One of the things that makes life worthwhile is the opportunity to keep learning something new. The first week of the London Screenwriters’ Festival online has been what I’d call a ‘chocolate mousse’ learning experience – intense, exquisite and deliciously inspirational.
Every session has been brilliant, and some have been a revelation, like Tales of Personal Transformation: An Individual’s Heroic Journey with Kim Hudson. Her theory of the Virgin’s Promise is one that will have resonated with many of us – something we have known in our sub-conscious that feels axiomatic now that it has been made explicit.
The Virgin’s Promise could be said to be the feminine corollary of the Hero’s Journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell in the mid-20th century, although he built on work exploring mythology that dates back to at least the Victorian era. While the Hero’s Journey is masculine, external and objective, the Virgin’s Promise is feminine, internal and subjective.
Another way to think about it is mythology versus magic, or conquering the fear of death versus discovering a strength, a capability or a talent within yourself. The Virgin starts out in a dependent world, the rules of which force her to shrink into herself or suppress herself in some way. One day something happens to spark a desire to embark on a voyage of self-discovery. Often it’s a physical thing, like a future ballerina being given a pair of ballet shoes.
Here is one of the big differences with the Hero’s Journey. After what we writers call ‘the inciting incident’, the Hero departs his world to enter a new one. In other words, there’s a clean break. In the Virgin’s Promise, the protagonist creates a secret world in parallel to the old world and builds a bridge between the two. They cross back and forth between the two, until one day they outgrow the old world.
At this point, the Virgin is presented with a choice: either return to the old world and leave their potential unfulfilled, which would be a tragedy or leave it and wander in the wilderness until they find their light. When they eventually return to their world, it will change to accommodate them, and be better and brighter for it.
Incidentally, ‘Virgin’ in this context has nothing to do with the protagonist’s sexual condition, but rather a state of innocence or inexperience. You’ll also notice use of the plural they/their instead of the she/her you might normally associate with a ‘Virgin’. That’s because this is not about a physical sex or identified gender, but rather about the feminine energy that is in us all, irrespective of sex or gender.
For writers, it is so liberating to think of the Virgin’s Promise as feminine energy rather than a female character and, by extension, the Hero’s Journey as male energy not reserved exclusively to the male of the species. It allows for stories focused on one energy or the other, or pitting two characters – each of whom personifies one of the energies – against one another, or a hybrid of the two, and so on. Also, in the Virgin’s Promise the Nemesis can grow and change, which feels humane, generous and exciting.
Stories based on the Virgin’s Promise are more likely to go deeper and darker. With the Hero’s Journey you know at the back of your mind that, whatever the obstacles, the Hero will eventually fulfil their mission in one way or another. In contrast, with the Virgin’s Promise you have no idea where the protagonist will go!
The Virgin’s Promise is the first of the three great challenges we all face in life. Who am I and how do I connect to my real self? We may spend a lifetime figuring that out, but it is only once we’ve begun to try to understand ourselves that we are ready to tackle the next two challenges: how do I connect to someone else, ‘the Other’, and then how do I connect to the Cosmos?
Kim Hudson sums it up by contrasting the outcome of the Hero’s Journey, “I can control my fear,” with the outcome of the Virgin’s Promise, “I can face the world with love”. The latter requires empathy so that you can look at the world with the eyes of love, receive love, endow it with depth and then share it.
The Virgin’s Promise is one of those concepts that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody thought of it before. Bravo, Kim Hudson, for having the genius to clothe it in words and to bring it to life. What a beautiful gift you have given us all. Thank you, London Screenwriters’ Festival, for organising this fascinating session.