Monday, November 8, 2010

Review - The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Short review: All the heroes of legend share the same story. Maybe.

In our ancient myths
All heroes are similar
Which is what Jung says

Full review: The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Joseph Campbell's magnum opus, and is probably most famous in popular culture as the work that George Lucas claims he used to craft the hero myth of the Star Wars series. The trouble with this assertion is that Campbell's "monomyth" is so over broad and generic that Lucas could have come up with almost any story featuring a heroic protagonist and it would have fit into Campbell's theory. The fact that the central thesis of the book is so completely pointless, coupled with an almost obsessive fascination with the somewhat less than convincing Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, seriously hampers the enjoyment and supposed insights to be derived from this book. The only truly saving grace of the book is Campbell's extensive references to a broad range of mythology to make his points, drawing some interesting parallels between the mythologies of disparate cultures, although they are parallels that simply don't serve to make his case.

Campbell was a leading figure in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion, and this fact is on display throughout this book. Campbell pulls myth stories from a wide variety of cultures and traditions, each intended to highlight some point or another. Those who are ardent followers of a particular faith may find Campbell's treatment of their faith's stories jarring, as he treats all religious stories, whether they be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or any other, as mere myths to be analyzed as creations of the human mind. Unfortunately, while Campbell was clearly an expert in mythology, he was also infatuated with Freud and Jung, and throughout the book he tries to shoehorn all of the stories into Jungian archetypes and subject them to Freudian psychoanalysis. Campbell also tries to use both Freud and Jung to draw parallels between the myth stories of older eras, and the unconscious dreams of modern men. Campbell's attempts to drawn parallels between a collection of dream case histories and a selection of events from various myths is particularly unconvincing when one realizes that for almost any event someone would dream about, one could find some story somewhere with which one could draw some sort of comparison. Whether this element of Campbell's book resonates with the reader is entirely dependent upon how one views Freud and Jung. As I don't find much of value in Freud's work, and am only marginally impressed with Jung, these comparisons in the book left me cold.

Campbell's main thesis is that all of the hero myths in human history are merely expressions of a single "monomyth" that transcends culture. The trouble is that Campbell achieves this "monomyth" by the simple expedient of including every possible variation into his definition. A hero is called to quest, does or does not accept, is or is not helped by a wise guide, is or is not granted supernatural aid, does or does not fight an enemy who may or may not have supernatural attributes, does or does not survive and does or does not return home. To dilute things even more, Campbell includes an array of other, sundry possibilities in order to be able to encompass as many mythological stories as possible. And yet, despite having crafted a thesis that appears to be so broad as to be almost meaningless, Campbell still has to stretch some of the stories he cites beyond all recognition to fit them under the umbrella. In short, most hero myths probably are part of the Campbellian monomyth simply because Campbell made the monomyth such a big tent that almost any story could fit under it. While this makes his thesis more or less true, it also makes it pretty much completely worthless.

The book is not, however, completely useless. Campbell is an expert on mythology, and his in-depth analysis of the wide array of mythological stories, symbols, and themes that are detailed in the book gives a good insight into these subjects that would be quite useful to a student of mythology or a storyteller. I have seen many people recommend this book to would-be writers, and I believe that this advice is probably good. However, I think that advice should also come with a warning that the monomyth itself is meaningless, but that the true value in the book is to be found in the way each story is individually dissected and analyzed. This analysis serves to illustrate why some stories seem to draw particular emotional reactions, and why others simply fall flat. While it would probably be a mistake to follow along with Campbell's suggestion that these emotional reactions are universal for humanity, within the particular cultures the stories are drawn from (when viewed through Campbell's lens), the reason the stories resonate with their intended audiences is, to a certain extent, explained by the discussions of the various myth stories detailed in the book.

The idea of a monomyth tying all hero stories together is an enticing one. It is easy to see how Campbell would generate this idea, and why he would spend so much time trying to demonstrate it. It is also easy to see how this idea has caught hold in the modern popular imagination, fueled by the declarations of an individual like George Lucas. The reality is, however, that the pieces just don't add up to the desired conclusion. As a demonstration of the truth of Campbell's monomyth thesis, this book is a failure. On the other hand, as a guide to some of the many types of hero myths that have cropped up in human history, this book is quite good. Overall, while the monomyth thesis and the psychoanalytic ramblings drag the book down, the presentation and analysis of mythology is strong enough to bring this book back up to average.

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