"The Hero with a Thousand Faces"

 by Joseph Campbell

A friend encouraged me to read this book. He said it marked a turning point in his life, prompting him to pursue his path as a writer who remains unpublished. The premise of Campbell's 1949 classic is that although the hero has many faces--Jesus, Buddha, Hamlet, Cuchulainn, Job, Dante, Moses, and Krishna, for example--the hero's journey follows the same basic path: departure (pp. 49-96), initiation (pp. 97-192), and return (pp. 193-244). The hero "is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one's visions, ideas, and inspiration come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought" (pp. 19-20). The hero's journey may begin with "a blunder" (p. 51) that draws him out of his common day life to the threshold of adventure (p. 245), where he is tested by "unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces" (p. 246). The hero who "steps an inch outside the walls of his tradition" (p. 83) onto "The Road of Trials," descends "either intentionally or unintentionally into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth" (p. 101). He then returns from that "mystic realm into the land of common day . . . where men are fractions of themselves" (p. 216).

The symbolism of this mythological journey has a psychological significance (p. 255), and Campbell observes that we may use myths as a way to become more human. "The agent of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth," he writes. "Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos" (p. 190).

Although Campbell recognizes "there is no final system for the interpretation of myths, and there will never be any such thing" (p. 381), he also observes that "the function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump--by analogy" (p. 258). Myths may be used as "mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, and call it past themselves" (p. 258). These symbols "are only vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference" (p. 236).

Campbell's book is a fascinating eye-opener. I read it as a reminder that life should be lived with a sense of heroic adventure, and that each of us should make our own journey through life, rather than treading someone else's path. "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. 391).

G. Merritt


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