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Hero With a Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell is one of those people that you would meet at a dinner party in the opening chapter of a Tom Wolfe novel, and spend the rest of the novel getting hints about the deeper meanings of the novel itself from his appearances throughout. He seems like quite a smart little fellow, and what he says seems very deep. I think I agree with him about 80%.

His basic premise from Hero with a Thousand Faces is true. He posits that every hero story follows the same formula, which is:

  1. The hero is called.
  2. The hero refuses.
  3. The hero is shown the light, and goes on the quest.
  4. The hero passes through a threshold into another world.
  5. The hero overcomes obstacles.
  6. The hero arrives at the center of the universe and claims an energy source.
  7. The hero returns from the other world and uses the energy source thus gained to fix the real world, overcoming a father figure in the process.

I would have to agree. The only exceptions I can think of are recent stories where the ‘hero’ is really an anti-hero, such as Anakin in the new Star Wars movies. This was especially surprising to me because I read the book because Lucas openly admits that the original trilogy was heavily influenced by it. you can see that readily; the above pattern is exactly what Luke does; Obi-Wan calls, Luke Refuses, Owen and Beru die and Luke goes (end of Star Wars); Luke goes to Tatooine, learns from Yoda, and masters the Force (end of Empire Strikes Back); Luke confronts the world, and uses the Force to save his father and change the world for the better.

But upon further reflection, I think that this lack of similarity is one of the big reasons that we don’t bond with the new movies like we did with the old; there is no hero to tie ourselves to and emulate, like we did with Luke and Han and Leia. No one wants to be Anakin; we all understand that he’s screwed up. Girls don’t want to be Amidala; she’s a lilly, not the tough chick. I guess you could want to be Obi-Wan, but he’s not really the central character, and is a little too straight-laced for most tastes.

One of the things that I think Campbell gets very right is how he ties the above arch to the internal psychological arch. He translates it to:

  1. Everyone is called.
  2. Everyone hesitates.
  3. Everyone took the chance, or wonders what it would have been like if they had.
  4. Everyone delves into the subconcious, looking for answers.
  5. Everyone overcomes obstacles.
  6. Everyone finds a source of internal strength.
  7. Everyone copes with the world using whatever resources they’ve got.

It is in this light that Campbell really shines. It is upon this basis that he builds his real discussion: that stories are important because they teach people how to live life, and how to overcome the obstacles. In the second half of the book, he ties the above cycle to the greater cosmological structure of the myth-world, and in so doing points out that the Gods of the world are the internal source of power, because the Gods of the world are a stand-in for the soul of the hero, and in turn for the soul of each and every person.

This is a powerful metaphor, and explains not only why the pattern above plays itself out so readily across the world but also why stories are such a powerful stir to our souls.

But I’m not sure I agree with it completely. It makes sense on an academic level, but it’s too clinical for my tastes. It reduces all of legend, myth, folklore, and everything too harshly down into a self-help book.

I am a Christian, and while I don’t proclaim that every word of the Bible is literally true (c.f. Exodus 11:6), I do believe in the broad outlines of the faith; God created the universe, and thereafter interacted with it in a variety of ways, not the least of which was inhabiting said world for purposes of redeeming it. Jesus-as-hero is brought up quite a few times in HWATF, but it is a Christian tenet that I cannot search my soul to find the internal power and become Christ. That doesn’t work; I am a fallen being and limited in that to being ever divided from God until death (at the earliest; until trumpet sound at the latest).

Campbell does, to his credit, make note of this, but it only is in a footnote mentioning that a Christian accepting this would be–and has been–declared heretical. But that word ‘heretical’ effectively means that a Christian accepting this idea is no longer a Christian. It’s a little bit of a conundrum, there.

Which is why I’m only going to agree 80%; the hero-story and the psychological implications are great, and the presentation is great, if a little dry at the start. The stories told are fantastic, and worth the cover price all by themselves. I even enjoyed the hero/cosmology discussion, even if I didn’t agree with his conclusions.

So I’m giving the book 4 Exploded Clowns: a read-if-you-have-any-interest-in-the-topic.