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Studying Ender's Game and the Hero's Journey

written by: Haley Drucker • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

Ender's Game, a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, is one of many modern stories that illustrate Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero's journey or monomyth. Here is an explanation of the ways this novel fulfills the most central and traditional stages of the hero's journey.

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    The Hero’s Journey

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    The concept of the hero’s journey began with Joseph Campbell, who in 1949 wrote the widely known treatise The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell studied stories, religions, and mythologies from diverse cultures around the world, and in this book he argued that many of these stories have common themes and structures. In particular he identified what he called the monomyth (later renamed the “hero’s journey" by other writers), which describes the kind of heroic journey he saw appear in mythology over and over again. This journey was made up of a series of stages the hero must complete, such as a miraculous birth, a series of trials, and a death and rebirth (literally or metaphorically).

    Many more modern novels and movies follow a format similar to the hero’s journey. Star Wars is one famous example—director George Lucas used Campbell’s work and findings when creating the plot for his now famous series of films. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s well-known psychological science fiction novel, also closely follows the traditional hero’s journey. As we watch young Ender enter Battle School and prepare to fight humanity’s worst enemy, while at the same time dealing with his own inner demons, we are seeing the kind of epic quest that has been replayed over and over in many cultures and time periods.

    Scholars and followers of Campbell have developed several different forms of the hero’s journey, and not all include the same stages. What follows are some of the most central and important parts of the journey, and the ones best illustrated by Ender’s Game. Each stage is described, and its relevance to Ender is explained. These stages carry us from the beginning of the story all the way through to the end, so this article contains spoilers for those who haven’t read the book. It will be most useful to those who have read it, hopefully shedding new light on the novel’s complex structure of events.

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    The Miraculous Birth

    Like so many religious figures (Jesus, Buddha, etc.) there is often something about the hero that sets him or her apart from birth. In Ender’s case, much of the novel’s introduction focuses on the fact that he is a “Third." In a futuristic world where families are only allowed two children, the government gave Ender’s parents special permission to have a third child because their first two had shown such promise. From the start, then, Ender is singled out as different, and this marks his relationships with his peers, teachers, siblings, and parents. It fuels much of his brother Peter’s jealousy, for example, and causes Ender to feel separated from those around him.

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    The Call to Adventure

    Though at first the hero’s life may be relatively dull or ordinary, something happens to call him or her away from that life. The call to adventure is the hero’s invitation to begin his or her journey or quest. For Ender, this is the visit from Colonel Graff that comes soon after the device that has monitored Ender for his entire life is removed. Graff extends an invitation for Ender to come with him into space and join the elite Battle School, to train to be one of the commanders who will protect Earth from the alien “Buggers." Though sometimes heroes refuse the first call, Ender accepts his with very little hesitation and is soon leaving his family and homeworld behind.

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    The Road of Trials

    Much of a hero’s quest comes in the form of trials he or she must overcome in order to get closer to the final goal, just as Hercules was set 12 impossible tasks by the gods. Ender faces many trials throughout his time in Battle School, trials that test him in various ways. The battle room tests him physically, the fantasy game tests him psychologically, and his alienation from his peers tests him socially. Though many of these trials tax him to his limits, and at times seem overwhelming, eventually Ender overcomes each one. With each test he passes he is given another more challenging assessment, and proves himself a truly heroic figure by surpassing all expectations. He makes it further into the fantasy game than his teachers thought possible, for example, and as a commander he never once loses a battle.

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    Death and Descent into the Underworld

    Though the hero in a story does not usually die, there is often a symbolic or metaphorical death. This death is typically represented by a descent (moving downwards, into a lower place such as a valley or cave). This descent is the hero’s travel to the underworld, the place of death, and when the hero later returns he or she is said to have been reborn.

    At the end of his time in Battle School, Ender is mentally and psychologically drained to the extent that he refuses to continue his education (his quest). Instead of moving forward, he gives up and returns to Earth, descending from space to the planet’s surface. He spends his days idle and despairing until his sister Valentine visits him, giving him the courage to return to space and enter Command School. This return is Ender’s rebirth, giving him enough strength and conviction to see him through the even harder trials he still must face.

    Note: It can also be argued that Ender endures a second descent and rebirth near the end of the novel, after he destroys the Bugger homeworld. In this case, his descent is the death-like sleep he stays in for days after he learns the truth of what he has done, and his rebirth comes later, when he is again able to face life and make sense of what has happened to him.

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    Atonement and The Crossing of the Return Threshold

    Once the hero has completed the quest (gained the magical item, fulfilled all the tasks, saved the world, and so on), he or she must find a way to cope with all that has happened, and to return to the real world to share what has been learned throughout the journey. Once Ender learns the truth about his ‘game,’ he must cope with the genocide he has committed and begin to move forward. He does this in several ways: by forgiving himself, by forgiving the Buggers, and by devoting himself to the protection of the last remaining hive queen. Most importantly, he shares what he has learned during his journey with the rest of the world by writing a book, The Hive Queen, which he hopes will teach the human race to love and understand the Buggers as he does. He has become what Campbell would call a “Master of Two Worlds," able to understand and hopefully someday reconcile two very different races.

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    Final Note

    Ender’s journey is not actually complete at the conclusion of Ender’s Game. He appears in several later novels (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind), which give accounts of his life after he leaves Earth. These novels also play out the hero’s journey in various ways. They feature new trials, descents, and rebirths for Ender, showing that the hero’s quest is in many ways never truly complete.

Study Guides for Ender's Game

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, is a psychological science fiction novel used in classrooms to illustrate a variety of themes and concepts. The series presents guides to help high school students in understanding the novel's main themes and characters.
  1. Studying Ender's Game and the Hero's Journey
  2. Studying Themes and Motifs in Ender’s Game