The Matrix as the Hero's Journey
Originally printed in the November - December 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Richardson, Chris. "The Matrix as the Hero's Journey." Quest 91.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2003):220-225.
By Chris Richardson
“The hero’s journey” is a phrase coined by Joseph Campbell to describe the underlying monomyth that links stories from every part of the world and every epoch in human history. This story emerges again and again because it is the fundamental human story written in symbolic language, laying out the journey we all must take from ignorance to knowledge. It tells the story of our own growth and development into fully realized individuals. The hero separates from the reality we share, is awakened to greater truths, and then returns to share the knowledge and power gained. The most effective contemporary expression of this archetypal myth is the 1999 film The Matrix, in which Thomas Anderson, aka Neo, is separated from the reality he has always known, awakens to the truth of his existence, masters the power that comes with that knowledge, and then vows to free others. Neo’s story is our story writ large. It reminds us, just as mystics from every age have done, that we are all asleep, that we must wake up to the truth, that our work is to help others.
Prior to The Matrix, the major cinematic depiction of the hero’s journey was George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas has always been forthright about his debt to the work in which Campbell articulated this essential story, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (indeed, the cover of its newest edition include a picture of Luke Skywalker alongside more ancient images). The Matrix has much in common with Star Wars both in terms of content and the details of their creation. Both created influential new technologies in order to express their vision. On a more substantive level, both films address—with quite different conclusions—the relationship between humanity and technology, and both successfully combine science fiction adventure with palatable dispensations of an underlying mysticism. Most important, however, both successfully dramatize the hero’s journey.
To give a quick synopsis of the movie: The Matrix is set in Chicago in 1999. The hero of the story is named Thomas Anderson. By day, Thomas is a programmer for a software company; by night he is a computer hacker known as Neo. Neo is looking for a man called Morpheus. He believes Morpheus can answer the question that haunts him: What is the Matrix? We never discover what inspires Neo to ask such a question, but the question itself is similar to us asking, What is reality?
We soon learn that Morpheus is actually looking for Neo. He contacts Neo and reveals the answer to his question. The year is not 1999, but closer to 2199. The world Neo has always known to be real is actually an advanced form of virtual reality. Morpheus explains to Neo that early in the twenty-first century humanity created artificial intelligence (AI). A war broke out between humanity and its newly independent child. During the war, humans used nuclear weapons hoping that the fallout would blot out the sky and deprive the AI of the solar power it depended upon. The AI, however, discovered it could live off of the energy the human body generated. It began farming humans, functionally reducing them to batteries. In order to keep the human bodies alive, the AI plugged them into a computer program, a massively networked virtual reality. This system is the Matrix. People live out their entire lives inside the Matrix unaware of the truth of their enslavement. Sometime in the past, there was a man who could change the Matrix at will. He used his powers to free others and began a resistance movement. After he died, it was prophesied that he would return and lead humanity in the final battle against the Matrix. Morpheus spent his entire life searching for this reincarnation. He believes Neo is it, the One.
The Matrix has spawned a great deal of discussion among philosophers and religious scholars. The story has many parallels to bibilical scripture while philosophers have seized upon the film’s resurrection of long-debated questions concerning the nature of reality, and its treatment of the interplay of humanity and technology. No one, however, has yet explored the film’s relevance as a depiction of the hero’s journey. This may be because while its philosophical and religious references are obvious and deliberate, its mythic aspect is not. The Matrix, like the diverse myths in which Campbell identified an archetype, becomes a variation of the hero’s story incidentally. It is an example of what Campbell calls creative mythology. The hero’s journey is essentially the story of our own psychological growth and spiritual unfolding.Campbell sums up the phases of the monomyth as separation - initiation - return:
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 this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (Campbell 30).
