Buddy the Elf: Personal Transformation & The Heroic Journey
“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.” — Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
Elf is one of my favorite movies. It’s fun. It’s lighthearted. But it also cuts deep. That’s because Buddy is the archetypal hero. His journey to discover his true self is the journey you and I are on to discover our true selves. So we can laugh with Buddy, we can cry with him, and we can also learn with him.
To really learn with Buddy, I’m going to have help from my friend Joseph Campbell, a thinker and author famous for unearthing the wisdom of the mythological traditions of the world.
Stage 1: THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
“The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder… one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man.”
— Joseph Campbell
The film begins with Buddy living a life of relative normality among the elves in the North Pole. Although he soon realizes that something is wrong and that he is different than everyone else. After failing at toy making and learning that he is a human (not an elf like everyone else), he concludes that he doesn’t really belong in the North Pole and that he is a “cotton-headed ninnymoggins.” Papa Elf comforts Buddy and tells him that his real father lives in a magical place called New York City. Buddy, upset by everything going on, escapes outside into the snow where he encounters Leon the Snowman. Leon tells Buddy that, “This might be the golden opportunity to find out who you really are.” (!) Buddy agrees and heeds the call to adventure.
As Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Buddy must leave the world of the known — a world of spirit and love, the world he has known his whole life — and venture off into the world of the unknown.
One of my favorite psychologists, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, wrote about this phenomenon in his autobiography:
“Sometimes in therapy the client may be in their 20’s or 30’s will say to me, ‘Nathaniel, it’s so embarrassing — I’m still preoccupied with separating with my parents. I should be way beyond that by now.’ And I like to say to them the following… if you study the various great legends or mythologies of the world and different cultures in almost every version of the heroes journey that exists, the first great rite of passage is the struggle to leave home. So that’s the first great battle on the path to self-realization. And then instead of looking at this as some kind of undignified, unworthy beneath you kind of struggle, see it as a journey — as a rite of passage on a journey which you are on to finding your own destiny. Now why is that valuable? Because if you see it in those terms it’s a motivator to persevere. It gives the battle dignity. It motivates you to give the struggle for self-realization your best rather than to collapse into passivity and self-contempt. Now I see life in those terms — not only my own life; I see other people’s lives. I see struggle in those terms. I see the human struggle in those terms. I see people working to find out what their destiny is and then to reach it.”
Stage 2: JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN — CHALLENGES
Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.
The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed — again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.
— Joseph Campbell
To travel into the world of the unknown, Buddy has to pass through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then finally through the Lincoln Tunnel. It quickly becomes apparent that Buddy’s old ways of being and acting will not have him succeed in this new world. He is attacked by a raccoon, his biological father has him kicked out of his office at the Empire State Building, and he is hit by a taxi. He manages to find refuge in the Christmas section of the department store Gimbel’s, where he meets his love interest Jovie. He struggles to maintain his identity in this new world, constantly being tormented and made fun of. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Buddy’s old ways finally get him in enough trouble that his dad tells him to get lost. “I don’t care where you go. I don’t care that you’re an elf! I don’t care that you’re nuts! I don’t care that you’re my son! Get out of my life! Now!”
In his despair, Buddy writes a letter to his family. “I’m sorry that I ruined your lives and crammed eleven cookies in the VCR. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I’ll never forget you. Love, Buddy.”
Stage 3: JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN — TRIUMPHS
“The gods and goddesses then are to be understood as embodiments and custodians of the elixir of Imperishable Being but not themselves the Ultimate in its primary state. What the hero seeks through his intercourse with them is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. This miraculous energy-substance and this alone is the Imperishable; the names and forms of the deities who everywhere embody, dispense, and represent it come and go. This is the miraculous energy of the thunderbolts of Zeus, Yahweh, and the Supreme Buddha, the fertility of the rain of Viracocha, the virtue announced by the bell rung in the Mass at the consecration, and the light of the ultimate illumination of the saint and sage. Its guardians dare release it only to the duly proven.”
— Joseph Campbell
Buddy has only minor triumphs throughout most the film, although there is ample evidence of his transformation. He changes out of his elf clothes for the first time, he befriends the employees of the mailroom at his dad’s company, and he succeeds in taking Jovie out on a date.
His real call to action and the opportunity for a major triumph comes at the climatic scene where Santa’s sleigh has crash landed in Central Park. Using what he has learned in both worlds, Buddy is able to make a plan that saves the day. He is aided by Jovie who has taken Buddy’s lesson to heart that: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”
Buddy is able to bring spirit (and cheer) to the world of the unknown — which until then had been portrayed as a spiritual wasteland. Buddy underwent his own transformation and he played a major role in transforming the lives of his biological father Walter, his brother Michael, and Jovie.
Listen to what Joseph Campbell has to say about transformation in this interview with Bill Moyers.
Bill Moyers: How do I slay that dragon in me? What’s the journey each of us has to make, what you call “the soul’s high adventure”?
Joseph Campbell: My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.
Bill Moyers: Is it my work or my life?
Joseph Campbell: If the work that you’re doing is the work that you chose to do because you are enjoying it, that’s it. But if you think, “Oh, no! I couldn’t do that !” that’s the dragon locking you in. “No, no, I couldn’t be a writer,” or “No, no, I couldn’t possibly do what so-and-so is doing.”
Bill Moyers: Unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we’re not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
Joseph Campbell: But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.
Stage 4: THE RETURN HOME
“When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds.”
— Joseph Campbell
The final scene shows Buddy and Jovie back in the North Pole with Papa Elf. Buddy is shown holding their newborn baby. The baby is the ultimate symbol of the joining of the two worlds for Buddy — the world of the known and the world of the unknown, which are now in harmony.
Buddy’s story is a fantastic quest. And whether we acknowledge it or not, it is the same hero quest that we are all on. It is the quest into the unknown. It is the quest of transformation and self-realization. It is the quest of life. There will be challenges. There will be dragons to slay. There will be triumphs. There will be love. The only question is whether you will heed the call to adventure.
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us — the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” — Joseph Campbell