The Hero With A Thousand Faces – A Book Review

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the most famous book by mythologist Joseph Campbell. It is a glorious read. But I didn’t always think so. When I first read it, over two decades ago, wanting to learn about the hero’s journey, I found it hard work. It isn’t written or structured like an academic textbook or a For Dummies type introduction. It’ is deep without being technical and it sometimes breaks out into poetic, even mystic language. It’s little wonder authors and screenwriters seem more drawn to it than scholars.

The reason for the book’s fame is that it contains Campbell’s mapping of the hero’s journey. The word that Campbell uses for the hero’s journey is the monomyth. This is telling. It means that Campbell is claiming that there is in fact only one myth – one master plot to rule them all – and that the many millions of distinct myth stories are mere fragments of it. All these fragments tell the tale of a hero with a thousand faces but one heart. Some stories only have a few parts; others contain almost all of them. Most have several parts of the seventeen stages Campbell describes in this book.

The Hero’s Journey as Myth and Ritual

To grasp the entire thrust of The Hero With a A Thousand Faces – something that initially took me time to do – you need to understand the connection Campbell makes between stories and rituals.  Most of those who read this book will probably come at it as I did – viewing the hero’s journey as a type of myth story. So why all the talk of initiations, thresholds, and rites of passage? Because Campbell sees rituals as enacted myths. There’s debate among anthropologists as which came first, the story or the rite, but it doesn’t matter here so long as you see the link between them. 

I feel I need to give an example to explain this story/ritual connection. In the Christian tradition, when someone becomes part of the Christian community, they are baptised – symbolically touched with water. That’s the ritual. What’s the story behind it? There’s more than one – Christ’s death and resurrection (as a down going and an up rising), the Israelites passing though the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus event, the sprinkling of blood at the Passover, Jewish practices for anointing to office etc. This is why, by the way there are different modes of baptism: immersion, pouring, sprinkling. It depends on which story you want to emphasise.

The Shape of the Hero’s Journey

The bulk of the book consists of Campbell’s breakdown of the different steps in the hero’s journey. There are seventeen of them in all. Perhaps the more important point is that these steps are broken down into three sections: departure, initiation, and return (paralleling the famous three-act story structure, the three point sermon, and Aristotle’s breakdown of a drama in terms of beginning, middle and end).  

  • It’s vital in understanding Campbell’s thesis to appreciate that the journey is circular. It’s not merely a journey from A to Z with various challenges and obstacles in between. It’s a journey from A back to A. It is (as Tolkien put it ) There and Back Again. To understand this circular nature of the monomyth, I would recommend the circular diagram and summary at the start of the chapter ‘The Hero and the God’ (p. 30), and the expansion of these in the chapter ‘The Keys’ (p. 245).
  • Even though the journey is circular, it’s not a journey that you can start at any point and just move along until you reach where you started. You start at the top and move down until you reach the lowest point before ascending again. This down-going or descent is called a katabasis in Greek mythology, where it usually ended up in the underworld. Only then is it followed by an anabasis, a going up, an ascent.
  • You need to understand the place of psychology in Campbell’s system to properly grasp it. Jung especially looms large. So, don’t think of each of the seventeen steps as a geographical place or a physical event. Each is essentially a psychological state of mind.
  • This is a journey taken by adults, or at least, by active and acting individuals who are journeying to a more mature outlook. There are an entirely different set of myths around the birth of the hero that focus on events that happened to the hero before and during his birth. For this, see The Myth of the Birth of the Hero by Otto Rank.
  • It’s probably fair to say that the central thesis of The Hero With a Thousand Faces – that all myths reveal a similar or even identical structure due to a common pool of archetypes in the human brain – has given way to a scholarly view that emphasises difference and diversity between myths. This universalism vs pluralism debate is one that applies to comparative religion and other disciplines too.

The Use of the Hero’s Journey

Authors and scriptwriters have plundered Campbell’s book in search of some metaplot or ultimate template for story structures. The most famous example of this is The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, which started out its life as a memo written by Vogler attempting to explains Campbell in a practical way. (BTW it’s an interesting exercise to see how many of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots can be subsumed into the heroic metaplot of Campbell and Vogler.) And the most famous use of this idea is probably George Locus and the first Star Wars trilogy, especially A New Hope.

To those authors out there who are excited at the prospect of using Campbell’s book to provide a readymade master plot for your latest creative endeavour, I would suggest caution. Campbell’s ideas and scheme have been around for a while now and are fairly well known, especially in the creative and therapeutic industries. However, my sense is that most of these people are only familiar with Campbell second or third hand. Dive into the book yourself and use it as a springboard for plot ideas rather than a formula or programme. Campbell’s rich language and wide-ranging sources seem to me especially designed for such a use as this.

For those of you with a larger interest in this book The Hero With a Thousand Faces and related topics, you may want to read some Amazon book reviews written by me years ago. The Power of Myth is a beautiful illustrated book that contains a set of interview between Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. It’s the best place to start your journey with Campbell. The best precursory book about Campbell is Joseph Campbell: An Introduction by Robert A Segal. And, finally, if you want a starting book on myth itself, you would do worse that try Segal’s Myth: A Very Short Introduction.

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