Where to start a discussion of a book on mythology that is itself nearly a legend? Joseph W. Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces is one of those landmark works of twentieth-century thought that have opened up new territory for exploration. I’m not sure I’ll go so far as to claim, as does one of the jacket comments, that it could be the most influential book of the century, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
The argument itself is so intricately constructed, and so broad in scope, that I can only give the barest summary of the outline. It is essentially a survey of the role of transformation in the world’s mythologies as exemplified in the universal cycle of the Hero. One of Campbell’s strengths as a mythographer, aside from his tremendous erudition, was his ability to sift through the seemingly infinite differences in the world’s mythic traditions and bring to the forefront their commonalities. What is remarkable here, and makes this potentially one of, if not the most influential book of the century, is that he also identifies those elements of the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and their followers — with Charles Darwin, the foundational intellects of our contemporary world — that form the basis of those traditions, those rough images from dreams that are the templates for the formalized constructions that we know as “myth.”
The central image, of course, is that of the Hero: creator, destroyer, conqueror, savior, he — and sometimes she — is the agent of transformation, and so represents the forces of life. The converse of this, which Campbell makes quite clear, is not death — that is an integral and necessary part of the cycle — but stasis.
The story of the Hero is the story of the soul, which — another of those commonalities — endures, no matter the fate of its organic, temporary shell. The key event, the ultimate triumph, the real happy ending — not the happy ending of fairy tales, which Campbell says belongs to the “never-never land of childhood” — is resurrection. This is implicit in life-stage ceremonies of all cultures, where the underlying theme is the individual’s death and rebirth into a new status. The many myths of the sacrificed god, whether we call him Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysos or Jesus, are the stories of the Hero, who is transformed at the end of his ordeals and returns as a new force in the community, bringing gifts that benefit all.
The Hero is a warrior, as well, as witness Cuchulainn, Krishna, Susano. He is an orphan, most often, or remarkable in his birth in another way — Jesus, or the Pueblo Water Jar Boy — and he slays monsters, whether literal or symbolic — the Blackfoot Kut-o-yis, or St. George. He has an unusual childhood, marked by impressive feats of strength, daring, or intelligence — Siva, or Hercules. And the monster he slays is, as often as not, his father — given the tie between psychoanalytic theory and mythology, it’s perhaps no surprise that the prime example there is Oedipus. He is also a Trickster — Loki or Prometheus, both of whom brought fire to humanity, against the will of the gods.
That is really the core: what the Hero does is disrupt the established order, transforming the community and moving it along the next stage of its progress. But it’s also, returning to the dream images, the journey of the individual. It’s indicative that Campbell gives heavy focus to the great Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, which preserve in more explicit form the journey of the soul which is, in mythological terms, the Quest of the Hero. He is not particularly kind to the Great Monotheisms, which he feels have lost that central message, replacing it with dogmas that emphasize subservience to the status quo — the antithesis of the Hero’s story.
That is the merest summary of Campbell’s discussion, which is intricate, detailed, and compelling. If it sounds daunting, be advised that Campbell’s writing is as compelling as his theme, although I have to say that the book is exhausting: not something to be read in a sitting or two, it deserves contemplation. This edition, part of the “Collected Works,” is beautifully presented, with fascinating illustrations — although, oddly, the captions do not include an artist’s name where known, although that information is included in the list of illustrations — and includes copious end notes, an exhaustive bibliography, and an intelligent index.
I shouldn’t have to say that this is a must for inclusion in any library of important works of the twentieth century.
(Joseph W. Campbell Foundation/New World Library, 2008 [3rd ed. Orig. Bollingen Foundation/Pantheon Books, 1949])