The Hero with a Thousand Faces Essay - Critical Essays

Joseph Campbell


The first thing that strikes a reader of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the breadth of Campbell’s scholarship. The author ranges East and West, from the earliest recorded civilizations to contemporary cultures, to collect stories of heroes for examination and dissection under his critical microscope. The eclecticism with which he approaches his materials suggests not only that he is a scholar of great acumen but that his work is truly universal in its applicability as well. Certainly, the reader will come away not only understanding the manifold similarities that exist in folktales of heroes from hundreds of different parts of the world but also appreciating the nature of the hero’s quest: a journey that will reveal to the hero something about himself and something about the nature of the world, something key to human happiness that society has lost, and which the hero can restore to it.

Whatever the country, whatever the century, these tales of heroes reveal that man is indeed a microcosm for civilization: The pattern of a person’s life and that of a society are similar. In fact, the individual human life is simply a part of a natural pattern of energy within the world; ultimately, when all living organisms work in harmony, sharing the benefits of the world rather than hoarding objects for individual advantage, happiness results for all. Unlike the hero, however, the common folk do not rise to this level of awareness about the nature of the world; in fact, the members of society at large are often at odds with the hero, and sometimes it is only through superhuman effort that the hero is able to make society see that it is drifting away from happiness because it does not understand or appreciate the “oneness” of all living things.

Campbell deduces from his study of these many heroes that human societies are constantly drifting from activity into inactivity, from knowledge into ignorance; the hero’s task is to bring back lost knowledge, to get society moving again toward bettering itself by coming to understand the way nature works and the way man fits into the cosmic scheme. Tales of casting out monsters symbolize the cleansing of those beasts within the individual or the society that promote stasis. Campbell calls these beasts the Holdfasts, the preservers of the status quo, those who, for selfish reasons, want to hold onto possessions or ideas or old ways rather than share things with others—which, as the hero discovers, is the only way for individuals to better their lot and for society to achieve real progress. This notion is similar to the observation of one of the Western world’s greatest heroes, King Arthur, who in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885) tells his faithful companion Sir Bedivere, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/ And God fulfills himself in many ways.”

Campbell does not argue, however, that God, in the traditional way in which human beings have thought of God, is the ultimate object of the hero’s quest. While most of these tales of heroes have religious overtones, Campbell does not view the religious impulse as the final explanation for the similarities he sees in all tales of the hero. In fact, he views religion as simply a form of symbolic representation by which people have managed to explain the...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)