The Matrix fits nicely into this schema: Thomas Anderson separates from the everyday reality he has known; as Neo, he is initiated and taught how to bend the reality of the Matrix, eventually defeating the heretofore unbeatable agents—those trying to keep people “plugged” into the Matrix—and he returns to the world to show the rest of humanity a world “without rules and boundaries.” In this way, Thomas Anderson/Neo is not only the new Luke Skywalker; he is messianic, a modern bodhisattva.
The Matrix shares with Star Wars and other myths not only this infrastructure but many of the specific steps of the hero’s journey. Each of the phases of separation, initiation, and return has several stages and facets.
The journey begins with the call to adventure, the separation from the ordinary world of the hero’s life. At the beginning of The Matrix, we find the main character asleep at a computer that is doing an automatic search for information on Morpheus. Suddenly the monitor goes black, and in green letters—the color is a recurrent motif of The Matrix—a message appears: “Wake up, Neo. . .” In two simple words, the filmmakers align themselves with a long tradition that sees spiritual awakening as an awakening from sleep and dreams. (The film ends with a song by Rage Against the Machine, a band name consistent with the message of the film, in which the singer screams again and again, “Wake up!”) Neo does awaken, perplexed at the source of this message, which continues: “The Matrix has you.” We share in Neo’s confusion. The words on the screen then instruct Neo to “Follow the white rabbit,” an allusion to Alice in Wonderland and Neo’s impending descent into strange adventure. Finally, “Knock, knock, Neo,” and the screen goes black again. Immediately there is a knock on his door, deepening both Neo’s and the audience’s curiosity. At the door is a group of people who have come to Neo’s apartment to buy illegal software. Two of the people are named Choi and Dujour—in other words, “choice of the day” —Neo’s choice of the day. Choi invites Neo out with him; Neo at first defers but then sees a tattoo on Dujour’s shoulder: a white rabbit. Neo makes his choice and follows the white rabbit; he accepts the call to adventure.
Next Neo meets Trinity, who will serve as the Divine Feminine, his complement. This is an important part of the hero’s journey. In order to become a complete being, Neo must come into contact with his feminine side, his anima. Myths recognize, in symbolic fashion, that our essential nature is androgynous, that in our lifetime we must learn to balance the dual energies within us. As Neo’s complement, Trinity knows he is searching for Morpheus, she knows that Neo is seeking an answer to the question that drives him: What is the Matrix? The audience has only a moment to ponder the meaning of the question before the next scene begins. Neo, as Thomas Anderson, is late again to his cubicle job. His boss tells him, “You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe you are special, that the rules do not apply to you.” Neo’s journey will be to that very realization—that he is special, that in fact the rules don’t apply to him.
The boss represents another significant step in the hero’s journey, approaching the guardians of the threshold. At the beginning of any adventure the hero encounters obstacles along the way. These guardians are both the inner doubts that halt the hero’s progress over the threshold into adventure and the external factors that would do the same. In The Matrix, the most significant guardians are ‘agents’, white men dressed in black suits and dark glasses. Drawn from a tradition of conspiracy theories regarding such “men in black,” these guardians are named simply Agent Smith, Agent Brown, and Agent Jones, their sponsoring agency yet unknown. As is later said of them, “They guard all the doors, hold all the keys.” They come for Thomas Anderson and detain him for questioning. The agents aren’t truly after Neo but rather want to use him to get to Morpheus. These guardians of the threshold are a test for the hero, a hint of the risks to come if the adventurer accepts their call. Neo passes the test by refusing to aid them.
Neo’s separation from normal reality is made complete soon thereafter. He is brought to see Morpheus. Morpheus begins to answer Neo’s question, “What is the Matrix?” The response is cryptic, and Morpheus finally tells Neo that he cannot be told what the Matrix is but must see it with his own eyes. The film then takes a shocking twist. After making one last irrevocable choice, to “see how deep the rabbit hole goes,” Neo suddenly wakes up in a pod of amniotic goop, his body hooked up to numerous wires and tubes. He is in a seemingly infinite field of similar pods. A gigantic robotic spider grabs Neo and disconnects him before he is flushed out of the pod into a sewer. He effectively undergoes a birth process—not a re-birth since, as we soon find out, he was never really born the first time.
