The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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Joseph Campbell’s writings have had more influence on late 20th century culture than you might expect: the principles of The Hero with a Thousand Faces resonates obviously through Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings —indeed almost any other contemporary Science Fiction work you could mention, and more subtly in any one of hundreds of films and novels of the last half century. Many indeed are the fruit of Campbell’s tree.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell sets out his stall early: his monomyth which he explains in fairly short order and defends over the rest of the book. By Campbell’s account there are hundreds instantiations of it embodied in myths from the Judeo-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. His brusque tone with which he recounts the legends offers little incentive to dwell on them.

Campbell’s main claim — to have extracted a solitary narrative essence common to all mythology — is literally 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 Campbell’s own evidence. And many of his examples don’t fit comfortably into the roles which Campbell assigns them.

So we should take Campbell’s a statement of literal truth about the worlds of myth and superstition with — well, with a pinch of salt.

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 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 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. —

See also