The Hero with a Thousand Faces Essay - Critical Context

Joseph Campbell

Critical Context

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Joseph Campbell’s major contribution to scholarship, the crowning achievement of a distinguished career as an editor and author. It is the most famous of his works on primitive mythologies, which include his multivolume study The Masks of God (1959-1968).

Though Campbell makes only one reference to Thomas Carlyle, his study of heroism is a direct descendant of Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1840); the works are especially similar in that both authors digress from scholarly examination of evidence to engage in rhetorical flourishes exhorting their readers to recognize the benefits of the heroic life-style to society at large.

Campbell is also clearly indebted to the work of Sir James Frazer, whose ground-breaking study The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (1890-1915) pointed the way for many who have sought to uncover the mysteries underlying myth and ritual in earlier civilizations. Nietzsche, too, provides Campbell an ideological backdrop; his theory of the hero, especially the existential hero facing the realities of life in a world where the notion of God has been exploded, underpins Campbell’s own explanation of the psychological significance of the hero’s quest for knowledge about himself and the world.

Campbell’s work is one of several written in the twentieth century to use the findings of anthropology and psychology to illuminate literary study. It is a fitting companion piece to such classics as Claude Levi-Strauss’ Anthropologie structurale (1958; Structural Anthropology, 1963), Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psychological Studies of Imagination (1934), and Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957). These and other standards of archetypal criticism help to make clear to the student of literature the relationship between the varying myths that lie at the base of any civilization’s writings and demonstrate the psychological dimension of the art of literary creation.