Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Hero's Journey

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Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

When the movie begins, More is a humble civil servant and trusted adviser of the king. He and his friends and family sit around the house laughing and discussing the worldly ways of Cardinal Wolsey, the King's Chancellor, who, despite being a cleric, wields a lot of political muscle. They lightheartedly mock Wolsey, though More speaks cautiously about him. Everyone seems pretty happy.

Call to Adventure

But—speak of the devil—a courier from Wolsey arrives. More is summoned to a meeting, down the Thames in London, center of political intrigue and corruptly cynical people.

He gives himself a little mental pep talk—get in the game, Thomas—and heads down the river to meet with Wolsey. In London, Wolsey asks More to support him in his efforts to put pressure on the Church to license King Henry VIII's divorce. Will he oblige?

Refusal of the Call

More's not gonna do it—though this isn't refusing the call to adventure. Disagreeing with Wolsey is the adventure, especially since it's really a disagreement with the king.

More won't go against the Church: He'll only offer up the power of prayer to help the king's current wife get pregnant. This isn't the answer Wolsey was looking for. He wants effort in addition to prayer. But More won't budge.

Meeting the Mentor

Then, he has a confrontation with a figure even further up the ladder—the king himself. Henry VIII pays More a visit, and the dude seems a bit unhinged. He's convinced that God wants him to get divorced, remarried, and break with the Church.

More is on risky ground here. Properly speaking, Henry VIII isn't really his mentor at all. More doesn't have a mentor in the movie, unless you want to consider God his mentor (see "Character Roles" for more on this). He has to rely on himself to hold to his principles; everyone else is trying to pry him away.

But Henry does pose challenges to him—and those challenges force More to take a stand, though, initially, he wants to avoid breaking with the king while still remaining faithful to the Church.

Crossing the Threshold

When Wolsey dies, More becomes the Chancellor, which makes him the main man. But when the King demands that everyone sign a loyalty oath approving of his marriage—with the penalty for not signing being the charge of high treason and a likely death sentence—More can't take the oath.

He hopes he can take it—that it isn't explicitly anti-Church, anti-Pope—but he can't. All he can do is remain silent, refusing to sign the oath. He has to resign his new Chancellor gig, to boot. His course is set.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Now, More has to embark on his journey toward martyrdom—though he's determined to both stay true to his principles and stay alive, if he can. The new Chancellor, the devious Thomas Cromwell, tries to put pressure on More, with the help of Richard Rich, a former friend who's decided to betray More in exchange for Cromwell's aid.

When they can't nail More for accepting a bribe (which he got rid of once he realized it was a bribe), they decide to switch tactics and get more aggressive—eventually imprisoning More. At the same time, More's friend the Duke of Norfolk is pressuring him to accept the oath to save his skin—but More has to alienate Norfolk (by insulting him) in order to keep him safe, while continuing on his (More's) own more principled course.

The most difficult challenge to More comes from his own family—their love and their desire for him not to die as a martyr probably tempts him to take the oath more than anything else. But he resists and stays true to himself and to his God.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

Finally, Cromwell has More arrested on charges of treason and held in the Tower of London. For More, the "inmost cave" takes the form of a prison cell—ick. It's time for his dark night of the soul—he's kept away from his family, who are now suffering in poverty. When he gets to see them briefly, it's extremely painful, since they all urge him to take the oath. At the same time, Cromwell continues to pressure him, denying him books.


When More gets put on trial, he's confronted by Cromwell, who denounces More's silence on the king's marriage. He claims that More's silence isn't mere silence but a denial of the king's right to break with the Church. More artfully counters him with legal reasoning, saying that Cromwell is actually obliged by the law to interpret his silence as consent to the oath.

Richard Rich, Cromwell's ally, resorts to perjury, making up a story in which More said that Parliament did not have the power to overthrow the Catholic Church and set up the king as the head of the Church of England. On this basis, the court sentences More to death.

Reward (Seizing the Sword)

Defeated, and sentenced to die, More finally speaks his mind. He says that Parliament has disgraced itself by removing the Catholic Church from its position of spiritual power. He claims that he's not being punished for questioning the king's supremacy (his right to rule) but simply because he wouldn't bend to the king's illicit divorce and remarriage. Preach, Thomas.

The Road Back

For More, there isn't really any road back to his old, happy life. He's condemned to die.

But since he believes he's being sent back to God, he feels calm and happy. So there is a road back for More, in a sense. In fact, we see the beauty of Nature come into view—as we did along the Thames near More's home at the beginning of the movie—as More is about to be executed. It's a lovely day. We see the executioner raise his ax and let it fall, but (thankfully) we don't get to see More's head roll off.


We don't see More in the afterlife, so we don't witness a resurrection in that sense. But More lives on as a symbol of commitment to principle—immortalized in this movie, among other artworks and historical works. He became a Catholic saint in the early 20th century, too. So More's influence extended far beyond his death.

Return With the Elixir

This basically is an extension of the "Resurrection" section because by dying as a martyr, More actually became more famous than if he'd managed to somehow survive.

He became a moral example who inspired people who were both devout Catholics (like More) and people who were not (like the agnostic who wrote the screenplay, Robert Bolt). So by dying at the king's command, More actually left a living and inspiring legacy.

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