Again and again in the storytelling of the world we come across a certain image which seems to hold a peculiar fascination for us. We see an ordinary, insignificant person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps on the center of the stage, revealed to be someone quite exceptional.
An obscure little squire accompanies his master up to London for the solemn ceremonies surrounding the choice of a new king. A mighty stone has appeared in St Paul’s churchyard, with a sword fixed in it and the inscription that anyone who can pull out the sword shall be king. All the great men of the nation try and fail. But to everyone’s astonishment the unknown young squire steps forward and removes the sword effortlessly. He becomes King Arthur, the greatest king his country has ever known.
A little ungainly duckling, quite different in appearance from all his brothers and sisters, miserable at being ridiculed for its size and clumsiness, sets out into the world where he sees a sight which takes his breath away – some great white birds, more beautiful than anything he has ever known. They are swans, but they fly away for the winter, leaving the duckling more miserable than ever.
Finally spring comes, and he sees three swans on a lake. He swims towards the ‘kingly’birds, fearing that, like everyone else, they will only mock him for his ugliness. He lowers his head in apprehension and catches sight of his reflection in the water. To his astonishment and joy, he sees that, without knowing it, he has become a swan himself – in the words of an onlooker, ‘the most beautiful of all’.
A dirty, ragged little Cockney flower seller, treated by passers by almost as refuse, is picked up in the streets by a distinguished professor of phonetics. Hidden away from the world, she is scrubbed clean, given fine clothes and her tortured vowels are gradually moulded into the accents of the aristocracy. A few months later, she is brought into public for the first time, when she is taken to a grand ball, attended by the cream of London’s fashionable society.
As she enters, there are gasps of astonishment at her beauty and bearing, and she is taken by many present to be a princess.
Few images in the popular storytelling of our time have fixed themselves more vividly in the mind than the moment when Clark Kent, the weedy, bespectacled news reporter, is suddenly transformed into Superman, the all-powerful righter of the world’s wrongs; or when Popeye, the shambling, ineffectual sailor man, swallows his tin of spinach and swells up into a bulging-muscled hero, effortlessly dispatching the bully who has been forcing his attentions on Popeye’s helpless girlfriend. Few clichés of old pre-feminist Hollywood were so well-tried as the moment when the handsome her removed the plain, bespectacled girl’s glasses, let down her tightly-coiled hair, gazed at her with awe and exclaimed ‘Gee…. but you’re beautiful.
In all these scenes, someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is dramatically shown to have been hiding the potential for a second, much more exceptional, self within. Somehow the moment of transformation when this other greater self emerges has a strange power to move us. And we begin with this transformation because it lies at the heart of our second great story plot, ‘Rags to Riches’.
Early in our lives, most of us became familiar with a story which ran something like this.
Once upon a time there was a young hero or heroine, not yet embarked on adult life, living in lowly and very difficult circumstances. This humble little figure, almost certain an orphan, was regarded as of little worth by most people around, and may even have been actively maltreated. But one day something happend to send our hero or heroine out into the world where they met with a series of adventures which eventually brought about a miraculous transformation in their fortunes. Emerging from the shadows of their wretched former state, they were raised to a position of dazzling splendour, winning the admiration of all who beheld them. The hero won the hand in marriage of a beautiful Princess; the heroine won the love of a handsome Prince. They succeeded to rule over a kingdom. And from that day forth they lived ‘happily ever after’.
So familiar did this plot become to us in childhood that we take its almost unvarying regularity for granted. It is of course the story of how the little orphan Cinderella, dressed in rags and forced to sit in the ashes by her cruel stepmother and vain stepsisters, is enabled by her fairy godmother to go out to the ball – which eventually wins her the hand in marriage of her Prince. It is the story of how the little orphan Aladdin is led out of the city by his wicked ‘uncle’, the Sorcerer, to retrieve the magic lamp, thus embarking on the strange series of adventures which transform him into a rich and admired national hero, winning the hand of the Princess and finally succeeding to the kingdom of her father, the Sultan.
Most of the variations on this Rags to Riches story we met in childhood were adapted from folk tales, and it is perhaps not until we begin reading through folk stories from many different countries and cultures that we come to appreciate how universal this type of story is. The basic outline of the story we know as Cinderella is reckoned by the students of folklore to have given rise to well over a thousand different versions, found in every corner of Europe, in Africa, in Asia and among the indigenous peoples of North America. Other permutations on the Rags to Riches theme appear so often in folklore that on this score alone it must be regarded as one of the basic stories in the world.
But the story of the humble, disregarded little hero or heroine who is lifted out of the shadows of a glorious destiny is by no means, of course, confined only to only folk tales. We have already touched on such familiar examples as the opening episodes in the medieval story of King Arthur; or the modern fairy-tale transformation of the ragged little flower-girl Eliza Doolittle into a grand and beautiful lady which made one of the most popular stage and film musicals of our time, My Fair Lady (although without Shaw’s original happy ending in Pygmalion, where Eliza finally marries and lives happily ever after).
