Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121
Joseph Campbell was a rare scholar whose work won enormous popular appeal. Even before the 1988 public television series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth posthumously made his name a household word, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and its many sequels had exerted a profound influence on the lives of many people, some of whom themselves became influential. Director George Lucas, for example, crafted his first groundbreaking Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) with Campbell’s themes explicitly in mind.
Campbell’s approach to mythological studies drew inspiration from three chief sources. The first influence was a scholar of mythic India, Heinrich Zimmer, whose posthumous books Campbell edited in the years leading up to publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Zimmer’s example, Campbell said in an interview in The Open Life, gave him the courage “to interpret myths out of what I knew of their common symbols.” At the beginning of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell proposes “to bring together a host of myths and folk tales from every corner of the world, and to let the symbols speak for themselves.” The difficulties implicit in such a method constitute one of the key issues in evaluating Campbell’s work.
Campbell’s second major influence was Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes, which Campbell defines in his introduction to The Portable Jung (1971) as “a priori Forms of Mythic Fantasy.” Campbell admits at the beginning of The Hero with a Thousand Faces that “first we must learn the grammar of the symbols,” and for this he finds “no better modern tool than psychoanalysis,” quoting Sigmund Freud and Jung throughout in roughly equal proportions. Though Campbell is sometimes misconstrued as a Jungian, a careful reading of his work undermines this interpretation. Campbell himself explicitly repudiated the label, though he continued to feel that Jung had given him the “best clues” for interpreting myths.
The third influence on Campbell’s methodology was Irish expatriate novelist James Joyce, whose concept of a monomyth is adopted by Campbell from Joyce’s difficult 1939 novel Finnegans Wake, on which, as early as 1944, Campbell (with his coauthor Henry Morton Robinson) had become a pioneering commentator. The idea that the mythologies of the world have one basic story to tell (the monomyth), though “the story has been told a thousand ways,” is the basic idea in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Formally, The Hero with a Thousand Faces consists of two lengthy parts, flanked by a shorter prologue and a brief epilogue. The prologue introduces the idea of the monomyth, the underlying uniform structure of the adventure of the hero (which can be mapped on all people attempting to make their way through life). Drawing its evidence indifferently from anthropologists’ field studies and from psychoanalysts’ case studies, the book declares in its most famous sentence, “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream.”
Part 1 lays out the stages of the hero’s adventure, in chapters devoted to his departure from everyday life, his initiation through a series of challenges into a new grasp of reality, and his return to society with the boons of his experience (Campbell allows that the adventurer can be female but usually assumes otherwise). Each element is spelled out and illustrated by a number of interwoven myths and tales, sometimes recounted at length. Even without the evidence of Campbell’s later recorded lectures or the testimony of formerly enthralled students from his nearly four decades as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College, readers of The Hero with a Thousand Faces would be able to tell that the author was a man who liked to tell a story. The stories he tells exemplify the numerous motifs (threshold-crossing, the call to adventure, magical helpers, sacred marriage, atonement with the father, theft of the boon, and so on) that, since The Hero with a Thousand Faces, have become part of a self-conscious storyteller’s stock in trade.
Part 2 lays out a parallel “cosmogonic cycle” (about the origin and destiny of the cosmos), with chapters devoted to “emanations” (roughly, how the world of experience emerges from an underlying cosmic unity), the virgin birth, transformations of the hero (in such roles as warrior, lover, emperor, redeemer, and saint), and “dissolutions” (the ending of the microcosm and the macrocosm). In this second part, Campbell argues that mythological figures are not only symptoms of the unconscious but also symbolic of spiritual truths. These truths boil down to the universal doctrine “that all the visible structures of the world . . . are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.” The pattern of the hero’s adventure (departure, initiation, and return) is thus paralleled by the tripartite pattern of the cosmological venture (emanation, metamorphosis, and dissolution).
The epilogue discusses the function of myth and hero in the modern world. By the end of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell speaks as a kind of secular prophet for what eventually comes to be called the New Age: The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation. . . . [And] what the functioning world requires [is] . . . a transmutation of the whole social order . . . so that through every detail and act of secular life the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness.
Campbell acknowledges differences among mythologies, and in later works such as The Masks of God (1959-1968) he pays more attention to them. He insists, however, that The Hero with a Thousand Faces “is a book about the similarities.” The subjectivity of his perception of similarity has made some specialists uncomfortable. Richard Barber, for example, complains about Campbell’s “chains of evocation” in interpreting the Grail legend—“that one image can evoke another is [assumed to be] enough to show that there must be a connection.” According to Barber in The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (2004), readers of The Hero with a Thousand Faces are offered little more than “Campbell’s personal creed.”
The personal creed of a compelling personality may inspire interest, even devotion, without satisfying the demands of scholarship. Campbell viewed himself as a generalist, inevitably open to specialists’ quibbles about detail. Revealingly, he declared that he had decided not to finish his doctoral work, according to The Open Life, “because it would have required me to do things that I had already outgrown.” To his critics, Campbell’s reputation for wisdom rests often on mere eloquence and platitude. His fans, however, view him as powerfully restating what seems obvious only after a synthesizing imagination has drawn attention to it.