Joseph Campbell,
The Hero With a Thousand Faces
(1949; New World Library, 2008)

Simply stated, here is a new edition of one of the most important books of our time. Originally published in 1949, Joseph Campbell's discussion of the archetype of the hero revolutionized modern psychology, the study of mythology and the way we live our lives. It was a groundbreaking work when it was published and it continues to inspire and enlighten artists, filmmakers, songwriters and writers, as well as millions of general readers.

Campbell was one of those intellectually curious people who feel a need to understand everything. Fascinated from an early age by the Native American experience and culture, Campbell left Dartmouth University because it wasn't academically rigorous enough for him, transferring to Columbia where he received bachelor's and master's of arts degrees. Winning a fellowship to continue his studies in France, he wandered through Europe where he became interested in the modernists -- Picasso and Paul Klee, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung -- all of whom turned him into the scholar he became.

He returned to the States just as the Depression hit, so he could not land a teaching job and, like so many young men at that time, he hit the road to try to find "the soul of America," spending time in California with novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. In 1934, he finally landed an academic gig, teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence College, where he worked out the theories that led to the writing of this book.

Why is The Hero With a Thousand Faces so important? Because in the text, Campbell outlines the journey of the hero, an archetypal journey that runs through all of the world's mythology and underlies most of the important stories from the beginning of narrative to today.

Campbell, writing with economy and clarity, first, in his preface, reviews the basic notions of mythology, establishing the idea of the hero. Then, he goes into the factors that make up the journey of the hero. The basic pattern is simple. The hero sets out on a quest, often reluctantly. He is called to the adventure, tries to get out of going but is unable to resist his destiny. With the aid of a supernatural guide, he undergoes a series of tests. Having survived the testing process, he is then initiated into the larger world where meaning resides and, finally, altered by his experiences, returns as a master of two worlds, to help others on their journey. This pattern is described in detail, with references to the tons of myths and legends that demonstrate it. Part three of the book examines specific archetypal myths in more detail. It is fascinating reading.

When you read The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it becomes apparent very quickly that what you're reading is the symbolic version of the journey that every one of us is on. We see we are all embarked on an archetypal quest for wholeness and that the quest is described by most of the literature that we have, until this moment, not recognized the true value of. It is, quite simply, all of our stories.

Here is, truly, a book everyone should read. Buy it, read it, stick it on your shelf in a prominent spot where you can easily find it again because you'll be wanting to read it more than once.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

15 November 2008

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