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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