Joseph Campbell Essay - Critical Essays

Campbell, Joseph


Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

American nonfiction writer, essayist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Campbell's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 69.

Recognized as a leading modern authority on mythology and folklore, Campbell is best known for writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a comparative study of hero myths from numerous cultures. Often noted for their extensive reproductions of primitive art and breadth of scholarship, Campbell's works have been credited with popularizing the study of myth.

Biographical Information

Campbell was born on March 26, 1904, in New York City. Campbell developed an interest in Native American mythology and history after seeing Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden as a child. He attended Dartmouth College from 1921 to 1922 before transferring to Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1925 and a master's in medieval literature in 1927. During the next two years Campbell studied French and German medieval literature in Paris and Munich while working towards a doctorate, an endeavor that he abandoned after being informed that mythology was an unsuitable topic for his thesis. Campbell returned to the United States in the early 1930s and, unemployed, spent most of his time reading at a cabin in Woodstock, New York. In 1934, Campbell joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where he taught comparative mythology and literature until his retirement in 1972. He died on October 30, 1987.

Major Works

In 1944, Campbell collaborated with Henry Morton Robinson on A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake,” which explicates the structure, themes, and difficult passages of James Joyce's last novel. In Campbell's first major work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he argues that most heroes undergo a similar series of adventures: separation from the everyday world, initiation into a mystery or greater state of awareness through trials and ordeals, and a triumphant return in which the gifts of this experience are bestowed upon humanity. Using extensive quotations from epic literature and folktales from around the world, Campbell demonstrates numerous parallels between the aspirations and experiences of folk heroes from various cultures. His next major work, The Masks of God (1959-68), is a four-volume survey of mythological traditions. In the first volume, Primitive Mythology, he discusses the origins of mythology in prehistoric agricultural and hunting societies from archeological and psychological perspectives. Oriental Mythology charts the development of Eastern mythology in the religions of Egypt, India, China, and Japan, while Occidental Mythology focuses on classical Greco-Roman mythology, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The last volume, Creative Mythology, examines the use of mythology in Western art and literature from the twelfth century to the present. Campbell's other books include The Flight of the Wild Gander (1969), a collection of essays focusing on the biological origins of myth; Myths to Live By (1972), which is based on lectures Campbell delivered between 1958 and 1971; and The Mythic Image (1974), a lavishly illustrated volume examining artistic representations of myth.

Critical Reception

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is regarded as one of Campbell's most popular works. Although his comparativist approach has been attacked for neglecting important distinctions between cultures, the study has been recognized as an important and influential analysis of myth because of its insightful explication of common elements in hero myths. Campbell attained widespread posthumous popularity for his interviews with Bill Moyers, which were aired as the PBS television series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” in 1988. The series explored the relevance of myth to modern life and served as the basis for the best-seller The Power of Myth (1988). In 1989, Brendan Gill launched a controversial attack charging that Campbell, in contrast to his public persona, harbored racist and anti-Semitic views. Gill's claims have been supported by some who knew and worked with Campbell, and commentators continue to debate the validity of his scholarly methods, occasionally finding factual discrepancies and poorly supported arguments in his works. Nevertheless, Campbell's reputation as an eminent teacher and authority on myth remains largely unaffected.

Principal Works

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake” [with Henry Morton Robinson] (nonfiction) 1944

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (nonfiction) 1949

*The Masks of God. 4 vols. (nonfiction) 1959-68

The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (nonfiction) 1969

Myths to Live By (lectures) 1972

The Mythic Image (nonfiction) 1974

The Historical Atlas of World Mythology. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1983-88

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (nonfiction) 1986

The Power of Myth [with Bill Moyers] (interviews) 1988

An Open Life [with Michael Toms] (interviews) 1989

The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work [with Phil Cousineau and Stuart L. Brown] (nonfiction) 1990

Transformations of Myth through Time (lectures) 1990

*This series encompasses the following volumes: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology.

†This series includes the following volumes: The Way of the Animal Powers and The Way of the Seeded Earth.


