One of the most important books of the 20th century, Campbell’s breakout text transformed the word myth from denoting something antique, primitive, and false into one signifying those stories and images that express the deepest and strongest forces that underlie our lives today, as they always have done and always will.
I first heard the name of Joseph Campbell in 1979, during my three-month flirtation with university education at UBC. My English prof was a passionate enthusiast of Campbell, and did his best to get his students to attend a lecture that Campbell was giving on campus (I believe the topic was Dracula). I never went (drat!), but I see from my disintegrating copy of the Bollingen edition of The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I bought it in December that year, which proves that Dr. Whitehead did eventually get through to me. Thank heavens he did.
I’ve read the book four or five times, and my copy is heavily highlighted. As I flip through it now I see it’s time to read it again. Oh boy!
Drawing on a knowledge of world mythology, religion, art, and symbolism that was already vast (the book was published in 1949, when Campbell was just 45), Campbell, choosing the word monomyth from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as his master term, sets out to explicate the archetypal adventure of the hero. He shows how all hero stories follow the same basic template, that of the rite of passage: separation, initiation, and return. Campbell summarizes the template in one sentence of his prologue:
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.
Campbell goes on to illustrate this template with episodes from world mythology: Greek, Egyptian, Arabian, Indian, European, and many others, including the stories of the Buddha and Jesus. This latter point is important, for one of the great strengths of Campbell’s work is in how he shows that myth is the force behind those texts and rites that we regard as sacred, as well as the force driving our own individual psychology. For myth is not merely a matter of inventing stories for amusement; it is the structuring, organizing force by which we understand our world. Myth arises from the same mysterious source from which our dreams come; myth, indeed, is a kind of public dream.
Campbell’s writing is forceful, self-assured, and compendious. He writes with passion and with humor, and his prose is excellent. Well thought out, deeply researched, and concise, this work is the furthest thing imaginable from a dry, scholarly text. He manages to combine intellectual detachment with a sense of urgency and love of the topic.
In this book is laid the groundwork for Campbell’s future works, notably his Masks of God series, in which these themes are developed in greater depth. Here he introduces the idea that myth is not something “out there,” but rather the organizing principle of our lives both individually and collectively. By understanding it we can take hold of our own destiny and live more consciously, more spiritually, more adventurously. In a word, more fully.
Myth is everyone’s business, and this book reintroduces us to that part of ourselves which is most alive. We are heroes, each of us; let us not refuse the call to adventure when it arrives.