clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
elizbeth swann in her pirate king coat. her blonde hair blows in the sea wind and she looks determined and fierce. behind her is a ship, the background blurred to emphasize her Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Disney

Filed under:

Elizabeth Swann one-upped Luke Skywalker

Pirates of the Caribbean subverted the hero’s journey in fascinating ways

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

You know a story is about to pop off when the main character’s completely jolted out of their ordinary routine. Luke Skywalker intercepting Princess Leia’s distress signal. Harry Potter receiving his Hogwarts letter. Frodo inheriting the One Ring. These moments are thrilling because they’re so full of potential. We, the audience, wonder how we would react if something extraordinary fell into our laps (or was projected out of our droids, as the case may be) and then watch as an ordinary, relatable character transforms into a hero.

For the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, that moment comes when Elizabeth Swann steals a pirate medallion from an unconscious Will Turner, though the path is not as immediately apparent to her. It’s a relatable, seemingly ordinary move — I would have (OK, I have) stolen an accessory from a crush. But it’s also the action that eventually propels her into a fantastical journey. Unlike Harry or Luke or Frodo, Elizabeth is fully responsible for choosing her own adventure.

In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, literature professor Joseph Campbell defines that moment when a hero is drawn into a world they don’t yet understand as the “call to adventure”. It’s the first step of the hero’s journey, or monomyth, which he describes as the basic foundation for narrative. Campbell summarizes that journey as, “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.” He was referring to the foundational stories of mythology, folklore, and religion, but the 1977 reprinting of The Hero with a Thousand Faces illustrated its modern impact. Alongside images of ancient art, the cover features Luke Skywalker.

The cover of The Hero With A Thousand Faces featuring Luke Skywalker Image: Pantheon Books

George Lucas has cited The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a major influence on Star Wars, which pretty neatly follows the hero’s journey as Luke discovers his destiny. Interviewed for the official Joseph Campbell biography, Lucas explained that he was interested in creating a modern myth. “Mythology has always brought out the imagination, to imagine these wonderful events that don’t happen in our everyday life, in a land that is usually the frontier,” Lucas told biographers Stephen and Robin Larsen. “I said, ‘Where is the frontier today?’ Well, I can stand in my front yard and look up at the sky and say, ‘I wonder what’s out there.’”

Lucas undoubtedly succeeded in both creating that modern mythology, and proving that the hero’s journey is a compelling narrative template. Films like The Matrix, Spider-Man, The Lion King, and even Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure have all been cited as examples of the hero’s journey in a modern context. But as Campbell’s work has inspired artists for decades, it’s also been criticized for its macho, egocentric viewpoint. In her book The Virgin’s Promise, screenwriter Kim Hudson argues that stories can and should move beyond the masculine hero’s journey, writing “We need to be more than brave, self-sacrificing Heroes. We also need to be Virgins who bring our inner talents and self-fulfilling joys to life. And we need stories that show us how to do that.”

As a staple of genre fiction, it’s difficult to escape the hero’s journey framework, but artists have still subverted it over time: antihero stories like Breaking Bad do it with blunt force, while George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire executed the presumptive hero Ned Stark by the end of the first book. One of the most interesting and subtle subversions comes from The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which rejects the individualistic, masculine nature of the hero’s journey to explore how adventures intertwine.

Young Elizabeth Swann (Lucinda Dryzek) looks quizzically down Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Captain Jack Sparrow might be the most famous character associated with the Pirates franchise, but he’s not really the hero of the story (at least not in the original trilogy). From a Campbellian perspective, that would be Elizabeth Swann. When the crew of the Black Pearl storms Port Royal in search of their former crewmate’s child who carries his cursed medallion, they’re kicking off a call to adventure. By taking Will’s medallion and telling Captain Barbossa that her last name is Turner, Elizabeth unknowingly intercepts a call to adventure meant for someone else, setting off on a swashbuckling hero’s journey.

Over the course of the Pirates trilogy, Elizabeth takes on the role of archetypal hero. To echo Campbell, she crosses the threshold into an unknown world, overcomes challenges and temptations, eventually mastering it and returning home. At the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Elizabeth feels suffocated by her life as a “proper lady” — literally, she can’t breathe in her tight corset. Will, her friend of eight years, won’t call her by her first name because of his lower social status. Her father wants her to marry Captain (soon to be Commodore) Norrington, a man she doesn’t love.