We can find the Rags to Riches theme in almost every form in which stories have been told. It is as ancient as the biblical story of Joseph, the little dreamer so despised by his brothers that they want to kill him, who eventually rises to a position as the Pharaoh’s chief minister, ruler over the might kingdom of Egypt. It is as modern as the countless versions produced in our own time by Hollywood, so that the very phrase ‘rags to riches story’ is these days likely to conjure up for many people the type of film which shows how a poor, obscure chorus girl dances her way to stardom or a poor boy from the slums battles his way to the top to become a world boxing champion.
Indeed there are certain categories of popular storytelling which seem so naturally drawn to the Rags to Riches plot, that we often think of this kind of story, with its ‘fairy tale happy endings’as being essentially rather simple and sentimental, the stuff of wish fulfilment rather than great literature. The Rags to Riches theme has, for instance, traditionally been associated with that type of romantic fiction which was mainly written by and for women, telling how some poor and beautiful (or plain and disregarded, but secretly admirable) heroine rises from obscurity to win the heart of a prince, dashing duke or millionaire.
But equally the Rags to Riches plot has inspired some of the most serious and admired novels in Western literature. An obvious example is David Copperfield, in which we see how an unhappy, persecuted little orphan goes out into the world and eventually rises, after many adventures, to become a rich and famous writer, at last happily united in the closing pages to his ‘true angel’. Agnes Woodward. In Jane Eyre, we again follow the fortunes of an unhappy, persecuted little Cinderella like orphan as she goes out into the world, where she eventually becomes an heiress and, against all odds, marries her adored ‘Prince’ Mr Rochester. In each of these novels the fundamental plot shaping the story is precisely that of the childhood fairy tales: that of the unhappy and disregarded little child at the beginning gradually developing and maturing through the vicissitudes of life to the fulfilment, united at last with a beloved ‘other half’.
In general terms, such a story obviously makes some profound appeal to the human imagination. But when we come to look more closely at a wide cross section of such stories, we find that they have, we find that they have much more in common than just a vague, generalised outline. Wherever we find the Rags to Riches theme in storytelling, we may be struck by how constantly certain of its features recur.
Read on for a detailed breakdown of “The Seven Stories of Your Life”
What Can I Expect?
Here’s an outline of “The Seven Stories of Your Life itinerary.
PART I THE SEVEN GREAT STORIES OF YOUR LIFE
- Why Do We Need Stories?
- The Basic Stories
- Once Upon A Time
- Overcoming the Monster
- The Essence of the Monster
- The Purpose of the Monster
- Not Completely Human
- The Thrilling Escape from Death
- Rags to Riches
- The Dark Figures
- The Central Crisis
- The Dark Version
- Rags to Riches: Summing Up
- The Quest
- The Call to Adventure
- The Hero’s Companions
- The Journey
- The Trials
- Visit to the Underworld
- The Helpers
- Voyage and Return
The Dark Power: From Shadow into Light
PART II THE COMPLETE HAPPY ENDING
- The Twelve Dark Characters
- In the Zone
- The Perfect Balance
- The Unrealized Value
- The Drama
- The Twelve Light Characters
- Reaching the Goal
- The Fatal Flaw
PART III MISSING THE MARK
- The Ego Takes Over
- Losing Your Plot
- Going Nowhere
- Why Sex and Violence?
- Rebellion Against ‘The One’
- The Mystery
PART IV WHY WE TELL STORIES
- Telling Us Who We Are: Ego versus Instinct
- Into the Real World: What Legend are You Living?
- Of Gods and Men: Finding Your Authentic Story
- The Age of Loki: The Dismantling of the Self
Epilogue: What is Your Story?
About Peter de Kuster
Peter de Kuster is the founder of The Heroine’ s Journey & The Hero’s Journey
Peter is founder of the Heroine’s Journey and Hero’s Journey project where worldwide thousands of professionals shared their story of making money doing what you love. He wrote 50+ books. Peter has an MBA in Marketing, MBA in Financial Economics and graduated at university in Sociology and Communication Sciences.
IS THE HERO’S JOURNEY FOR YOU?
- You are a creative professional who is interested in developing yourself and your creative business.
- You are aware that there are no quick fixes. Learning is a journey that works when you are fully committed to it. A guide like Peter de Kuster can bring awareness and help you navigate, but in the end it’s you who is in charge of your growth.
- You want to learn more about how to tell yourself a more powerful story, learn about blind spots, and get feedback.
- You are curious and want to engage in an interactive learning journey with Peter de Kuster.
- You are motivated to work in-between journeys on yourself (e.g. working on questions that will help you develop new storytelling, mindsets, skills, and behaviors).
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