever Jon Snow’s Boon might be, it will help him and the world of men defend themselves from the invading monsters from the North.

Jon likely won’t return with an elixir or object such as Gilgamesh with his immortality plant or Hermes’ retrieval of Persephone because Jon’s resurrection is probably more along the lines of immediate resuscitation than an actual voyage through a land of the dead where physical objects can be attained. What might Jon Snow’s new, and probably dark, ability or knowledge be? Immortality? Knowledge of where to find mountains of dragonglass? His own version of the Night’s King’s power to reanimate dead corpses to fight for the ‘good’ side? The possibilities are endless.


Once the Ultimate Boon stage is accomplished, the monomyth paradigm advances into Part 3 (Return), which includes 7 stages in Campbell’s model: Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Within, Crossing the Threshold, Return, Master of the Two Worlds, and Freedom to Live.

If we look ahead to the Refusal of the Return stage, the Hero may initially avoid the responsibility of bringing the magical boon back into the World of the Common Day. This does not seem farfetched, considering how many times Jon came close to refusing his early call to the ranks of the Night’s Watch. And now that his fellow Night’s Watchmen have murdered him, Jon’s loyalty to the organization may be weaker than ever.

In the next stage, Magic Flight, the Hero’s attempt to return and use the boon is made perilous by the evil forces doing everything in their power to prevent him from using it against them. That sounds like a great Season 7, Episode 9 action sequence to me.

CONCLUSION: So there we have it. I hope you enjoyed taking a look at Jon Snow’s Hero’s Journey through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth. It doesn’t match up exactly—nothing ever does, and you may accuse me of overplaying a weak parallel here and there—but since GRRM is using so many traditional archetypes in a high fantasy setting it may be impossible for him to escape the classic narrative structure. GRRM may not consciously apply nor agree with the monomyth paradigm, which has been highly criticized for various reasons, but the argument for it, in theory, is that no matter how much you mess with the story structure and payoffs, you’re still inextricably bound to some extent to the collective human unconscious from which the ancient flow of the Hero’s story must spring. Fun stuff to think about and consider, anyway.

It’s going to be a blast to see if/how/why Jon Snow survives. If he makes it we’ll have an opportunity to look at how his continued Game of Thrones journey unfolds into Joseph Campbell’s monomyth through Season 6 and beyond.

All quotes by Joseph Campbell from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
All quotes by Christopher Vogler from The Writer’s Journey.

Also, this Hero’s Journey comic strip version by Ryan Dunlavey is pretty darned cool: