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
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
- 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
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:
- George 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…
Above all, Campbell’s thesis shows that he is only a commentator on narrative writing and not an author or a scriptwriter, because his vision of the structure of the story is simply false, in practice. Indeed, he pretends that every story can tell only one plot, which would be a variant of the “monomyth” each time.
But as soon as we apply this theory to various famous works, we realize that it doesn’t correspond at all.
For example, the film The Godfather, which is one of the most popular films in the history of cinema, tells not 1 but 27 plots: at the limit, one could consider the trajectory of Michael Corleone’s character as the main plot and make him correspond to certain elements of Joseph Campbell’s standard structure; but in dozens of other cases, it simply does not work.
Similarly, in the film Pulp Fiction, which has 10 plots, it is not even clear who the main character would be, since the film is based on a breakdown of the action into separate plots that converge at certain dramatic points.
Likewise, it is impossible to find the so-called monomyth in many song lyrics, in the scripts of music videos, or in the narrative framework of comedy sketches.
In short, narrative reality refuses to bend to Campbell’s dogma, which is seductive in appearance but quickly shows its limits as soon as one tries to apply it concretely.
Finally, Campbell’s great mistake is to have progressed in the opposite direction of modern narratology:
- George Polti tried to reduce the whole of dramatic situations to 36 story archetypes,
- Vladimir Propp thought he could extract, from a corpus of Russian stories, 31 narrative functions and 7 character functions,
- Julien Algirdas Greimas wanted to formalize a universal narrative scheme in 5 tenses and 6 actors (characters), independently of genres, media, themes
- Joseph Campbell (and Christopher Vogler after him) abusively reduced everything to a single story, and even more so by merging it with supposedly obligatory themes (the temptress woman, the father, the goddess), themes that are not found in millions of stories…
Who was Joseph Campbell?
Born in 1904 in New York City to an Irish Catholic family, Joseph Campbell died in 1987. He was a writer and teacher of literature, comparative mythology and history of religions at Sarah Lawrence College.
He was interested in the mythologies, tales and legends of ancient, medieval and modern culture, in Greece, Rome, France, Germany, India, Japan, and in the religions of the world: polytheism, Christianity, Buddhism…
A voracious and passionate reader, Campbell borrows a lot from writers (Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, James Joyce), philosophers (Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche), psychologists (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof) and anthropologists / ethnologists (Leo Frobenius, Adolf Ellegard Jensen, Mircea Eliade).
These influences largely explain his theory according to which there would be only one great archetype of narration: it rests indeed on the idea, nourished in particular by Jung, that there would exist a “universal human soul”, probably resulting from God. It is clear that this thesis, mystical and unprovable, is totally outside the scientific field and is anchored in simple belief, abstaining from any experimental verification procedure.
In reality, far from being a scientist expert in folklore, Joseph Campbell was a cultivated amateur, more of a generalist than a specialist, who, in an approximate and subjective way, without any real method, gathered folkloric material to support an arbitrarily posed thesis, a thesis which was nevertheless simplistic but which was able to seduce the non-expert public.
Lost to science, invalidated in the academic world by academic research in the humanities, Campbell’s work may serve, at best, to inspire stereotypical heroic narratives that fit his presuppositions, but will prove unfit for analyzing or creating all sorts of other stories.
Joseph Campbell is the author of the following books, among others:
- A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake
- The Masks of God: Creative Mythology
- Historical Atlas of World Mythology
- The Power of Myth