As his body recovers from its new infancy, Neo is informed of the truth of his existence. This is the beginning of Neo’s initiation. Adventures often bring heroes into threatening surroundings—deep waters, jungles, and deserts, since they are symbolic of the human unconscious, are all common settings for the trials the hero must face. Morpheus welcomes Neo into “the desert of the real.” The reality Neo has always perceived is actually an advanced form of virtual reality. He is a slave, part of a vast interneural network known as the Matrix, a word that echoes the Sanskrit word maya, the world as illusion. Neo’s response marks another stage in the hero’s journey, refusal of the call. Neo’s refusal is particularly visceral. He begs Morpheus to stop, saying to himself over and over, “I don’t believe it” before throwing up and passing out. Of course, the refusal is just a stage, a natural reaction to the enormity of the world or the task into which the hero is initiated. As Neo recovers, he accepts the truth and his new role.
Next in the journey comes the wise and helpful guide and the supernatural aid or magic talisman that the guide gives to the hero. In Star Wars, after Luke is called to adventure by the arrival of the droids with their urgent message, Obi-wan Kenobi, “Old Ben,” is introduced as the wise and helpful guide. The light saber he gives to Luke serves as the magic talisman; his introduction to the power of “the force” is the supernatural aid. In The Matrix the guide is Morpheus. The supernatural aid is Morpheus’s awakening of Neo’s innate ability to manipulate the Matrix at will; the magic talisman is nothing but Neo’s own mind.
Once in the initiation phase of the journey, the hero must undergo a series of trials. For Neo, those trials take place inside the Construct, a virtual reality training room similar to the Matrix itself. While “plugged in”, Neo can have information downloaded directly into his brain. Even though Neo has extraordinary ability to absorb and apply the information, as demonstrated by his immediate grasp of kung-fu, he still struggles to free his mind from the constraints he has always known, showing both his potential and his present limitations.
During the journey the hero often attains mystical insight. Neo’s insight is the same as many other great mystics: This world is an illusion, a playground where reality is shaped by our minds. This insight can lead to the development of spectacular powers, just as siddhis can occur through the practice of yoga. At one point, Neo meets a young boy who is bending spoons à la Uri Geller. He says to Neo, “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth . . . There is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself.” Some critics have dismissed dialogues like this as pseudo-philosophical platitudes, but what few realize is that this scene paraphrases a well-known and important Zen teaching. Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen and one of the tradition’s most important figures, had to go into hiding after his ordination as patriarch. He resurfaced by settling an argument between two monks. While gathered at a Dharma talk, the two monks noticed a banner moving in the wind. One claimed it was the banner that was moving, the other the wind. Hui Neng corrected them: It was their minds that were moving. The Matrix never needlessly employs Zen-like aphorisms; rather, Zen-like realizations are at the heart of the film.
The Matrix set new standards for movie spectacle, yet its most compelling scene consists of a simple conversation between Neo and a woman known as the Oracle. It would take a whole essay to detail the significance of the names, numbers, colors, and literary references that abound in the film, but the Oracle scene is particularly rich in allusion and symbolism. The oracle at Delphi was the most famous of all issuers of prophecy in the ancient world. Priestesses of the god Apollo sat on tripods above a pit of vapors that when inhaled put them into an ecstatic trance from which prophecies issued. As Neo enters the Oracle’s chamber, she is sitting on a stool, leaning over the stove, inhaling the smell of baking cookies. Just as at Delphi, the Oracle has a sign above her chamber that says “Know Thyself.” Even the color scheme of the scene corresponds to Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Delphic oracle on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Most important, however, the prophecies of both oracles need interpretation.