And then she’s kidnapped by a crew of undead pirates and her world turns upside down (again, somewhat literally — At World’s End has a trippy earth-flipping sequence.) Elizabeth has been fascinated with pirates since she was a young girl, and though she’s initially terrified by Barbossa and disgusted by Jack Sparrow, they bring out her cunning resourcefulness. She’s the mastermind behind many of the series’ shrewdest schemes and battle strategies, including shackling Jack Sparrow to the Black Pearl as the Kraken takes it down. In At World’s End, she’s elected Pirate King, a symbolic mastery of the world she stumbled into three films earlier.

Gibbs (Kevin McNally) Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) sit at the Court of the Brethren Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Elizabeth’s character arc is a neat subversion of the damsel-in-distress archetype. In a typical Campbellian narrative she’d be rescued by the hero. Luke frees Leia from the Death Star. Superman is constantly saving Lois Lane from some supervillain or another. Pirates of the Caribbean sets Elizabeth up for that role, with Will and Norrington both setting out to rescue her after she’s kidnapped by Barbossa. But Elizabeth rejects that framework, and uses her own wits to get herself out of danger.

The Hero With A Thousand Faces acknowledges that a hero can be male or female, but some feminist scholars have pointed out that the hero’s journey is overtly masculine — regardless of the protagonist’s gender — with its emphasis on action and outward expression. (Psychologist Maureen Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey argues for an introspective, feminine hero’s journey from a psychological lens, while The Virgin’s Promise comes at it from a storytelling perspective.)

Elizabeth’s journey follows the more masculine model (as do most classic adventure stories that rely on action to propel the plot forward,) but the role Elizabeth carves out for herself is much more androgynous than either the swashbuckling hero or the “proper lady”. She often dresses in masculine attire when she’s at sea, even disguising herself as a boy in Dead Man’s Chest. And notably, she’s crowned Pirate King — no one insists on amending the title to Queen. She doesn’t outright reject her femininity, though. Instead, she uses it to her advantage, like when she flirts with Jack Sparrow in order to distract him so that she can save herself without him interfering, or when she pretends to faint to give Will time to rescue Jack from the gallows.

On its own, Elizabeth Swann’s arc is a fun, androgynous take on the hero’s journey, but it’s still a pretty standard adaptation of the format. But she’s not the only hero of the story.

Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) smirks at Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Will Turner’s initial call to adventure was intercepted, but when Captain Barbossa kidnaps the woman he loves (ironically, thinking she was him), he extends a new call to Will. The young blacksmith sets out to rescue Elizabeth, with the help of a pirate he loathes, Jack Sparrow. In the structure of storytelling, Will kicks off a quest of his own. He winds up on his own classic hero’s journey, from being dragged, unconscious out of the sea at the beginning of The Curse of the Black Pearl to ruling its waters as the captain of the Flying Dutchman by the conclusion of At World’s End, again demonstrating mastery of a previously unknown world.

Over the course of the first three Pirates movies, Elizabeth and Will are on different journeys. They’re not always working as a unit and their goals are not always shared. But, importantly, their quests intertwine and overlap. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they work separately, and sometimes they’re driven by separate motivations, such as when Will tries to free his father in Dead Man’s Chest. Will and Elizabeth are each the heroes of their own stories even as they always return to each other.

The Campbellian framework has been criticized for being too individualistic, focusing too much on the idea of a (male) “chosen one” who’s destined to save the world. But by sending its male and female leads on distinct, yet shared, journeys, the Pirates movies reject the idea that a hero’s journey is necessarily the individual quest of one special man. Instead, they argue that a compelling narrative can sustain more than one hero, and that they interact with and influence each other even as they embark on their own personal quests.

Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom) embrace on a beach Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Not only is that an interesting subversion of the hero’s journey, it’s also part of what makes the movies so much fun to watch — the formula is familiar, but there’s still room to be surprised. Now that Pirates of the Caribbean is a cultural phenomenon, it’s easy to forget how exciting and refreshing it is that Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner take turns rescuing each other. When Elizabeth passes out and falls into the sea, it seems like she’s going to be a typical damsel in need of rescue by the dashing hero. Ditto when she’s kidnapped by Barbossa. Pirates of the Caribbean turns that narrative on its head, and Elizabeth ends up outsmarting everyone around her. I didn’t see that coming when I watched the movie for the first time and it’s still thrilling to watch now, 18 years and five films later.

By far the most quoted line of the series is “Why is the rum gone?” It comes from Jack Sparrow, awakened after a night of reveling, to find that Elizabeth has used it to start a bonfire. She’s making a smoke signal so that Norrington’s ship will find them where they’re marooned on a deserted island.

It’s a funny line, to be sure, but the answer embodies the most important theme of the series: The rum is gone because Elizabeth Swann used it to rescue herself.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.