BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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POEM: Orpheus Twisted [Day 30 NaPoMo: Ballad]

He played his way to the underworld,
capturing every ear.
Even the gods couldn’t move to fight,
but stood stock still to hear.

The musician made his merry way
to the throne of the gods.
And boldly made a petition
that defied rules and odds.

Ye, gods! There’s been a huge mistake.
My wife, she died too soon.
If you’ll let us go on our way
I’ll play THE most dulcet tune.

The gods conferred and reached a verdict:
“If our terms are heeded
and your tune is dreamy enough,
she Will be conceded.”

Tuning his lyre, the artist asked,
“May I, Now, hear the terms?”
“Lead her above — without a peek,
or t’s back to food for worms.”

The dulcet tune was as he claimed,
and Two had leave to go.
From Styx out to the burning sun,
he itched, her place, to know.

When almost out, he heard a thud
and his name feebly called.
He stayed true to the gods’ strict terms,
as her blood puddle sprawled.

As she was retaking bodily form,
she’d tripped upon a rock.
Maybe direct pressure on the wound
and she’d not bled into Shock.

So if god or man makes you a deal
contingent on ignorance,
you might think twice before taking
up residence inside that fence.

BOOK REVIEW: Faust [Part I] by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This review will cover the first part of the play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I start with that statement because there is some potential for confusion, because: 1.) there are many tellings of the Germanic legend loosely-based on Johann Georg Faust; 2.) there are two parts to Goethe’s play and some editions include both and others just one; 3.) Goethe’s play was apparently not written with the intention that it would be in two parts and so the proper title of this isn’t “Faust, Part I” but rather that became a common title, retroactively and after the author’s death. I’ve done my best to link to the same edition as I read (which seems to be sometimes erroneously listed as containing both parts one and two – when it is really just the first.) Part I is said to be more closely based on the myth than is the second.

The gist of the story is so well-known that it will be recognized even by those who’ve not read this play (or works like Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” [written well before Goethe’s play(s).]) The successful but bored Doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil in which Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul if Faust can ever be made to feel truly satisfied. Goethe’s “Faust” opens with a wager between God and the Devil. The Devil believes he can corrupt God’s favorite (i.e. Dr. Faust) and turn him from a righteous path. Faust’s deal leads to a series of adventures that culminate in an ill-fated love relationship with a woman named Gretchen (a.k.a. Margarete.)

The story and its theme are straightforward. The idea is that there is a ceaseless yearning – be it for pleasure or understanding or whatnot – that is insatiable, and that giving into a desire to quench that yearning can lead even the best of humanity into tragedy.

The play is delivered in rhymed verse, and the translation by Bayard Taylor makes for pleasant reading.

I’d recommend this book for readers of classic literature. It’s an old tale, and is well conveyed in this translation of the play.

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Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli

Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & MonstersTreasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 25 biographical sketches of figures from Greek Mythology. It’s one of those books that grew on me, and the reason it grew on me was a few of the chapters toward the end were engaging, such as those about Heracles, Jason, and Helen. This also means that the number of stars I gave it is fairly meaningless. It was in no danger of getting 5 stars nor 1, but could’ve been anywhere in between at various points in my reading.

The problem with the book is that the unit of interest isn’t the myth, i.e. not the story, but rather the mythical figure, the various gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Because of this organization, some of the chapters have a tight and memorable story, such as that of Heracles and his 12 labors, while others are just piles of genealogical facts mixed with odd mythical happenings (e.g. who burst from whose forehead) and tossed with that mythical figure’s bit parts in larger myths. The book is a good, solid reference book for schoolkids doing research on Greek Mythology, but much of it’s not very engaging to read.

The graphics are beautiful and colorful, if a bit artsy (not always instantaneously clear in subject.) There are maps, a timeline describing happenings of ancient Greece — real and mythical, a bibliography, and a quick guide to the characters that would make more sense if the book wasn’t a collection of relatively brief biographical sketches to begin with (but repetition has its merits, particularly for children.)

