Review of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)


Joseph Campbell (writer).

Read in 2023.

Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Müller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man's profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God's Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. The various judgments are determined by the view points of the judges. For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions, of how it has served mankind in the past, of how it may serve today, mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race, the age.

Campbell’s own theory, in comparative mythology, is that mythological narratives all over the world share a structure so common that he calls it “the monomyth”.

Campbell writes well. His whirlwind tour of the world’s most popular mythologies, and some obscure ones, reminds me less of the confident perspective in Theory of Literature (1942) than of children’s textbooks about religion around the world. The problem is his theory.

The monomyth theory is founded as much on Freudian-Jungian psychoanalysis as on ancient and medieval mythology. Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. Campbell presents written descriptions of people’s dreams next to myths to strengthen his case, but those examples are obviously cherry-picked. Real dreams, it turns out, are not deeply significant. To prove my case in this regard with a cherry-picked example of my own, as I was writing this review of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, my girlfriend came in to tell me that, in the preceding night, she had dreamt she had a flat tyre on her bicycle. As a stop-gap measure she had filled the tyre up with a small quantity of chopped parsley, despite knowing that parsley would spoil the oil she needed to inject into the tyre for a more permanent fix. That fusion of bicycle repair with cooking is not the monomyth. It doesn’t reflect “deep” or “subconscious” “forces” within the mind; it is a typically random misfire of the physical brain.

This is not to say that Campbell was all wrong. He often sounds like a spiritual hippie, too flexible to reject any bad idea, but he was fundamentally right about the fact that mythologies serve psychological functions, that they can be systematically interpreted (though literal dreams cannot), and that modernity or Nietzsche have made them seem irrelevant when they are not. Myths frequently distil people’s shared experiences in personal maturation and senescence into a sequence of symbols, and through a process of memetic selection under the constraints of oral tradition, this forms the pattern that Campbell called the monomyth. However, calling it the monomyth is conceited. He credits James Joyce for the term, but he claims it for himself and ignores a huge amount of popular material that does not conform to the pattern, including the bulk of the Homeric epics. I would have been much more impressed if the author had proposed memetics, or proposed a mythological equivalent of Chomskyan linguistics to reach the next level of abstraction above the typology of Vladimir Propp.

I’m sure that there are now better collections of myths, in better translations, without the dross of psychoanalysis. The main reason to read Campbell now is for his influence on formulaic writers of fiction.

References here: Star Wars (1977), Speaker for the Dead (1986), Mythbusters (2003), Knife of Dreams (2005), Coco (2017), Mid90s (2018), The Boy and the Heron (2023).

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