Jamake Highwater (essay date 22 March 1985)

SOURCE: Highwater, Jamake. “The Myth is the Medium.” Commonweal 112 (22 March 1985): 183, 187-88.

[In the following excerpt, Highwater provides a laudatory assessment of The Way of the Animal Powers, calling the volume a “masterful presentation” of aboriginal folklore and mythology.]

Speaking of his painting, the American artist Arthur Dove said: “We cannot express the light in nature because we have not the sun. We can only express the light we have in ourselves.” It is not by accident that we have invented imagery that overcomes the limitations of language. Common to all of us is the manipulation of truth we call “poetic license.”

Our lives are filled with every conceivable ploy to escape or penetrate the “ordinary.” Even those of us who are most mundane despise our condition, and when we recount the simplest story it inevitably becomes something else: a “tall tale,” or a “fish story.” These terms are efforts to describe the remarkable interaction of imagination and something even more quixotic than imagination: that which many of us innocently call the truth. Clearly, tall tales are not true, and yet, even for naive realists (fundamentalist or scientistic) those who fervently believe in something as obsolescent and undependable as “the truth,” such tales are not counterfeit.

The universal inclination to evoke a reality that is truer than the one before us—even the everyday creation of tall tales—is simply the most commonplace aspect of a profound disposition of the human psyche: the making of myths. Joseph Campbell tells us that “it is a curious characteristic of our unformed species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe.” We are myth makers. We are legenders. Of all the animals we alone are capable of dreaming ourselves into existence.

Campbell's The Way of the Animal Powers is a masterful presentation of the imaginal miracle that lies behind the term “shamanism”—an...

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Chris Goodrich (essay date 23 August 1985)

SOURCE: Goodrich, Chris. “PW Interviews: Joseph Campbell.” Publishers Weekly 228 (23 August 1985): 74-5.

[In the following essay, Goodrich offers an overview of Campbell's life and work.]

Joseph Campbell starts talking about myth even before we exit the elevator en route to his room at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. He has just returned from the coastal town of Mendocino, three hours to the north, where he participated in an annual retreat organized by the poet Robert Bly. Campbell is brimming with enthusiasm—he walks right by his suite on the first attempt, too busy describing his recent experience to remember which corridor is which. “You know that white...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)

Jon C. Stott (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Stott, Jon C. “Joseph Campbell on the Second Mesa: Structure and Meaning in Arrow to the Sun.Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 3 (fall 1986): 132-34.

[In the following essay, Stott determines the influence of The Hero with a Thousand Faces on Gerald McDermott's Arrow to the Sun.]

Although it may be linked to a tale type widely distributed in North America, every native tale has its own integrity. As a product of the culture in which it is told, it is part of that culture's holistic view of reality; and that view of reality is rooted in the geographical location of the specific people. As Vine Deloria, Jr. has suggested in...

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Robert A. Segal (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Segal, Robert A. “Campbell as a Jungian.” In Joseph Campbell: An Introduction, pp. 125-35. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.

[In the following essay, Segal discusses whether or not Campbell could accurately be called a Jungian.]

Joseph Campbell is often labeled a Jungian.1 He is certainly not a Jungian analyst and has undergone no Jungian analysis. If he is a Jungian, it is because he shares Jung's view of myth.

Campbell does cite Jung approvingly throughout his writings, far more often than he cites any other theorist of myth. Again and again, he favorably contrasts Jung's understanding of myth to that of not only...

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Joseph Campbell and Michael Toms (interview date 1989)

SOURCE: Campbell, Joseph, and Michael Toms. “Myth as Metaphor.” In An Open Life, edited by John M. Maher and Dennie Briggs, pp. 21-53. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

[In the following interview, Campbell discusses various elements of mythology, the role of the shaman and the court jester, and Aztec and Mayan societies.]

[Toms]: We tend to use the word “myth” to mean something that is untrue or an erroneously held belief. Why is that?

[Campbell]: I can understand why that idea arose. Myth is metaphor. The imagery of mythology is symbolic of spiritual powers within us: when these are interpreted as referring to historical or...

