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July 24, 2013

The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is probably his Magnum Opus. This non-fiction scholarly work on comparative mythology was first published in 1949, and it has been heralded by many, as one the most influential books of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia, TIME magazine stated that it is among the 100 most influential books, since the magazine started publication.

I have just finished reading this book. It took me a while to read the 2008 excellent hardcover revision. This latest edition was put together by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. I don’t know if previous revisions had an appendix of illustration, with complete descriptions; and there are many illustrations throughout the book. But this appendix helped me a lot, because without it, I would have probably missed important details, which relates to the general body of work. Of course, there are dozens of footnotes, some of which expand considerably, the main book.

“The Hero”, as Campbell used to call it, has influenced many important writers, movie directors, musicians and artists, in general. I read somewhere that today, “The Hero”, is required reading for Hollywood script writers. And you can even tell, by watching a lot of important films, that they have used “The Hero”, almost as a cookbook recipe for their creative works.

Star-WarsGeorge Lucas has admitted that “The Hero” was extremely influential in the writing and making of the Star Wars saga. It appears that J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” utilizes the Monomyth theme, as presented by Campbell. Although, once again, according to Wikipedia, Rowling has not pronounced herself on this issue.

However, complacency is not the way to go about it. I suppose that some movie directors, producers and script writers may be tempted to use “The Hero” as if it were a magic formula; thus, not putting the appropriate effort into their craft. In these cases, the ensuing results would be dire, indeed. I recently watched an adventure movie, with a top cast, and one could see that they were using “The Hero’s” formula. But the result was a ho-hum movie.

I enjoyed the book immensely and truly recommend it. As an incipient writer and a seasoned information technologist, I can say, without hesitation, that “The Hero” will have a definite impact in my future work. But more importantly than pursuing a utilitarian usage of this knowledge, at a very deep personal level, it opens new doors into my endless search into the cosmic consciousness and the unknown.

The central thesis of the book is the Monomyth. Campbell borrows the term from Irish novelist James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In fact, Campbell co-authored a book with Henry Morton Robinson called A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.

The Monomyth is a basic pattern that can be deduced from most world myths, stories and to a great extent, religions. This pattern repeats itself, over and over again, particularly when it refers to the path of the “hero”. He identified about seventeen specific steps, not all of which occur in a given a story. But because these are universal attributes in scope, if you create work based on these attributes, your work will be more likely accepted by people, the world over.

monomythI will not go into these typical steps that form part of the “Hero’s Journey”. Instead you can find a good description, with a chart and all, in Wikipedia, (see here).

As Campbell describes each of these steps, he gives lots of examples. And since he is a particularly good storyteller, these supporting myths are compelling and they come to life. Not only are they fun to read but there is quite a lot of thought provoking ideas, which encourage you to investigate more. I am sure many people will find some of these ideas, questionable. Not as much as to its veracity, but these ideas may test their entrenched beliefs. Of course, one does not have to agree with all these ideas. However, if one proceeds with an open mind, I find that this book has a lot to teach us about ourselves.

At the end of the book we encounter the epilog. It is in this section that Campbell speaks to us directly, and you may even say that he warns us. Overall, modern society has done away with the Gods and Myths. The modern man has no guidance, so to speak. Even though, we, as humans still sorely need it. In addition, science and technology have blurred the boundaries of what once was far away and created a much smaller world.

Furthermore, as Campbell puts it himself, “they [science and technology] have so transformed human life that the long-inherited timeless universe of symbols has collapsed”. We cannot look at the great world religions for answers neither, (Buddhism included), “because they have become associated with the causes of factions, as instruments of propaganda and self-congratulation”. In essence, says Campbell, the universal triumph of the secular state has thrown all religious organizations into a secondary and ineffectual position.

He says that it is up to modern day artists to create a new global mythology, which encompasses the whole planet. No such thing has existed before.

Finally he says “It is not up to society to guide and save the modern-day hero but precisely the opposite is true. It is up to all of us to carry the cross of the redeemer”.


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