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Book Review: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

One-line summary: A dense, extensively footnoted book that presents Campbell's thesis on the Monomyth, or Hero's Journey.



Pantheon Books, 1949, 416 pages


In this book, Joseph Campbell presents the composite hero. Apollo, the Frog King of the fairy tale, Wotan, the Buddha, and numerous other protagonists of folklore and religion, enact simultaneously the various phases of their common story. The psychological view is then compared with the words of such spiritual leaders as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Lao-tse, and the 'Old Men' of Australian tribes. From behind a thousand faces the single hero emerges, archetype of all myth.



You've probably heard some smarty-pants Comparative Literature or Folklore and Mythology student refer to the so-called Monomyth, also known as the Hero's Journey. Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of those books that everyone has heard of and a lot of people cite, but hardly anyone actually reads. It's probably most famous today for two reasons: George Lucas famously credited it as a major influence on the Stars Wars saga (hence the 1972 Princeton University Press edition, above, which includes a picture of Luke Skywalker on the cover), and it was the subject of a very popular 1988 PBS series called The Power of Myth, hosted by Bill Moyers.



The kernel of the Hero's Journey is summarized by Campbell as follows:

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.


According to Campbell's theory of the monomyth, this is the central theme of almost every myth and every story ever told. Campbell does, however, exclude the "folk legends" of "primitive peoples" -- which inconveniently do not always adhere to this formula.

Let's Get Jungian



Some people find Campbell's observations to be profound and true, but Campbell believes in a certain "truthiness" of myths, without committing himself to believing in any particular religious tradition. That is, Campbell is not an orthodox believer in any religion (he says as much in the Bill Moyers specials) but he rejects the idea that myths are just stories primitive people used to explain the universe and tell stories. He believes they communicate something essential and internal within humanity. In other words, he's one of those people who might nowadays describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." His writing may thus tend to aggravate both non-believers who don't think any myths should be taken as anything other than stories, and believers who (as some negative reviews of the book demonstrate) think their religion is special and true and not a bunch of fairy tales like all the other religions Campbell compares them with.

Throughout the book, Campbell uses the language of psychoanalysis, which is the second of his convictions that modern readers in particular may have a hard time swallowing. Campbell wrote his thesis in 1949, when scientists thought that psychology would soon decode the secrets of the mind just as biologists were decoding the secrets of our genes and physicists were taking apart the atom. 60 years later, Freud and Jung, whom Campbell leans on heavily, don't have much credibility any more. It can hardly be overstated how much Freudian psychology and Jungian archetypes infuse this book; the prologue is titled "Myth and Dream," and Campbell frequently refers to transcripts of dreams recorded by psychologists to draw parallels with mythic symbolism.

Hence, there is a lot to quibble with in Campbell's thesis. That said, there are some valuable things to be gained by actually reading the book rather than just familiarizing yourself broadly with the steps of the Hero's Journey from a Wikipedia article.

The Hero's Journey in Fiction



First of all, there are a lot of misconceptions about what the Hero's Journey is and why it's considered a "monomyth." It's often assumed to refer to purely masculine stories, but that's false: most of the central actors in the myths Campbell cites are male, and Campbell is way Freudian and thus casts everything in terms of Mother/Father archetypes, but Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Dorothy's trip to see the Wizard of Oz are perfect examples of the Hero's Journey. Some people think that because of the association with myths and the references to "supernatural wonder" and "fabulous forces" that therefore the Hero's Journey can only refer to a fantasy story; i.e., that the Hero's Journey must necessarily involve magic and monsters. But these can be metaphorical. David Copperfield's story is a Hero's Journey; so is Oedipa Mass's. Campbell himself was largely inspired by James Joyce (from whom he took the term "monomyth" in the first place). Whether you can really stretch every story enough to map it onto the Hero's Journey is questionable, but it's worth letting the concepts sink in to think about them.

