Book Review: The Hero with a Thousand Faces

HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell and published in the third edition by New World Publishing in 2008. The original was published in 1949 by Pantheon Books.

Before I begin my review of this particular book, I want to answer a question for those of you who don’t know the answer. What is the “hero’s journey?” The hero’s journey–also known as the monomyth–is a widely distributed, perhaps universal, pattern in the narratives of the world, throughout time. Joseph Campbell pinpointed and explored the concept, culminating his studies and teachings in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He proposed that myths throughout history and space share fundamental structures and stages, which he enumerated in the book. These stages are known today as the hero’s journey. The concept is still studied and used, and has vehement opposition and staunch followers, but mostly, I think, an army of in-between writers and readers who are affected, consciously or otherwise, by Campbell’s game-changing approach to story.

JOSEPH CAMPBELLJoseph Campbell (1904-1987) was a lecturer and mythologist who was known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. Although he was skilled in athletics (especially running) and the hard sciences, he was drawn to the humanities. He had degrees in English and Medieval Literature, and studied various languages in Europe. After a chance meeting of an Indian man, Campbell became interested in Hinduism. He spent the Great Depression holed up with his books in a shack in upstate New York, and the time afterward hob-knobbing with some California literary elite. He became a professor at Sarah Lawrence college and lived with his wife in Greenwich Village. In the 50s, he took a trip to India and Asia, which strengthened his interest in comparative mythology and religion, and he spent the rest of his life lecturing to the layman about it.

I came at Campbell (at least consciously) through a more modern portal. It began with a reading of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which may well be a more widely read reinterpretation, these days. And the reason I read that was as fodder for a writing experiment of my own. The idea of a monomyth intrigued me. So I came up with a writing challenge (with the help of Camp NaNoWriMo) to write 50,000 words of a new novel during the month of April and base it entirely off of the hero’s journey. I wanted to know, could plugging the most obvious characters, setting, and situation into a very basic story frame result in a book that people would actually and truly love? And while I was at it, could I improve my plot-creation skills? The result is the half-written novel, The Journey of Clement Fancywater, which will probably be seeing publication around New Years, because darned if I didn’t write something somewhat innovative despite myself. And I sincerely hope I know my way around a plot a little better, as well.

As for reading the two books, well let’s just say I was seldom riveted. Most people consider Campbell’s views (and especially his love affair with Freudian and Jungian psychology) to be outdated, care-worn, or, even worse, out of fashion. I found the whole pre-Bahai religious mishmash to be ehn. (Although I felt like I was touching on the roots of a thing–a religious movement–that is spreading further and further with time, outward from Hollywood, outward from Campbell and his contemporaries.) His writing is pretty darn boring, brought to life only in his slightly wooden retelling of ancient myths and the random, startlingly beautiful sentence. I mean, I love reading all those old stories, and they gave me idea after idea for my own writing. But somehow, despite all the sex and gore and the sensationalism of lumping Jesus and Krishna into the same psycho-social extension, it was repetitive, disorganized, and–did I already say this?–dry.

I was also unsure, at times, if Campbell was telling me what the universal myths reveal, or about his new religion based on the myths. In other words, is he a scientist or a humanist? And in no way does he simply lay out the stages of the journey. If you want that, you’ll have to look to later books by others, or the internet. Sure, the book is written in the stages, but it is a meandering read, void of charts and diagrams where it abounds in (often creepy and/or lewd) ancient art. Also, feminists will (as usual) find fault with his male hero and the relationships between the hero and the other characters/the world. It might help to read it thinking of “feminine” and “masculine” instead of “female” and “male,” but that presupposes the modern reader even believes in femininity and masculinity. (I do.)

Perhaps I am being harsh. Perhaps I feel like I am being harsh because so many people seem to be so harsh with this book. At this time, it’s the kind of thing most people will read to appreciate its profound influence on modern culture, modern storytelling, and, well, Star Wars. And there are those who will also read it, still, and buy it hook, line and sinker and compare themselves right out of all of the world’s religions and into Campbell’s bliss of universality. I’m not one of them. But I still appreciate a great story, and I still appreciate dissecting the world’s narratives into generalizations and truths. For me, the engaging, smart book to do this really well has not been written, but it would stand on the shoulders of Campbell and Vogler, for better or for worse.


“It will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told” (p1).

“Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth” (p1).

“For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they can not be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche” (p1-2).

“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon at the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change” (p2).

“Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come” (p8).

“And looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series if standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization” (p8).

“The hero is the man of self-achieved submission” (p11).

“Only birth can conquer death…” (p11).

“Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream” (p14).

“Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figurations that abound before us, around us, and within” (p20).

“The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world” (p32).

“Freud has suggested that all moments of anxiety reproduce the painful feelings of the first separation from the mother…” (p44).

“One has only to know and trust” (p59).

“The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is the transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale” (p74).

“The meaning is that the grace that pours into the universe through the sun door is the same as the energy of the bolt that annihilates and is itself indestructible” (p124).

“…Man can not measure the will of God, which derives from the center beyond the range of human categories” (p126).

“…then he becomes free of all fear, beyond the reach of change” (p127).

“Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world” (p134).

“The perennial agony of man, self-torturing, deluded, tangled in the net of his own tenuous delirium, frustrated, yet having within himself, undiscovered, absolutely unutilized, the secret of release…” (p137).

“…These are all the children, the mad figures of the transitory yet inexhaustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding, whose essence is the essence of Emptiness…” (p137).

“We and that protecting father are one. This is the redeeming insight. That protecting father is every man we meet” (p137).

“…both the male and the female are to be envisioned, alternately, as time and eternity. That is to say, the two are the same…” (p145).

“‘All of these visualized deities are but symbols representing the various things that occur on the Path'” (p155).

“Immortality is then experienced as a present fact: ‘It is here! It is here!'” (p161).

“Nevertheless–and here is a great key to the understanding of the myth and symbol–the two kingdoms are actually one” (p188).

“…so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes” (p189).

“‘For then alone do we know God truly,’ writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, ‘when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God'” (p202).

“A realization of the inevitable guilt of life may so sicken the heart that, like Hamlet or Arjuna, one may refuse to go on with it. On the other hand, like most of the rest of us, one may invent a false, finally unjustified, image of oneself as an exceptional phenomenon in the world, not guilty as others are, but justified in one’s inevitable sinning because one represents the good” (p205).

“In the later stages of many mythologies, the key images hide like needles in great haystacks of secondary anecdote and rationalization…” (p213).

“With their discovery that the patterns and logic of fairy tale and myth correspond to those of dream, the long discredited chimeras of archaic man have returned dramatically to the foreground of modern consciousness” (p219).

“Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology” (p219).

“For they actually touch and bring into play the vital energies of the whole human psyche” (p220).

“The gods are symbolic personifications of the laws governing this flow [of the universal round]” (p223).

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