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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764

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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 read a number of ancient tales. The “standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero” is one of “separation—initiation—return”:A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In his lengthy analysis of more than two dozen disparate ethnic and racial groups, Campbell fills 391 pages with hundreds of anecdotes to demonstrate his thesis. Two major divisions of The Hero with a Thousand Faces focus on the Adventure of the Hero and on what Campbell calls the Cosmogonic Cycle, the manifold guises that the hero may take in the hundreds of societies where stories of heroes were generated. In part 1, Campbell outlines the generic elements of the Quest that all heroes undertake. First there is a Call, which the hero often refuses; then Supernatural aid is often provided to head the hero toward his destiny. The hero crosses a symbolic threshold, beyond which he cannot retreat from his quest, as he begins his initiation into the mysterious world of adventure where he must do one of several things— rescue a maiden, recover a treasure—before returning to his society to receive the adulation accorded to one who braves the various kinds of demons that keep the more faint of heart from undertaking the Adventure. Often he must descend into the underworld, or into some night realm, cut off from society. He may meet with a Goddess or Temptress, or both; he must learn to adjust his feelings toward women in either role. As a result of his adventure, the hero gains some knowledge of the world, and his return to society allows him to share his newfound knowledge with his fellow citizens, thus improving society at large.

In part 2, Campbell details the many ways in which the hero may function in society: as warrior, lover, emperor, saint, even redeemer. Whatever the guise, the hero contributes something to his culture, giving the average member of a community a model for action, holding out hope for the group at large to advance in its fight to create an Edenic world by rising above the forces of darkness and anarchy that constantly threaten to dismember it.

The text is amply illustrated with photographs and line art displaying the appearance of the hero in a variety of forms—sculpture, painting, architecture. Campbell also provides numerous explanatory footnotes that further detail the wide-ranging basis for his argument. There is also an excellent index to aid the reader in locating specific references to the hundreds of stories and dozens of ideas Campbell interweaves throughout his text.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

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.


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