My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell is the book that awakened in writers and storytellers in publishing and in screenwriting to the larger scope of mythology as metaphor and to the underlining structure of stories. Campbell ends the rather short book of 337 pages (when compared to his much longer works over 500 and 700 pages) by explaining who the Hero is in the stories that have been passed down from mouth to mouth and who is eventually laid to rest inside myth and legend and religion.
”Man,” writes Campbell, ”is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed” (p 337).
To say that The Hero with a Thousand Faces is simply a book would be a vast under-statement and a discredit to the meticulous research Campbell compiled for this project. No. This book is a journey of the Great Self that is inside each one of us. We all believe, as individuals, that the world, no!, the Universe revolves around us, and to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces is to go on a journey within the soul, spirit, life-force (call it what you may) and then to be enlightened and transformed by the book’s message.
In the Vedas it is written and told of how ”Truth is one” and that ”the sages speak of it by many names” (p xiii). Such is the way to read and discern the truths found in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
You might want to go ahead and watch this video with Campbell first before reading on ahead:
Part I, as one might argue as well in Life, is titled ”The Adventure of the Hero” and it is divided into three chapters: 1) Departure; 2) Initiation; and, 3) Return. These three chapters are what provided the foundation for Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
One particular section titled ”Apotheosis” in Part 1, Chapter 2 stood out for me as a striking example of the human endeavor that is conflicted by masks that have been placed on us and attempt to shape us into a specific role in society.
”Once we have broken free of of the prejudices of our own provincially limited ecclesiastical, tribal, or national rendition of the world archetypes,” explains Campbell, ”it becomes possible to understand that the supreme initiation is not that of the local motherly fathers, who then project aggression onto the neighbors for their own defense” (p 135).
Sadly I have known dozens of people who have not even considered yet to break free from such archetypes as simple as that of the family and as complex as the cultural and national ones that often remain hidden and far too buried to ever be shed.
Campbell continues to discuss this issue: ”If the God is a tribal, racial, national, or sectarian archetype, we are the warriors of his cause; but if he is a lord of the universe itself, we then go forth as knowers to whom all men are brothers. And in either case, the childhood parent images and ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have been surpassed. We no longer desire and fear; we are what was desired and feared. All the gods, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas have been subsumed in us, as in the halo of the mighty holder of the lotus of the world” (p 138).
Most are never able to transcend the constructed archetypes to ever consider these profound notions of identity, both in a deconstructive context of the Ego or a more constructive context of the Cultural Mask that is devised to promote society but must be lost in order to shape and transform society for the better.
In the chapter called ”The Crossing of the Return Threshold” Campbell discusses the divine and human distinctions within the hero adventure that is one person’s birth, maturity, and death.
”How teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand times, throughout the millennia of mankind’s prudent folly? That is the hero’s ultimate difficult task,” Campbell remarks. He has, however, many more questions for us to consider:
”How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? How translate into terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites? How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?” (p 188-189)
I have also had to struggle with such questions, especially in the novels and stories I write.
So whose story is it? Are you a sub-character inside my story? Or am I in yours?
Regardless of the answer Campbell reminds us that nothing is truly lost: ”Be sure there’s nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form” (p 209).
In ”The Function of Myth, Cult, and Meditation” Campbell explains the vital importance of society and interconnectedness.
”The totality–the fullness of man–is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole…If he presumes to cut himself off, either in deed or in thought and feeling, he only breaks connection with the source of his existence” (p 330). There is some truth in these words.
The book ends on this note:
‘The way to become human,’ writes Campbell, ‘is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man… ”Live,” Nietzsche says, ”as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal–carries the cross of the redeemer–not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair’ (p 336-7).
Now on to Book One: The Masks of God, Vol. I: Primitive Mythology.
More of Joseph Campbell’s Books:
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers