One of the steps of The hero’s journey is the Refusal of the call (to adventure). Basically, the hero has the one in a lifetime chance to go on an adventure and demonstrate his bravery/worth and he immediately… refuses to go.
Why? It doesn’t make any sense! Isn’t going on adventures and doing stuff the hero’s only purpose in the story? Why would a writer decide to make the protagonist essentially refuse to be the protagonist?
I’ll explain that in a minute, but first, we need to have a little bit of context for the ones who don’t know what The hero’s journey is.
Joseph Campbell, an American teacher, and author wrote the book The hero with a thousand faces back in 1949. Here he uses various myths and tales from all around the world to explain the monomyth (aka The hero’s journey), a form of story structure that (according to Campbell) can be applied to any work of fiction.
The first two stages of the hero’s journey are the Ordinary world and the Call to adventure, the one we are going to talk about here is n. 3 the Refusal of the call.
Refusal of the call
So, we know what the day to day life of the protagonist looks like thanks to the Ordinary world. We also know what the “mission” is supposed to be thanks to the Call to adventure.
But now Campbell tells us that the hero has to do a complete 180 by refusing the call and going back to the starting point. Why? We know that he has to give in and accept the adventure at some point, so why not just skip this part?
The reason why is fairly simple, but often overlooked: the refusal of the call makes the hero more human.
No matter how exciting the adventure ahead might seem, no matter how terrible the Ordinary world might be, leaving everything you know to face the unknown is scary.
The refusal shows the vulnerability of our protagonist, his doubts and his fears. Showing the hero refusing this opportunity also makes the audience reflect on the danger of the mission. Who will the hero have to face during his journey? Where will he go? How will he manage to get there? What does he have to find?
The refusal of the call “stops” the story to make us think about what really is at stake. Without this stage of the story, our protagonist might come off as arrogant. Or worse, the mission he has to accomplish might appear as an easy task.
So let’s see an example of the refusal of the call from The Lord of the Rings:
LOTR The fellowship of the ring
This is probably my favorite scene in the entire trilogy, not only here we get a taste of what the incredible power carried by the Ring, but also we see our protagonist struggle to make the biggest decision of his life.
Until now, Frodo’s mission consisted only in bringing the Ring to Rivendell, a quest that almost killed him. Now, he has been invited to join the council of Elrond.
As Boromir tries to convince the others that leaving the magical object in his hands is a good idea (spoiler alert: it’s not), Frodo observes without speaking. Same when Elrond says that the Ring must be destroyed.
He doesn’t speak, after all, he is just a little Hobbit, those kings and leaders don’t need his opinion, right?
Only after Gimli tries to break it with his ax that we see a reaction. Frodo understands that his connection with the Ring is still intact.
And then, he sees for the first time the danger of Sauron’s creation.
Rather than discussing a solution, the members of the council start fighting among themselves. Frodo looks at the Ring and hears the same voice that has been haunting him since he left the Shire.
No one is holding it, but Sauron’s creation can still influence the souls of the people around it. If he stays silent, Frodo can go back to the Shire with his friends but will the rest of them be able to handle the Ring?
That’s when the hobbit decides to stop rejecting his destiny and steps up. As soon as he does, everything falls into place: the fight stops, an agreement is reached, and the rest of the Fellowship joins him.
There are many other movies with more explicit examples of a refusal of the call, usually, he straight up says “I don’t want anything to do with this”.
But this scene in LOTR shows this stage of the hero’s journey in a subtle way that isn’t on the nose and gets the point across just as well.
The Refusal of the call exists to show the protagonist’s doubts, fears, insecurities and make him more relatable. This is what we see on Frodo’s face when the camera cuts to him and, even though we are not hobbits carrying an all-powerful McGuffin like him, we can empathize and understand what he is going through.