Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Written by Joe the Revelator

Joseph Campbell possesses such a vast knowledge of myth, history, and religion, it's hard to believe this book was written by one man, over the course of one lifetime of study.

Hero with a Thousand Faces is an attempt to put a lens over every heroic tale ever sung for a crowd or chiseled into stone; from Samoan verse to Indian adage, Egyptian gods to Greek legends, Grimm's tales, Aesop's fables, dream collections, the bible, the Qur'an, the teachings of Buddha...A world of myth over the course of thousands of years. These he refines into a few simple rules and formulas.

To speak or not to speak

Before I tried posting about this book, I wanted to fully absorb what I'd read. Hero with a Thousand Faces is a bit daunting in its speech. Campbell's cadence is flowing, old-fashioned, and poetic. While his subjects are broad and make many references to classics in literature, and are composed in lengthy textbook blocks of information. Depending on your reading history, you may have some difficulty chewing through the chapters. But chew you should.

There are also audio books available of Campbell's work. I listened for a few hours after I'd finished Hero, and found I preferred the texts, since it was the notion of his ideas that struck me and not the language he uses. The fast, eloquent speech of the narrator often had me rewinding parts I wanted to hear again, or stopping the tape altogether to think on the author's interpretation of a particular myth. It was good for review, but it may be too high-pace to grasp the material.

Finally, I listened to a few of his classroom lectures which can be found on Youtube or Netflix. These were the easiest to understand, as Campbell was a natural instructor, injecting humor into his stories and always circling the heart of the lesson. But I feel there were much left out, as if his classroom voice wasn't able to hold everything he wanted to say. The book felt more substantial.

A god walks into a bar...

However you decide to peruse Hero with a Thousand faces (I prefer the book) be ready for a rapid-fire course in heroism vs. the human psyche. Or more accurately, why the human mind fixates on a hero and his journey. Why the shaman spins stories for the tribe. Or why dreams so often reflect pieces of mythology.

One would think after hearing so many heroic tales we'd soon grow tired of it. A hero is born. He is prophesized or creates his own prophecy. He is given the Hero's Call. And he takes that first step into the unknown, and from there... Well, this is an oversimplification. But if it's written with slight variations, and adheres to the primary formula Campbell explains, it becomes an instant hit.

During a dinner speech thrown in Campbell's honor, George Lucas once explained that if he hadn't read the book, he'd still be working the kinks out of the first Star Wars script. After reading the hero's journey you may find yourself analyzing every movie, every story you've read, and holding up to this new light. Those that stray from the path often fail to hold the audience, where their hero does something remarkably unheroic.


  1. I recommend Campbell's work to anyone who loves great stories. The hero's journey is a reflection of our lives. We relive the journey with every major challenge we face. If you can find the Power of Myth interview series it is a great starting point.

  2. Kal explains this really well at ; he's actually better than Campbell.

  3. "Kal explains this really well" Agreed. Watched this, and he has a much better way of stating the formula. And I like his other lectures, most recently the Hunger Games demonstrating monstrosity transformation. But I think Cambpell's method was considerably more poetic, which can actually be a speedbump for anyone studying him to develop story structure and not just mythos history.