If you’re looking for a collection of biographies of mythical Greeks (i.e. a reference for children,) then this is a good book for you. If you’re looking to get your kids intrigued by the Greek myths, then you might want to shop around. Put another way, if you’re looking for a version of what Neil Gaiman did with this “Norse Mythology,” only for the Greeks, this isn’t it.

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POEM: A Khasi Myth: or, Rodent, Lightening, and Sword

In a sacred forest

a Rodent roamed

who owned a sword

it freely loaned.

This was no hacking

machete blade,

but made of metal

of unmatched grade.

One day Lightening

made a request:

To borrow the blade

believed the best.

Lightening zigged,

sliced, and zagged.

Claiming ownership

 in its boastful brags.

The rightful owner

requested its return.

But the rodent’s

plea met only spurn.

So the critter devised

a clever, sensible plan

in order to bridge

the requisite span.

It needed to climb

from Earth to the sky

because it had no

wings with which to fly.

But it wasn’t just wings

which Rodent lacked.

It had only one item

 to be skyward stacked.

So it piled its poop

as high as it could,

from the base of a tree

past the top of the woods.

Stacking and piling, the

poop nearly touched cloud.

When a thunder crack

struck ear-splitting loud.

Lightening saw rodent

would reclaim the sword

that Lightening had come

to so ardently adore.

Down fell the Rodent

to a pile of fried dung

that had once been its

steps and its ladder rungs.

 You may think that

Lightening got its way.

But the Rodent piles

its poop to this very day.

Someday when Lightening

is momentarily distracted,

Rodent’s sword will be

surreptitiously extracted.

BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en

Monkey: A Folk Novel of ChinaMonkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re familiar with any Chinese folklore, it’s probably this story. But you probably know it as “Journey to the West.” It’s not only been released in numerous editions as a novel, it’s also been adapted for film, stage play, and I’m sure there must be a video game of it out there.

If you’re thinking, “Chinese folklore? Sounds boring.” Think again. This is a superhero story. Monkey, also known as the Monkey-King and “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” is an immortal who has all manner of supernatural powers. He can fly. He can make copies of himself. He can transform himself—either disguising himself as another being or appearing as an inanimate object. He has an iron truncheon that can be the size of a sewing needle or a mile long and which is indestructible. Wielding said staff, he can defeat armies or deities.

In fact, the flaw in this story isn’t a lack of adventure or thrill. On the contrary, it’s one adventure after the next. If anything, the flaw is “Superman Syndrome.” That’s what I call it when the hero is so ridiculously overpowered that even when he’s fighting gods, dragons, or whole armies there’s still no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, the Monkey does eventually meet his match in the form of the Buddha. The Buddha defeats Monkey not in combat, but in a bet. That event shifts the direction of the story. In the early chapters, Monkey is goes about heaven and earth arrogantly wreaking havoc. He’s not altogether detestable. He does have his redeeming traits, but he’s insufferably arrogant and mischievous. After he’s imprisoned following his run-in with the Buddha, a monk is assigned to go to India to bring back scriptures (hence, a “journey to the west”) to China. Monkey is assigned to be the monk’s guardian and along with two others that they pick up along the way (Pigsy and Sandy) the monk is escorted on his journey. The party faces one challenge after the next, and the trip is long and arduous. Some of the challenges require brute force but in many cases they are battles of wits. So while Monkey may be overpowered, he does experience personal growth over the course of the story.

The story is told over 30 chapters, each set up with a cliffhanger. I enjoyed this translation by Arthur Waley. It is end-noted, which is useful given the historic and cultural nuances that may not be clear to readers.

It should be noted that this is unambiguously a Buddhist tale. There is a bias against Taoists and other non-Buddhist religions evident throughout the story. It’s not just the fact that the Buddha easily defeats Monkey when no other deity or group of deities can, there’s a steady stream of anti-Taoist sentiment. So, Taoists and Chinese Folk Religion practitioners be warned, I guess.

I would recommend this book for fiction readers, particularly if you have an interest in the superhero genre or Chinese literature.

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