Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is primarily a scholarly study of a cultural phenomenon: the appearance of the figure of the hero in the various literatures of both Eastern and Western societies. In the course of his investigation, Campbell uses the tools of psychology and psychoanalysis to assist him in uncovering the answer to several intriguing questions. “Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach?” More specifically, what similarities do the various stories from different civilizations share? What are the underlying characteristics of “the hero” who appears in these stories, a figure admired for his exploits in aiding society at large? In the course of his analysis, however, Campbell digresses from the scholarly format on occasion to discuss the larger social and political implications of his findings and to issue a call to readers to recognize ways in which heroism can become a part of their own lives.

Campbell begins with an explanation of the pervasiveness of myth in all societies and cultures, noting its function as a means of making the world around primitive man more intelligible. His inquiry into the nature of myth leads him to the discovery that, though every group has its own particular tales about heroes, the stories from such diverse places as China, North America, India, and Mexico share certain similarities. What Campbell sees is a strikingly rigid pattern beneath the variety of details. This he calls the Adventure of the Hero, a carefully structured series of events that leads the chosen one from a state of normalcy within society to a position set apart from his fellow citizens; as a result of his adventure, the hero becomes the object of their admiration and reverence. The outline is simple enough and one immediately recognizable to anyone who has...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Chase, Richard. Review in The Nation. CLXIX (July 2, 1949), p. 17.

Lord, George de Forest. Trials of the Self: Heroic Ordeals in the Epic Tradition, 1983.

The New Yorker. Review. XXV (May 7, 1949), p. 113.

Radin, Max. Review in The New York Times. XCVIII (July 2, 1949), p. 23.

Reinhold, H. A. Review in Commonweal. L (July 8, 1949), p. 321.