The ultimate boon is the final stage of “Initiation,” which is what Campbell calls the second half of the “going” phase of the journey. This is the goal reached, the treasure taken, the princess married, or whatever the boon is. Spiritually, Campbell tells us this is acquiring knowledge of immortality and appreciation for this thing called life. Practically, it’s achieving wholeness through reaching the goal we’ve been trying to reach.
The boon that the hero receives is the knowledge of the Indestructible Body, often represented in myths as food, drink, or fire with magical powers or that’s never finished and always renews itself. He compares this to the trust we have in our caregivers as infants, particularly the mother. She’s the one who supplies all of our needs at the right time. This makes the Indestructible Life something that was once lost and is now retrieved rather than found for the first time.
Another way to look at the Indestructible Life is immortality.
The research for physical immortality proceeds from a misunderstanding of the traditional teaching. On the contrary, the basic problem is: to enlarge the pupil of the eye, so that the body with its attendant personality will no longer obstruct the view. Immortality is then experienced as a present fact.
So the boon is the certainty that material existence covers up something eternal that can’t be understood through language, time, or space. That creativity, of course, removes the cover and makes what was separate united. That was the removal of duality that the hero came to realize at the stage of apotheosis.
That certainty changes our whole perspective on our life. If we get over or never fall into the repulsion to the material world represented in myths by the woman as the temptress, we say YES to life (a concern Campbell had since he was a young man). We don’t just profess to know what’s really important in life; we actually live it. Our life gains a clear focus that it couldn’t have gained otherwise.
Source of Life
Campbell describes overcoming the obstacles of the journey as piercing through to the source of all life, including that which gives the gods life.
As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form–all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.
It seems to me that the boon is a deep understanding, through first-hand experience, of this amazing thing called life. We may say we don’t take life for granted and know how precious it is, but to really feel that amazement is a difficult thing. It makes even suffering and ugliness something to be marveled at.
A friend of mine has a young son who loves animals. Last winter, he found a frozen caterpillar. His teacher let him bring it inside to humor him because she was sure the thing was dead. When it thawed, however, it came alive again.
We might imagine the boy’s reaction as a simple illustration of the kind that’s open to us. Children often believe adults about things like this, and the teacher had genuinely been convinced that the caterpillar couldn’t outlive being frozen. When it came alive, we can see from the boy’s point of view an assumption of some mysterious force which he doesn’t question but is simply in awe of.
We too emerge from the void and return to it upon death without explanation. The sheer fact that life, rather than no-life, should exist is pretty damn amazing, and we don’t have to know the why behind it to feel that. It’s not something we need to think about constantly, but a quiet, consistent awareness of it changes our entire perspective on what we do, think, and feel.
There are two other aspects of the boon that Campbell talks about that take us down from the spiritual to the practical. The first involves the ease with which the hero gets the boon. Once the hero has achieved apotheosis and has been exposed to eternity, his trials are over. He becomes one of the “elect” who’s knows what life is really about and thus can’t be held back from the boon by anything or anyone.
Sometimes the hero’s tests give him easy access to the boon (the princess, milk, bread, fire, etc.). At other times, it’s fiercely guarded and he has to get it through courage or trickery. This may represent the ultimate test, the one that pushes him to become a World Savior (one form of the hero). However, apotheosis has already happened, so the test isn’t difficult for him to pass. He’s reached such a high state of consciousness that the boon is essentially knowledge remembered, not knowledge discovered for the first time.
In terms of the journey of change, we can see the boon as the moment of reward. This is what we’ve been working to achieve: a college degree, a fulfilling job, a life free of abuse. In such experiences, we perhaps don’t go through deification (apotheosis), but we do experience integration of one or more fragments of our identity into the whole. A strong desire unfulfilled produces fragmentation. The graduate, the satisfied professional, the unabused one at peace are not us. Once we grab the boon, they become us and we’ve integrated that fragment.
Like the hero in myths, we may need to pass one final, definitive test to get the boon or we may pass a point where the integration happens and the boon is inevitable. When going for a college degree, we literally have to pass the final test before we get the boon and the fragment of us as college graduate is integrated. An abuse survivor may be years out of the abusive relationship before the fragment of the unabused one is integrated. Even then, the boon of peace may be far off. While the road to get it isn’t easy, it’s at least inevitable because the unabused fragment has been integrated. We may still have blocks and fears to trusting in our new state of wholeness that delay inner peace (the boon), but we will never again succumb to an abuser.
Beyond the Simplicity of the Myth
The other practical point that Campbell makes in this section is about the apparent simplicity and naivety in many myths and fairy tales. This goes back to the parallel between the Indestructible Body and the infant’s trust in the caregiver. This trust is, of course, completely beyond the rational mind. The “deceptive childishness of the tales” is meant to call up that visceral experience. Things don’t always make sense, and this is deliberate in that it forces us to set aside rationality and emotion and just experience the story for what it is.
[The] entertaining myths [of the gods] transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void; from which perspective the more heavily freighted theological dogmas then appear to have been only pedagogical lures: their function, to cart the unadroit intellect away from its concrete clutter of facts and events to a comparatively rarefied zone, where, as a final boon, all existence–whether heavenly, earthly, or infernal–may at last be seen transmuted into the semblance of a lightly passing, recurrent, mere childhood dream of bliss and fright.
In other words, myths invite us to move beyond what’s depicted, beyond the rational mind, and even beyond emotion to experience that which is indestructible. His point is that the gods and goddesses don’t represent this Indestructible Life themselves and should therefore not be worshiped as if they did. Reading about them and understanding what’s going on symbolically produces a kind of visceral experience of the Indestructible Life that we can only sense when we move beyond thought and feeling.
The boon, then, can be experienced on many levels. It’s that point in the journey where obstacles fall away, and even those remaining aren’t as tough as they seemed to be from a distance. It’s spiritual in that we acquire the sense of eternity and the awesomeness of life, which changes our entire perspective on everything we do, feel, and think. This is what we undertook the journey to get. In the next section in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, called “Return,” Joseph Campbell writes about what we can do with it.