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Robert A. Segal (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Segal, Robert A. “Frazer and Campbell on Myth: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Approaches.” The Southern Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1990): 470-76.

[In the following essay, Segal contrasts the work and ideology of Campbell and James Frazer.]

No two writers on myth have been more popular than James Frazer and Joseph Campbell. Yet few others have had more mixed professional receptions. Frazer sought acclaim among anthropologists but became outdated within his lifetime. While Campbell was never taken seriously by folklorists, he cultivated a popular rather than academic following.

Both figures have nevertheless thrived as authorities elsewhere...

(The entire section is 2790 words.)

Richard A. Underwood (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Underwood, Richard A. “Living by Myth: Joseph Campbell, C. G. Jung, and the Religious Life-Journey.” In Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion, edited by Daniel C. Noel, pp. 13-28. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

[In the following essay, Underwood finds parallels between the approaches of Campbell and C. G. Jung to the de-mystification of religion and the “natural history of religious myth, symbol, and sentiment.”]

… Myths grab you somewhere down inside. As a boy, you go at it one way, as I did reading my Indian stories. Later on, myths tell you more, and more, and still more. I think that anyone who...

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Karen L. King (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: King, Karen L. “Social Factors in Mythic Knowing: Joseph Campbell and Christian Gnosis.” In Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion, edited by Daniel C. Noel, pp. 68-80. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

[In the following essay, King examines Campbell's treatment of Gnosticism.]

The symbolic field is based on the experiences of people in a particular community, at that particular time and place. Myths are so intimately bound to the culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.1


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Robert A. Segal (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Segal, Robert A. “Joseph Campbell's Mythology: A Review Essay.” Southern Humanities Review 25, no. 3 (summer 1991): 267-75.

[In the following essay, Segal underscores the significance of mythology to Campbell's oeuvre.]

No one in this generation did more to revive popular interest in myth than Joseph Campbell. He preached myth the way others preach religion. He even opposed myth to religion. For him, myth alone has saving power. Whoever has myth is contented, and whoever does not is forlorn. Campbell beseeched humanity to “live by” myth. Because living by myth requires understanding myth, Campbell not only amassed myths but, even more, analyzed them. He...

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Coralee Grebe (essay date autumn 1991)

SOURCE: Grebe, Coralee. “Bashing Joseph Campbell: Is He Now the Hero of a Thousand Spaces?” Mythlore 18, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 50-2.

[In the following essay, Grebe addresses Brendan Gill's critique of Campbell, finding many of the charges specious.]

Since Brendan Gill's critique of Joseph Campbell appeared in the September 28, 1989 New York Review of Books,1 it seems that students, critics and even passersby have an opinion on Campbell's character, work and scholarship. Gill's accusations that Campbell was a racist, an anti-semite, a sexist and that his scholarship is pablum, have found both friends and foes. Some have shot Campbell's reputation so...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)

Chris Seeman (essay date autumn 1991)

SOURCE: Seeman, Chris. “Tolkien and Campbell Compared.” Mythlore 18, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 43-8.

[In the following essay, Seeman finds parallels between Campbell's and J. R. R. Tolkien's treatment of mythology.]


The present occasion of a conference devoted to the discussion of archetypes in fantasy literature invites a broader comparison of the work of Joseph Campbell with that of the Mythopoeic Trinity of Tolkien, Lewis and Williams. What follows is an exploration of some key dimensions of Tolkien and Campbell's thinking about myth which might serve as a basis for further reflection on their commonalities...

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William P. Frost (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Frost, William P. “Joseph Campbell's Views on the Oneness of Jesus and His Father.” In Following Joseph Campbell's Lead in the Search for Jesus' Father, pp. 77-96. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Frost considers Campbell's treatment of Judeo-Christian mythology.]

Besides the canonical biblical books (those officially approved by the hierarchy of Christianity and the Jewish authorities) there exists what is called “The Other Bible.” Willis Barnstone edited The Other Bible; on the cover is printed, “For the first time in one volume ancient esoteric texts from: the pseudopigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the...