The second virtue of this book is that Campbell presents an extensive survey of myths from around the world. All of the world religions and myths from six continents (and the Pacific Islands) are interspersed throughout the book, with Campbell drawing freely (and at times, haphazardly) from everything from Jewish midrashes to Native American creation myths to use as examples for each part of the monomyth.

Where the Hero's Journey is probably most badly misunderstood is in terms of what it's presumed to say about storytelling. It's fashionable in literary circles (and especially among writers) to be just familiar enough with Campbell to analyze novels according to the Campbellian model, and even criticize those that seem to be "missing" crucial elements of the monomyth (despite the fact that Campbell himself said that many myths do not contain all the stages). Worse, a lot of people hear about the monomyth and think Campbell is saying not only that all stories are Hero's Journeys, but that all stories must be Hero's Journeys.

Campbell was really not saying anything about how to write stories. (He barely mentions novels and how the monomyth applies to modern fiction.) He certainly never imagined that anyone would, as George Lucas supposedly did, sit down and map out a story by explicitly following the stages of the Hero's Journey. The monomyth is a descriptive model, not a prescriptive one. It's useful to know about it, but if you're using it as an outline for your story, you're missing the point. (Yes, I'm talking to you, George Lucas.)

Should you read it? Or watch the Bill Moyers special instead?



I found Campbell's writing valuable and interesting, despite the fact that I place absolutely zero credence in Freudian psychology or Jungian mysticism, and now I can brag that I've actually read the thing. This is an excellent overview of dozens of different mythological traditions scattered around a central thesis. If you really want to be able to get all critical theory up in people's litcrit, buckle down and plow through it. If you just want to drop phrases like Call to Adventure and Apotheosis and Atonement with the Father at parties, stick to Wikipedia. (Also: get a life.)

That said, this was not meant to be popular non-fiction; it's the sort of book usually read only by graduate students, and here's why:

The enduring substratum of the individual and of the progenitor of the universe are one and the same, according to these mythologies; that is why the demiurge in this myth is called the Self. The Oriental mystic discovers this deep-reposing, enduring presence in its original androgynous state when he plunges in meditation into his own interior.


Yes, the whole book is written pretty much like that.

We have come two stages: first, from the immediate emanations of the Uncreated Creating to the fluid yet timeless personages of the mythological age; second, from these Created Creating Ones to the sphere of human history. The emanations have condensed, the field of consciousness restricted. Where formerly casual bodies were visible, now only their secondary effects come to focus in the little hard-fact pupil of the human eye. The cosmogonic cycle is now to be carried forward, therefore, not by the gods, who have become invisible, but by the heroes, more or less human in character, through whom the world destiny is realized. This is the line where creation myths begin to give place to legend -- as in the Book of Genesis, following the expulsion from the garden. Metaphysics yields to prehistory, which is dim and vague at first, but becomes gradually precise in detail.


I'm not unused to academic writing, and this made even my eyes glaze over. That said, while psycho-mysticism and really abstruse legends abound throughout the text, by the end you really will start to grasp Campbell's point, and I think it does take reading the book to really "get" it (as opposed to reading summaries to absorb just the elementary concepts). That's not to say I ended up agreeing with his thesis; I still don't believe that myths (including religion) are anything more than stories people tell to explain a universe they don't understand, or that myths and dreams reflect hidden truths in our subconscious. However, Campbell provides a useful "grammar" with which to analyze mythic archetypes, and it's always useful to understand a complex alternate viewpoint from someone who's done his homework.

That said, unless you're feeling dedicated, or stubborn, you'll get most of the content of the book from watching the six-hour PBS miniseries and some of the other documentaries that have been done on Joseph Campbell and the monomyth.




Verdict: This is an interesting book, but a dense one, and both the writing and the ideas are a little bit dated. Campbell has had a major influence on several generations of scholars and writers now, so an educated reader (or writer) should at least be familiar with him, but I'm not gonna lie and say this is scintillating reading. It's more like intellectual lima beans.
Tags: books, non-fiction, reviews
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