Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Generally, I avoid blogging about nonfiction reads on topics I have no real knowledge of. So I'm really not sure what to do with The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Mythology is not my forte. But story is, and I was interested in reading Joseph Campbell was because I'm attracted to the concept of archetypes.

I know Campbell is supposed to be the father of modern mythological studies, but I found myself questioning his research and compilation techniques. He seems to have started with his theory and then eschewed everything that didn't fit, claiming that stories that didn't match his "cosmic cycle" were either folktales (and therefore not "true" myths) or myths that were "contaminated." For example, in a footnote, Campbell declares,
A broad distinction can be made between the mythologies of the truly primitive (fishing, hunting, root-digging, and berry-picking) peoples and those of the civilizations that came into being following the development of the arts of agriculture, dairying, and herding, ca. 6000 B.C. Most of what we call primitive, however, is actually colonial, i.e., diffused from some high culture center and adapted to the needs of a simpler society. It is in order to avoid the misleading term, "primitive," that I am calling the undeveloped or degenerate traditions "folk mythologies." The term is adequate for the purposes of the present elementary comparative study of the universal forms, though it would certainly not serve for a strict historical analysis (289).

I'm not sure what makes these folk mythologies "undeveloped." At other points in the book, Campbell insists that the earlier forms of myths that are the uncorrupted ones, but the quote above suggests that many early "myths" may be too undeveloped to deserve the title. I think that if I had a better understanding of the academic borders between myth and folktale, I might understand this. As it is, it seems like a "true" myth is whatever form fits Campbell's cycle the best, so Campbell is attempting to prove his theory with his theory.

I knew and liked the hero cycle (click here to see a simplified version) before I read Campbell. I could easily attach most stories to some form of this cycle, so I thought I wouldn't have any trouble agreeing with Campbell ideas. But Campbell begins as if he's already proved his theory. He expects the reader to simply accept that every story he compares is the same story and things that seem like opposites are, in fact, the same, if you'll only squint a little. He glosses over differences in religion, tone, purpose, etc. as though everything that appears to contradict him is merely extraneous.

Kudos, however, to Campbell for employing a broad range of sources: Arabian Nights, Christianity, Buddhism, Native American tales, etc. But I started to wonder about his piecemeal style of quoting sources when I noticed that his examples for Jesus' story are pulled from sometimes contradictory sources: the four gospels accepted by most Christian denominations, a gnostic gospel, church liturgies, etc. Each example is carefully selected to give an impression of a seamless whole, and the pieces that don't fit are not mentioned. Campbell never explains how he decided which pieces were the "right" pieces, and which were the ones he could ignore. (I started to wonder what he did to the written works of religions that I'm less familiar with.)

The book is probably meant for those who have a greater understanding of mythology than I do (some sections seemed written in response to Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, which I've never read), but I found it frustrating that Campbell mentioned several stories and did not (or could not?) carry a single one through all the stages of his monomyth.

Beyond that, I have a few personal bones to pick with Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Hero with a Thousand Faces is not simply a comparative study of mythology, but a philosophy. All well and good if you happen to agree with the author's philosophy, but I have issues with statements like

Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult (249).

I'm not sure what he expects readers to do with myths that have some basis in history, or why something can't be both factual and "living." Campbell's abstract theories are not necessarily less "remote" than "biography, history, or science."

On another note, nearly all of Campbell's "heroes" were male. The male/female protagonist ratio in myths is, of course, beyond Campbell's control. But I do wonder how it colors his interpretation of the monomyth. I know that the hero cycle is supposed to spin the same whether the protagonist is male or female, but what do I with the "Atonement with the Father" requirement? Campbell's interpretation is so very Freudian/Oedipal I'm not sure it can fit female protagonists. Also, he claims that "Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know[...]. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure" (116). All well and good, but what happens when the woman is the hero(ine) who wants to know? (There's a Campbell quote about women in myths that I might address in another post. ...Or I might not.)

I'm deeply intrigued by the possibility of a different view of the monomyth, covering the journey of the heroine. Anyone know of any books on this?

Also, anyone who knows about mythology or Campbell and wants to comment, please, please do.

(Note: Image from Amazon. Quotes are from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.)


  1. I'm not an expert on Campbell, but I believe that I read that heroines (for him) actually had a different hero cycle.

    According to my source, the boy's:
    -Boy lives in happy childhood land
    -Boy is called to the quest, refuses it, then is forced to accept it
    -Boy is guided into the world of the quest – a fantastic wilderness world filled with magical creatures and scary people – by a helpful guide figure
    -Boy gathers companions to help him with the quest
    -Boy fights “the dragon” (the Bad Guy)
    -Boy reunites with his father
    -Boy is recognized as a hero (a Man), gets the girl, often becomes king, is in full possession of his powers, lives happily ever after as the Master of Two Worlds (the public “real world” and the fantasy/quest world)

    -Girl lives in grey, unhappy/ambiguous childhood land
    -Girl is called to quest, refuses it, is forced to accept it
    -Girl is guided into the world of the quest – usually a world that is an uncanny version of her home life or a threatening wonderland that has no discernable rules – by a guide who is a phony or a trickster
    -Girl sometimes, but not always, gathers companions. Often one of them will be an evil seducer figure.
    -Girl fights “the dragon”
    -Girl reunites with father (or mother) figure, finds him to be another phony
    -Girl returns home, having learned a lesson about herself and her own powers

    *shrugs* It annoyed me when I read it. It's secondary and from a random blog, though, so who knows if that's actually Campbellian or not.

  2. Oh, and this might be interesting:

  3. That's *very* interesting. I'm not sure how I feel about the differences. I'm curious about why the "Master of Two Worlds" bit is cut from the female hero cycle. That concept resonates so strongly with me and seems like it should apply well to all hero cycles (especially when the "two worlds" are translated as the internal and external worlds).

    One the other hand, after I looked at that site, I realized I had been changing plot-lines for my female characters to fit things like "Journey to ancestral home to find father; discovers unity with mother instead." These aren't choices I've made consciously; instead it's been almost as if I'm *compelled* to make these changes before I can feel comfortable with the story.

    Yeah, that last sentence sounds a little weird to me too.