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It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.
The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms.
It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Paperback
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Campbell identifies similarities in style as well as structure between the great adventure stories/mythologies throughout human history. Famously, he determines specific characteristics about the hero and his or her journey, hence the term (coined by Campbell) familiar to readers and writers alike, The Hero’s Journey. In effect, there is a very specific set of rules governing what makes a great story. And just in case I wasn’t certain of the extent of Campbell’s research, the book contains over forty pages of endnotes and other references. The man put in the research time.
Reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces came at the perfect time for me. I’d heard of it and seen it recommended to me on Amazon for quite some time, but I never took the time to actually read it. Actually, I “Wikipedia’d” it a few times, but that was the extent of that. But in finally reading the book, Campbell has helped me understand much better some of the ideas that I’ve been working out in my weekly “Books of the Bible” review posts. If you’ve read any of my recent Bible book reviews, you’ll immediately recognize that Campbell has already clearly written what I’m still trying to figure out for myself. For example:
“For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche…”
Here are the rules governing the first great stage of the adventure story (some of it is paraphrased in my own words):
The Call to Adventure
Initial Refusal to Heed the Call
Supernatural Aid/Mentor/“Old Man” (Old man is a direct quote from Campbell.)
Crossing the First Threshold
Belly of the Whale (The Point When the Hero’s Death/Ultimate Failure seems Certain)
Truly, Exodus would have been the perfect story to compare with Campbell’s ruleset, but I just wrote a review of Exodus last week, so I wanted to do something different. The Karate Kid might just might be the most perfect modern example of them all (and one of my favorite movies). So I thought it might be interesting to see just how closely the writers of this movie follow Campbell’s rules.
Young New Jersey native Daniel is called to the great land of adventure (California) by his mother. He hates it there (his initial macro-reluctance to heed the call) and would like nothing more than to move back home. The only saving grace (besides a pretty girl) is a mentor (Mr. Myagi) that he meets when he arrives. After getting into some trouble with the local bullies, Daniel’s mentor signs him up for a karate tournament. Daniel is mortified and has no faith in his ability to survive a karate tournament like that (Micro-reluctance to Heed the Call), “I cannot believe… what you got me into back there!”
But Daniel does as his mentor says and enters the tournament anyway (Crossing the First Threshold), where he manages to make it to the semifinals, further than he ever dreamed, before even hitting a snag. When he gets there, young bully Bobby cheats in a most despicable manner, kicking Daniel directly in the knee, damaging Daniel’s body seemingly beyond repair (into the Belly of the Whale, i.e., Daniel’s ultimate defeat seems certain). But just as soon as all hope is lost, Daniel’s mentor heals his leg through supernatural methods and Daniel comes back to win the tournament, his dignity, and the girl. Indeed, it’s a Hero’s Journey almost worthy of Moses.
Note: There are other rules and further stages to the story that I haven’t included in this short review, but it seems to me that these are certainly the essential components to the modern story. Maybe some other time, I can write about the further stages and which stories they apply to (Lord of the Rings comes to mind).
My final say on this book is as follows: If you’re a student of religion, mythology or philosophy, or if you are a writer (whether of music, poetry, or fiction), read this book. It contains a lot of good information.
If you are a curious individual or student of history, then you'll find The Hero With A Thousand Faces to be a fascinating read as the author probes deeply into the origins and significance of mythology from epistemological, ontological, psychological, and teleological perspectives. Whether you are a student of the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Abraham or others, you're sure to find a wealth of valuable information and "perspective" in this book.
A happy outcome is that by reading this book you may glean a glimpse of your own heroes journey. That fact is worth the price of the book alone. It also makes a great gift for anyone who enjoys being reflective and is not fearful of diving into their own psyche and what they might find.
Robert "Bob" Wright, Jr., Ph.D., COFT
Skeptics have pointed to ancient myths, authentically dated well before the life of Christ, that ring far too familiar to His story. They'll say this is proof that Christianity is B.S., but Joseph Campbell says it must mean something deeper.
Campbell was a Christian, and I'm an agnostic, but I'd say anyone who can dig through his heavy rhetoric will find something really valuable here, regardless of their previous spiritual beliefs.
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The Hero with a Thousand Faces is probably one of his most well-known works. In it he draws from myth and legend, the stories of the ancients, the Vedas, and verses from the bible and unpacks them in his unique way, showing us the underlying similarities each contains and uses them to describe the Hero’s Journey. A process in which an adventure is called to action, and goes through a series of challenges, and eventually returns home with his or her “treasure”. I can expand on this but its probably easier to watch a video on Youtube.
If I’m completely honest I really struggled to get through this. I do not doubt that this isn't a brilliant book and Joseph’s concept has influenced all matter of individuals from songwriters, to movie producers to fellow authors. His work was truly groundbreaking for its time. But boy did I struggle, however I think that's more on me, I’ve always struggled with maintaining interest in myth and legend, ironic considering I’m fascinated by ancient Egypt. It also probably doesn't help that it was written 70+ years ago and how we speak has changed a lot since then. Then is no denying the importance of this book, and I'm glad I read it, but I for those interested it might be best to watch his Netflix series which was produced in the late 80s just before he passed away.
I mean no disrespect to Joseph Campbell, I'm most likely just not intellectual enough to understand where he is coming from. And infact I am going to read Joesph Campbell on his Life and Work, a spin off of the documentary on Nelflix, as it was written much later and I still wish to learn more about his ideas. Funnily enough I actually found that on the side of the road while reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and its an old library book from Austin, TX, complete with classroom purchase orders for pizza, airline tickets, and old car hire receipts which are almost 20 years old.
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The most immediate takeaway from this book is in fact the similarity in the original message behind any religion or ritual or ancient myth, a path shared by any story we've ever told, in books, movies and beliefs. A primordial, seemingly innate, connection between the outer world and the human mind.
I found the book poorly written, and badly structured. I just couldn't get used to Campbell's writing style, his sentences are long and meandering, with asides within asides. Some paragraphs are composed of one single, unbroken sentence. He also jumps rapidly from story to story, then refers back haphazardly to stories he's previously mentioned. He never seems to fully articulate a point, he makes some vague allusions then jumps to another point. It almost seems like Campbell had so much knowledge that he just couldn't get it all on the page.
I'd say overall that it's still worth reading, although it is a bit of a slog.