Neo has come to see the Oracle to find out whether or not he is, as Morpheus believes and his name anagrammatically implies, the One. All of the film’s subsequent development hinges upon her statements. She allows Neo to believe he is not, but it is exactly this belief that will lead to his realization that he is in fact the One. Essentially, he can’t be told he is the One; he must discover it for himself. In order to discover it, he must sacrifice himself. He will have to choose between his life and Morpheus’s.
Neo’s choice is contrasted with that of the character Cypher, who embodies two other stages of the hero’s journey, sacrifice and betrayal, and losing the guide. Luke Skywalker loses Obi-wan in the first of the Star Wars films and through Lando’s betrayal loses Han Solo in the second. In The Matrix, Cypher betrays the crew to turn in Morpheus. Cypher regrets his original decision to leave the Matrix, the world of illusion, and makes a deal in order to return to it. In the scene of his betrayal, he savors the tastes of steak and wine, emblematic of his attachment to the senses and to the material world. Despite Cypher’s villification, his choice raises a serious question: Why choose a painful reality over a pleasant illusion? For Neo, the illusion is like a “splinter in the mind.” He is unwilling to go back; more importantly, he is willing to give up his own life so that others may also know freedom.
This sacrifice, self-annihilation, is an essential aspect of the hero’s journey. Heroes must descend into death to attain the ultimate boon with which they return to humanity. The Matrix, as modern myth, succeeds because the audience recognizes the truth and value of the boon Neo attains. As always, it is self-knowledge—the knowledge that we are more than the rules and boundaries that govern material existence; that we are of a more divine origin than is apparent. The Matrix affirms this ancient truth in the face of modern questions. Technology is bending the limits of reality and identity, potentially ensnaring us in a web in which we are each mere nodes of information. The self-knowledge that Neo gains requires a sacrifice of the lower self. It is the lower self that, while in control, enslaves the whole self in a world of dreams and sleep. The lower self seeks to continue its existence and doubts the existence of the higher self, which is the true link to the eternal. It is only when Neo risks his own life to save Morpheus that he begins to awaken to his true nature. It is only after Neo actually dies that he fully becomes the One.
The final aspect of the hero’s journey is the return. After his separation from the world of the Matrix and his initiation into truth, Neo, like all great heroes, like the bodhisattva eschewing nirvana for others’ liberation, returns to the world. The film ends with Neo sending a message to the Matrix: He is going to show people a world without rules and boundaries, a world without the Matrix. The message for us is simple. We live in a world controlled by rules and boundaries. We can easily become lifeless slaves of the system, or we can realize that that system is not the ultimate reality, that we are more. With that realization comes power and freedom. And we are not free until we are all free. This is the message of virtually every enlightened soul who has graced this earth.
A myth, however, becomes important to a culture when it adapts that message to the times and brings new insight. Almost all responses to the rise of technology have been reactionary, romanticizing the natural world. As just one example, the Star Wars trilogy ends with the complete destruction of the Empire and with the main characters in a forest with woodland creatures, engaged in organic and primitive celebration. The Matrix implicitly recognizes that technology is not to be feared but recognized as a potential tool for transformation. The original script of The Matrix ends with this speech by Neo:
You won’t have to search for me anymore. I’m done running. Done hiding. Whether I am done fighting Isuppose is up to you. I believe deep down that we both want this world to change. I believe that the Matrix can remain our cage or it can become our chrysalis. That is what you helped me to understand. That to be free, truly free, you cannot change your cage. You have to change yourself. When I used to look at this world, all I could see were the edges, its boundaries, its rules and controls, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope, a world of peace.
We are each the hero of our journey. This world is the chrysalis for our spirit. When we realize this, all things are possible, even a world of hope and peace.
ReferencesCampbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,1968.
Chris Richardson is in his final year at Shimer College, which he attends on a Kern Scholarship. He serves on the National Board of Directors of the T.S.A. and is the former Coordinator of the Young Theosophists’ Movement. This article is adapted from his lecture The Metaphysics of the Matrix given in 2001.