John E. Branch Jr.'s Reviews > The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
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Jul 24, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in April, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

A serious attempt at this point to describe and evaluate Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was first published in 1949 and is now almost a part of our intellectual furniture, seems not only difficult but also unnecessary. A few words in summary, followed by some personal reactions, may do.

As many people know, whether or not they've read it, this is the book in which Campbell draws on aspects of psychology, particularly the idea of archetypes, to survey worldwide myths. What he finds is still rather astounding. To quote an admirably concise treatment of the book on a Star Wars website (see, "Campbell eloquently demonstrates that all stories are expressions of the same story-pattern, which he named the 'Hero's Journey,' or the 'monomyth.'" The stories in question are not only those we customarily think of as myth but also those of religion, a useful corrective to those who have forgotten that Greek mythology, for instance, was an expression of Greek religion. In fact, though Campbell doesn't exactly say so as I recall, his survey reminds us that much of our knowledge and belief is cast in the form of stories. (Human intelligence seems to find something fundamentally useful in narratives; an AI researcher once wrote that he'll believe a computer can think when he hears one say, "That reminds me of a story.") The Hero's Journey that Campbell finds is marked by clear stages and definite features, though not all of them are to be found in all the myths he treats; they include an initial call, the crossing of a threshold, a temptation, a boon acquired by the hero, and various elements of a return and final triumph.

A present-day reader such as myself, having absorbed something of Campbell's point of view as part of the intellectual atmosphere without having read this book, will find much to marvel at, among which is the immense range of Campbell's reading and recollection, which can call on Amerindian and African myths and elements of the vast Hindu and Buddhist literature as easily as more familiar Hellenic and Judeo-Christian material. Such a reader may also, however, have one or two qualms about matters of detail.

For one, Campbell seems too fond of footnotes. Surely some of the attributions could been dispatched to endnotes or simply included in the text. One should not need constantly to interrupt one's reading to find out whether he's merely citing a source or making a substantive addition to his text. Among the substantive notes, one can usually tell quickly whether one wants to pursue it (which sometimes leads onto the next page) or ignore it. But one positively made me laugh: when he made a simple mention of "the categories of human thought" and footnoted it by referring to an entire book of Kant's, the Critique of Pure Reason. If the concept isn't clear enough by itself, either a simple explanation will do, or else the reader will need to be tutored in more than just Kant.

Another problem: there are many myths that participate little if at all in the grand scheme Campbell outlines. (My recollection of the myths recounted by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Mythologiques tells me that many are hard to view from Campbell's perspective.) A reader made skeptical by realizing this will wade through most of the book before finding the dilemma resolved. Finally, on page 382 of his 391-page text, Campbell declares, "Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Müller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man's profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God's revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these." The explanation for the omissions, for those myths that don't fit his scheme, is basically that Campbell isn't interested in them, precisely because they don't fit. He inclines often to Coomaraswamy's viewpoint (he's convinced enough of the value of myth's insights that his book's tone is oddly suggestive of an early and very erudite self-help book), he could have done nothing without Jung, and he makes a potent argument against some developments in Christian theology. For the rest—the other kinds of myth and other approaches, especially those of Frazer and much of the sociological school—one will have to look elsewhere.

My final concern has to do with the book's uses. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a feast, but writers should be wary of taking it as a buffet line and adding to their story one of each from the components that Campbell outlines. If your story is lacking something, it may be a fundamental connection with humanity (which George Lucas seemed to forget as his Star Wars films progressed) or a kind of shapeliness (which the Wakowski brothers lost after their first Matrix film). One will find much of both in the myths Campbell recounts; why should humanity and proportion be the last things writers take away from his book?

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