The Hero with a Thousand Faces

by Joseph Campbell

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365

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 unexplainable. Instead, Campbell finds the root of the similarities in the psychological makeup of the human species. Myth and religion are simply ways in which mankind has expressed metaphorically the impulses that dwell in the unconscious mind. Campbell is fulsome in his praise for...

(This entire section contains 1365 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and their disciples who have “demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times.” These pioneers of psychology have provided an intellectual framework in which man can finally understand, without resorting to metaphor, the pattern and significance of the quest for self-knowledge that leads to a greater appreciation of what it means to be human. His text is filled with analysis of the psychological ramifications of the various stories detailing the hero’s descent into the underworld, his meetings with supernatural figures, his mastery of skills, and his triumphs over monsters and ogres. Using primarily the techniques of dream analysis popularized by Freud and the explanation of archetypes outlined by Jung, Campbell shows how the hero’s triumph is not over outside forces but over himself: “The perilous journey” turns out in every case to be “not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery but rediscovery. The godly powers” which the hero strives to possess “are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time.”

Campbell’s manner of presentation for this provocative thesis is largely anecdotal. Entire pages of the text are often devoted simply to recounting in detail the adventures of a hero whose story illustrates a single point Campbell wishes to make. The juxtaposition of tales from a variety of cultures helps Western readers understand the universality of these stories, and Campbell frequently chooses to illustrate his argument with non-Western examples for precisely that reason, leaving it to readers to see the parallels to stories with which they are more familiar. For example, after giving a brief account of the biblical version of the Virgin Birth, Campbell devotes several pages to stories from India, Tonga, and pre-Columbian South America—all to make the point that the miraculous tale of Jesus’ conception is not unique but simply one of several such tales about heroes who come as redeemers to their civilizations. At another point, after quoting the Creation story from the first chapter of Genesis, he adds that this “is the Biblical version of a myth known to many lands.” In part, at least, Campbell is out to demonstrate that no religion has unique or privileged claim on mankind; all are simply representations of the human need to find explanations for vexing phenomena.

There is, too, in Campbell, a nonscholarly bent toward the dramatic, a sense that scholarship must be placed in service to a higher political or social calling. On numerous occasions in the text he interrupts his commentary to exhort his readers to some kind of special awareness or even to action. If there is an overriding purpose beyond the scholar’s desire to illuminate or explain the past, Campbell expresses it succinctly near the close of his study: “The hero-deed to be wrought is not today what it was in the century of Galileo,” he notes; instead, it “must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul.” This cannot be accomplished by turning away from modern advances; the contemporary hero must face progress squarely so that he may make the modern world “spiritually significant” or in other words make “it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life.” Humanity itself is now “the crucial mystery” to be penetrated by the contemporary hero, the “alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms.” The modern hero must seek to understand the true human nature in spite of current prejudices against doing so, the chief among them, Campbell intimates, being the spirits of individualism, misguided religious fanaticism, and nationalism that characterize twentieth century society worldwide. These are the monsters from which the contemporary hero must save mankind.

Campbell’s modern hero is modeled on existentialist lines. Like Friedrich Nietzsche’s Superman, he relies on no gods or demons to support him, believes in no magic totems to ward off forces bent on his destruction. Instead, he recognizes clearly that none of these exist—except in his own mind. The ultimate horror that he confronts is much like the horror that Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz cries out against in Heart of Darkness (1902): The potential for savagery, greed, cruelty, and bestiality exists within man himself, as forces to keep him from realizing his full potential and achieving happiness. Campbell’s contemporary hero will come to grips with himself, understanding the need to give of himself so that society will prosper.


Critical Context