We’ve got to the second “version” of the Ordeal: The ultimate boon. Unlike the Apotheosis, which usually takes place before or during the battle with the “bad guy”, this stage of the hero’s journey usually comes after the fight or even at the end of the story.
What is “the ultimate boon”?
The boon is essentially a gift given to the protagonist as a reward for achieving their goal. It can be different things for different heroes, but what all boons have in common is the fact that they are something of great value for the hero.
Most of the time, the ultimate boon is not a physical object but rather some sort of new power or life lesson, however, when the boon is an object it should not be confused with the McGuffin. While the McGuffin is something that the hero seeks from the very beginning of the story, the boon is an unexpected award that he receives from someone else.
In The hero with a thousand faces, Joseph Campbell gives us different types of boons that can be found in myths and tales:
This is not just something that the hero wants, but a gift that fulfills ALL of his desires. Does he want to be immortal? Sure! Does he want to be rich? No problem! Does he want true love? Here is comes!
The elixir might be a new status that gives the hero the power to do anything he wants or a legendary weapon that allows him to defeat all his enemies at once.
Regardless, it is something extraordinary that goes beyond human imagination. In fairy tales and myths the hero gets the elixir and lives happily ever after but, in modern storytelling, this is often not the case. The protagonist will be rewarder this incredible thing but he will most likely refuse and choose to stay humble.
The best example of this is Disney’s Hercules: he has dreamed of immortality and life as a (literal) god ever since he was a boy, but once he gets it, our favorite redhead greek hero refuses to stay on earth with his girl and his family.
The gift for the people
This particular version of the ultimate boon doesn’t concern just the hero, but all the people around him. Our protagonist seeks something precious that will save his land/city/planet/home but, during the journey, he realizes that there is another way to save his people and goes for that.
Campbell brings the example of Maui (no, not Dwayne Johnson, the mythological Maui) who won fire from Mahu-ika and gave it to mankind. And (even though the movie is very different from Polynesian mythology) the protagonist of Disney’s Moana does the same thing: she goes on a journey to save her dying island and at the end she manages to do so by receiving the blessing of Te Fiti.
“The boon bestowed on the worshiper is always scaled to his stature and to the nature of his dominant desire”– The hero with a thousand faces
And finally, there is the 3rd type of boon: the thing that the hero wants most. It doesn’t have all-powerful magic and it doesn’t save the entire world, but it brings happiness to the hero and that’s enough for him.
This particular type of the ultimate boon is interesting because it doesn’t have to be “mindblowing”, it can be something simple: a common object that the hero is attached to (his dead dad’s watch or dead mom’s necklace), a new position within the tribe, a date with the person he likes etc…
The best example of this is (once again from a Disney movie) Mulan.
Unlike all the other Disney princesses, Mulan is well… not a princess. She doesn’t have an army of forest creatures to help her do house chores, she doesn’t come from royalty, and she doesn’t have the power to create funny 3D snowmen.
She is a normal girl from a normal family who becomes a normal soldier, so it makes sense that her final reward is something less epic than immortality.
But then, what is Mulan’s ultimate boon? How can we tell that this is what she wants?
The hero’s desire
While you’re writing a story you must make sure that the audience understands what the hero wants.
It wouldn’t make sense to write a movie about a random guy who stumbles upon THE LEGENDARY ARMOR OF THE WARRIOR WHATSHINAME one evening while he’s taking out the dog, accidentally become THE GREAT KING OF ALL MANKIND and living happily ever after without really working for any of it.
A good writer must plant the seed of the hero’s desire early on so that once he finally gets his boon the story comes full circle.
Even before the inciting incident takes place, the movie Mulan tells us what our heroine desires and fears using the people around her.
“You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor”– The matchmaker
The matchmaker tells us what Mulan wants and also why she can’t get it in a single sentence. Mulan wants to bring honor to her family, but she can’t do it in the traditional way.
The hero’s achievement
At the end of the day, the ultimate boon is just a reward that the hero receives for doing something important. So… what is this “something”? Mulan has saved China, but is that the “something” she needed to do in order to be rewarded?
Just like in many other stories, the heroine of this movie has both an external struggle (fighting the enemy) and an internal one (feeling worthy of her family).
The external struggle comes to a conclusion with a (literal) boom when she defeats Shan Yu, now China is not threatened by invaders and Mulan can go home to her family. But the internal struggle is much more complex and comes to a resolution even before that.
“Maybe I didn’t go for my father. Maybe I wanted to prove that I could do things right, so that when I looked in the mirror I could see someone worthwhile”– Mulan
Mulan has been lying to herself about the real reason why she left her house, sure she wanted to help her father but that wasn’t the only thing on her mind. After being discovered, she realizes that the rules she has been forced to follow maybe aren’t fair, and she doesn’t need validation from others in order to believe in herself.
Shan Yu: “[to Li Shang] You took away my victory”
Mulan: “No, I did”
This is the first time in the movie that Mulan proudly shows her real nature, she’s not hiding behind the facade of “Ping the male soldier”, she is proud of herself for what she has accomplished and isn’t afraid to show it.
This is the REAL achievement. The emperor might be rewarding her for saving the country. but the writer is rewarding her for learning a lesson.
The boon is a symbol
Let’s talk about what Mulan physically gets at the end of the story. The ultimate boon for her are: a sword that she probably will never use again and a pretty medallion. No money, no royal title, no invincible superpower. Why does the movie make a big deal out of those things?
It might not seem like it, but those objects are really important, not for their practical use, but for what they represent.
“Take this [medal] so that your family will know what you have done for me. And this [sword] so that the world will know what you have done for China”– The Emperor to Mulan
The sword that she took from Shan Yu is a symbol of what she has accomplished through hard work and resourcefulness: she, a young girl, has defeated a powerful enemy. While the medallion shows that she has earned the respect and gratitude of her people.
Ultimately, those objects are just trophies, the real reward comes in the form of people’s respect and her family’s love.
Mulan: “Father I brought you the sword of Shan Yu and the crest of the emperor. They’re gifts to honor the Fa family”
Fa Zhou: “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter”
In the end, the ultimate boon is simply a gift that the hero receives for his hard work and impact on the world. It doesn’t matter if it is a big, extraordinary reward, or just a simple token of gratitude because it tells the audience that the hero has accomplished his goal.