The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

In 1949, the American professor Joseph Campbell published his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in which he described what he called the “monomyth” of the “Hero’s journey”: all the myths of the world would come from a single archetype, which Campbell claims to be able to reconstruct.

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell describes the Hero’s journey as a series of stages that he groups into three main sequences:

  • I. The departure
    • 1. The call of adventure
      • The hero experiences a lack or receives a mission to accomplish
    • 2. Refusal of the call
      • The hero is hesitant to answer the call, for example because he has to give up a comfortable situation
    • 3. Supernatural help
      • The hero unexpectedly meets one or more mentors
    • 4. Crossing the first threshold
      • The hero overcomes his hesitation and sets off
    • 5. The belly of the whale
      • The problems facing the hero threaten to overwhelm him – for the first time he realizes the full extent of the task
  • II. Initiation
    • 1. The path of tests
      • Emergence of problems which can be interpreted as tests (which can be battles against one’s own internal resistance and illusions)
    • 2. The meeting with the goddess
      • The hero discovers the power of the opposite sex
    • 3. The woman as temptress
      • The alternative to the hero’s path can also prove to be a very pleasant moment alongside a woman
    • 4. Reconciliation with the father
      • The hero is faced with the knowledge that he is part of a genealogical chain. He carries the heritage of his ancestors, or his adversary is in fact himself
    • 5. Apotheosis
      • In carrying out the hero’s journey, it becomes clear to him that he has divine potential (in fairy tales, he finds out that he has royal blood)
    • 6. The last gift
      • The hero receives or steals an elixir or treasure that could save the daily world from which the hero left. This treasure can also consist of an internal experience symbolized by an external object
  • III. The return
    • 1. Refusal of return
      • The hero is reluctant to return to the world of everyday life
    • 2. The magical escape
      • The hero is driven to return by internal motives or external compulsion
    • 3. External aid
      • An act or thought of the hero on the way now becomes his salvation on the way home. Often, it is an act of empathy towards a so-called “inferior being” who is rewarded.
    • 4. Crossing the return threshold
      • The hero crosses the threshold of the everyday world from which he came. He encounters disbelief or incomprehension and must integrate into daily life what has been found or accomplished during his journey. (In fairy tales: gold which suddenly turns to ashes)
    • 5. Lord of two worlds
      • The hero combines everyday life with his new knowledge and reconciles his inner being with outer demands
    • 6. Free to live
      • The Hero’s Elixir changed the “normal world”; by sharing his experiences with him, the heroes led the normal world to a new freedom of life

The Monomyth - Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Success of the The Hero With a Thousand Faces

The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been a great success not only with the general public (the work has been published in dozens of languages), but also with certain screenwriters who have used it to write works which became very famous:

  • Georges Lucas was inspired by it for Star Wars
  • Stanley Kubrick to read Campbell’s book to Arthur Clarke and they use it to write 2001, A Space Odyssey
  • The films Mad Max, Pretty Woman or The silence of the lambs, would also be inspired by it
  • Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler relied on Campbell to write his Screenwriters Guide, which inspired the writers of the Disney films Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast


A scientifically dubious thesis

Joseph Campbell’s thesis in The Hero With a Thousand Faces seems attractive at first glance – especially when you don’t know anything about its topic.

Indeed, the thesis of the “monomyth”, of the single myth, gives the comfortable impression that one could finally reduce the diversity of cultures, both religious and narrative, to a single and unique story – and vice versa, that each narrative culture. which would derive from this model would contain its share of universality. Thus, the world would be unified and intelligible.

The fact remains that Campbell does not provide a shred of proof, and that his work, although it has influenced screenwriters and successful works, has not met with much echo in scientific circles.

Joseph Campbell is content to simply aggregate disparate elements, presupposing that they are related – he therefore mixes Greek myths, the Jewish story of Jesus, the Indian story of Buddha, and dozens of other sources, in paying very little attention to differences in cultural, religious or historical contexts. He affirms that there is a monomyth, therefore a single source, while anthropology and prehistory have shown the plurality of centers of development of humanity for millions of years.

What to do artistically with the The Hero With a Thousand Faces?

As we have seen, the The Hero With a Thousand Faces has already been used successfully in a number of famous works, which seem very different from each other. So it may be a good idea to keep mining it …

And yet, we can also judge that the recipe has already been overexploited, and that the repetition of the same strings ends up boring the public.

Moreover, if it suffices to follow Campbell or other authors who have followed this path (Vogler, Snyder…), one wonders what is the use of creativity: there would therefore be only one story. to tell, always the same? The authors would ultimately only make variants of the same obligatory narrative framework?

Obviously no. Narrative art is much richer than that. We note that the works which inspired Campbell’s work, and which Campbell inspired, have in common that they are epic and heroic. Consequently this model turns out to be inapplicable as soon as one leaves this field, and one wants to develop, for example, a hyper-realistic story, or a comedy.

Another frequent criticism relates to the terribly sexist side of the so-called monomyth: it tells how the Hero, always male, goes on an adventure, and ignores any female point of view. Applying Campbell’s supposedly universal model, inspired by patriarchal agrarian societies, would therefore amount to denying any participation in the female half of humanity… Not very sexy for all authors after the feminist revolutions…