am 27. Juni 2000
Campbell's reputation gives every indication of gathering momentum, now that he's passed away,
"Everybody loves you, when you're six feet in the ground."
and some of us who were reading Campbell over 10 years ago have ambivalent feelings about the March violets which are springing up, uncritically singing his praises. It's positive, but would Campbell have approved of this sort of adulation? (He described himself as "a maverick", not a hero.)
1. "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" is the starting point for Bill Moyers' six videotaped conversations with Campbell: "The Power of Myth", (videocassette no.1 - THE HERO'S ADVENTURE). My personal recommendation is to buy the videos first to come down with a good case of the author's infectious enthusiasm about his subject.
2. This book is not a bad starting point for a first reading of Campbell. It was my first Campbell book.
A drawdown is the less-than-typically-engaging style, making it not the most enjoyable read of his extensive opus. (Campbell's first major tome -if memory serves- perhaps it was written with an eye toward critical peer reviews?)
On the other hand, the book is well-crafted, satisfying, and does not drag; you're carried along by the interest of discovery, (much like a detective novel), unveiling skeins of meaning in apparently unrelated, seemingly indecipherable, symbols and traditions.
It clearly persuades of unifying themes in diverse traditions while outlining certain basic rites of passage in every hero adventure: real, fantastic, or mythological.
3. So, what do heroes do? A hero is one who gives himself to something bigger than himself, or other than himself.
Campbell points out that heroes evolve as cultures evolve, describing heroes who perform war/physical acts, a la Beowulf and Gilgamesh, then progressing to other feats of altruistic endurance: Spiritual, emotional, or intellectual.
Jesus, the Buddha, Mahomet, Moses - all participate in the standard format of Spiritual heroic achievement, (the first two with close parallels).
Briefly, the hero leaves for adventure, willingly or unwillingly, summoned or unsummoned. (Or the adventure may occur serendipitously on the way to somewhere else.)
There is often a messenger to arouse the hero to action: the old milkwoman in Joyce's "Ulysses"; Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings"; Athene in Homer's "Odyssey"; Phillipe in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"; the White Rabbit in Alice's adventures, Obi-Wan in Lucas' "Star Wars", etc...
There is usually a barrier, peopled by guardians, between the everyday world whose knowledges and perceptions the hero has assimilated, and the foreign world of unknown and waiting adventures. Successful passage of this obstacle gives entree to the mythic realm of "the Soul's high adventure".
Another common thread in hero tales is "the descent into the dark". This can be viewed not only as the trip into the unknown (sketched above), but also as an especially nasty sub-variant of it, which occurs along the way. At this point, one of two things happens: either the hero is cut to pieces (to be later resurrected), or escapes, renewed. I always recall the Steadfast Tin Soldier of Hans Andersen, who sails a paper boat through the sewer only to then be swallowed by a fish. (Subsequently rescued, subsequently destroyed, subsequently subliminally resurrected.)
Having successfully completed his mission, the hero ultimately returns from his travels, or his return is forecasted (King Arthur, Jesus, etc..), to guide and help others.
4. The hero's journey may be represented as a trek into a labyrinth, and at the center of every labyrinth there waits a minotaur. The purpose of the journey, the catalyst, being the hero's own Soul, which seeks out those adventures it requires for further growth:
"The adventure he's ready for is the adventure he gets".
This is not one of the great books of the age, if for no other reason because Campbell wrote so many more, but it IS a definite must-read for someone interested in acquiring the rudiments of a perception of the heroic themes and motifs in his own and others lives.
5. The book's signal strength is that it serves to blur the mind's eye to the distinction between mythology, religion, and philosophy. And this is a major thrust of Campbell's work: to create an even ground for all the spiritual traditions of mankind (with circumspection). This crucial psychological insight is Ariadne's thread - we escape the chthonic, claustrophobic labyrinth of dead men's thoughts and fossilized traditions, emerging exultant to breathe clean, cold mountain air: the meaning and message of these tales, bequeathed to us from those who have already lived what we are living; having returned from the foreign shores of the Soul's circumference, these men and women's charts are still as modern as tomorrow afternoon, and we do well to consult them.
Campbell's work is to give us a feel for our commonality with all men and women of all times and climes: this book succeeds, making us better citizens of the world.