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Stephen Larsen and Robin Larsen (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Larsen, Stephen, and Robin Larsen. “The Hero (1945-49).” In A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, pp. 327-46. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

[In the following essay, Larsen and Larsen chronicle the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.]

The miracle is, that the magic is effective in the tiniest, nursery fairytale: as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a single droplet; or as the full mystery of the teeming life of the earth is contained within the egg of a flea. For myth is not manufactured; rather, it is a spontaneous production of the living psyche; it bears within it,...

(The entire section is 8531 words.)

Marc Manganaro (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Manganaro, Marc. “Joseph Campbell: Authority's Thousand Faces.” In Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell, pp. 151-85. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Manganaro explores Campbell's approach to and use of mythology, and discusses the appeal of his work.]


Like Frazer, Joseph Campbell has achieved great popularity as a reader of comparative cultures. Campbell's corpus, like Frazer's Golden Bough, has made the difficult transition from a modest scholarly readership to a massive popular audience. By July 1989, the...

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Robert A. Segal (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Segal, Robert A. “Myth Versus Religion for Campbell.” In Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell, edited by Kenneth L. Golden, pp. 39-52. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

[In the following essay, Segal considers the relationship between mythology and religion in Campbell's work.]

“My favorite definition of religion,” declares Joseph Campbell, “is ‘a misinterpretation of mythology’” (Open [An Open Life] 78). No theorist of myth since the Victorian Indologist F. Max Müller pits myth against religion so severely as does Campbell. Typically, theorists view myth either as tied to religion or at least as...

(The entire section is 5012 words.)

Joseph K. Davis (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Davis, Joseph K. “Campbell on Myth, Romantic Love, and Marriage.” In Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell, edited by Kenneth L. Golden, pp. 105-19. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

[In the following essay, Davis delineates Campbell's treatment of romantic love.]

Among the constant, continuing themes Joseph Campbell explores through his method of comparative mythology, none is more provocative, certainly none more timely, than that of romantic or passionate love and its expected outcome, marriage. Recognizing that in the West romantic love and marriage exist today in genuine crisis, Campbell speaks throughout his works to...

(The entire section is 6006 words.)

Vernon R. Hyles (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Hyles, Vernon R. “Campbell and the Inklings—Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams.” In Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell, edited by Kenneth L. Golden, pp. 211-22. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

[In the following essay, Hyles finds parallels in the treatment of mythology in the works of Campbell, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams.]

As a comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell charts the myth of the hero to develop his concept of bliss and to explain the place of sacrifice in myth. These dominant issues continue in all of Campbell's work, culminating in his series of interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power...

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William G. Doty (essay date fall-winter 1996)

SOURCE: Doty, William G. “Joseph Campbell's Myth and/Versus Religion.” Soundings 79, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1996): 421-45.

[In the following essay, Doty discusses “some of the religious aspects of Campbell's myth-work, and his way of talking about myths as potent cultural forces.”]

Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

—J. Campbell (1988b, 5)1

The logic of myth claims that there is always, no matter how it is disguised, qualified, or suppressed, a “hidden connection” or “inner law” linking chaos and cosmos, nature and...

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Robert Ellwood (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Ellwood, Robert. “Joseph Campbell and the New Quest for the Holy Grail.” In The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, pp. 127-201. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Ellwood provides a biographical and critical study of Campbell and his work, and traces his literary and ideological development.]


Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was probably the best known of all interpreters of myth to late twentieth-century Americans, thanks to a series of learned but highly readable books, assiduous lecture-hall performances, and above all his...

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Further Reading


Golden, Kenneth L. Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, 278 p.

Includes critical essays on Campbell and his work.

Klavan, Andrew. “Joseph Campbell: Myth Master.” The Village Voice 33 (24 May 1988): 60-4.

Klavan elucidates the defining characteristics of Campbell's work and deems him “one of the greatest popular writers on mythology who ever lived.”

Tigue, John W. The Transformation of Consciousness in Myth: Integrating the Thought of Jung and Campbell. New York: Peter Lang, 1994, 153 p.


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