Since its release in 1949, The Hero With a Thousand Faces has influenced millions of readers by combining the insights of moden psychology with Joseph Campbells' revoutionary uderstanding of comparative mythology. In these pages, Campbell outlines the Hero's Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world's myhtic traditions. He also explores the Cosmogonic Cycle, the mythic pattern of world creation and destruction.
In The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell sets out his stall early: his "monomyth" which is explained in fairly short order, and supported in more depth over the rest of the book by Campbell's account of hundreds instantiations of it embodied in myths from the Judaeo-Christian, Classical, Native American, Indian, African, Asian and Polynesian traditions. It is even illustrated, rather pointlessly, with sculptures and depictions of these various myths.
This means it's a fairly quick read: it is Campbell's argument that is interesting, not his field research in support of it, and his stentorian and humourless tone in recounting the legends is no incentive to dwell on them.
Campbell's main claim - to have extracted a solitary narrative essence common to all mythology - is unsustainable: even if you do allow the tortured interpretations Campbell makes of the myths he cites, the best that can be said is that any one of the dozen or more common features of the "monomyth" tend to show up in his examples (who knows whether they do in the myths he *doesn't* cite?); to say that they all do is false, even on the evidence Campbell presents in his book. And many of his examples don't fit comfortably into the roles which Campbell assigns them.
So in that regard, Campbell's thesis needs to be watered down to have any real value. As do the courage of his convictions in the validity of psychoanalysis: treating Freud and Jung as gospel in this day and age seems more than a little quaint.
But that's not to say there isn't something to be said for the importance of the subconscious in what makes a good story, nor that the elements of the "monomyth" do appear in mythology, nor that they don't make a great foundation for a mythology. Cogent evidence or that last point is provided by Messrs Wachowski and Lucas, who have openly used Campbell's template to create latter day myths of their - and, like it or not, our - own.
Where Campbell is persuasive is that myth a metaphor on which we can examine ourselves, and that as soon as we mistake metaphor for a genuine explanatory hypothesis, its very usefulness evaporates. In the current political climate, this is a point which can't be stressed enough.
In summary, this ought to be compulsory reading for any aspiring screenplay writer or novelist, and will be food for thought for anyone else interested in the structure of fiction. The Hero With A Thousand Faces may be the wrong side of fifty now, but it is no relic: as long as the likes of Luke Skywalker and Neo are part of the zeitgeist, Joseph Campbell's theories will have some significance in our culture, for better or for worse, for some time to come.
Good introduction to the study of mtyhthemes, and indeed, to the Star Wars films...
The structure of the monomyth is so prevalent in many hero cycles, fairy tales, children's stories and popular films so it's a wonder how anybody can miss it. Campbell does an exhaustive job of digging through various mythologies of the world and bringing the similarities to light.
Whether you are a serious student of myth or just an ordinary person who loves stories, this book will hold you spellbound.
Analyzes collective world mythologies, and boils them down into their component parts and recreating the story of our own lives - the monomyth. Incredibly interesting stuff.
I was discussing this book with Bill Plotkin ["Nature and the Human Soul"], and the first thing that came up was the blatant racism and sexism in the book. Published in 1949, it's an archaic text in many ways.
Looking beyond that, I like his meta-arc of the Hero's Journey:
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale
1. The Road of Trials
2. The Meeting with the Goddess
3. Woman as the Temptress
4. Atonement with the Father
6. The Ultimate Boon
1. Refusal of the Return
2. The Magic Flight
3. Rescue from Without
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
5. Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live
But I don't find the structure of the book helpful in elucidating this journey. Most of the book explores this arc via a myriad of myths from a variety of cultures. And yet they are so numerous, that I found myself getting lost in the haze. I would have much preferred this arc to be outlined in an introduction, and then cover stories in their entirety, looking at the entire map in action.
Certainly, the big ideas of the book are wonderful and important, but there are likely better ways to access such material these days.
Campbell further argues that these similarities are as a result of deep-wired human psychology. He uses Freud and Jung to back up this argument. I’ve read neither of those writers so can’t really comment on the specifics of what certain story elements symbolise to the subconscious, but overall I find this argument convincing too. Consider the alternatives, of which I see two in particular.
All stories of this type can be traced by descent to a single progenitor, recently by text and before that, orally. As the story is shared by all cultures, some of which had the story before they were contacted by other cultures, we would have to trace the line of descent back to Africa, to the first humans. There is of course no evidence this did not happen. In some cases there is clear evidence of literary dependency. Take Moses and Jesus, both of whom conform to the myth. It’s quite clear that the story of Jesus has been told in such a way as to call Moses to the mind of the reader. Jesus is a new Moses. But I would argue that of all the elements from the story of Moses that the writers could have drawn on they chose so many of those elements that conform to the monomyth. It seems likely that something about the monomyth makes stories feel right to us because of the way our brains are wired.
The second objection would be that what Campbell is describing is something we like to call “plot”. Quite right. It is plot. But why is it plot? Why is it that stories of this type that have the elements Campbell defines perfect? Plot doesn’t happen in real life, but when we’re a hero, or have an adventure, or do something bad, why do we plot the events, create a narrative? And why is the story we create so often analogous to the monomyth? I would argue that it is because the monomyth is hard-wired into our brains.
While reading the book I found it useful to keep before me one particular myth. Campbell can be rather an abstract thinker and it can be useful to ask “What would be a practical example of this?”. I used Star Wars. I should imagine that most people who read this book these days do so because they’ve heard George Lucas based Star Wars on it. If you are a Star Wars fan you’ve probably seen that circular diagram of the Hero’s Journey knocking about on You Tube or something. That diagram is in the book. Seeing the diagram on You Tube is not a substitute for reading the book. Reading it is a rich and rewarding experience, far deeper and wide ranging than the narrow focus of my comments here.
I could give umpteen examples of why every basement-dwelling, neck-bearded man-boy should read this book, but will restrict myself to one. You know the sequence where Luke Skywalker leaves the family farm to find R2D2 and gets beaten up by the Sand People? I had always taken this purely as plot. There is of course world-building and character development, but this is all window-dressing, fake rocks and all. For story purposes Luke must meet Obi-Wan Kenobi. Having read Campbell’s book it’s now apparent to me that this episode conforms to what he calls “crossing the threshold”. The Sand People are Threshold Guardians “at the entrance to the zone of magnified power”. That realisation led me to another thought I’d not managed before: that that episode actually fore-shadows the climax of the whole film where (spoilers) R2D2 and C3P0 are out of action, and with Luke facing defeat it is the appearance of Obi-Wan that saves the day.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces has achieved the impossible and made me appreciate the artistry of Star Wars all the more.