The Hero With A Thousand Faces

So a couple of days ago I put up a short post about how I was partially through Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Well, today I finished the book, and there’s a lot to talk about with it, so I’m just going to get on with my discussion.

Book Stats

337 pages (plus about 80 pages of notes and citations)



My first thought is what ultimately led me to want to read this book.  I’d heard about it on many different occasions from listening to or reading a variety of different things where people have discussed writing.  One of the most common things to come up in the idea of storytelling (and mythology) is The Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in this book.  The basic premise can be broken down any number of ways, but I’m going to outline it very briefly.

  • The hero receives a call to adventure
  • The hero passes an early trial often with the assistance of another person (or god)
  • The hero travels from the known world to the unknown world
  • The hero accomplishes their goal (defeating a monster, or rescuing someone from said monster), again, often with divine assistance
  • The hero returns to the known world to share their newfound knowledge or power with the rest of society

That’s a very simplistic breakdown of the Hero’s Journey, but it has many of the pivotal points included.  If you look at nearly any story (be it mythological or simply fictional) you’ll find that this is a very common series of events for the hero to go through.

One of the most well known examples of the Hero’s Journey in modern times is of course Star Wars.  Lucas was very deeply immersed in Campbell’s ideas (I believe that he personally knew Campbell, but don’t quote me on that) and used them to shape the story in star wars.  I’ve heard some discussion about how effective this is as a method of constructing a story, but I’m not going to get into that here.

Getting back to the actual book, there are issues with it if you’re a casual reader.  The first is that the book was not written to be read casually, this is an academic text, and it shows.  There are some large sections where the book was a difficult read, and even with the easier sections I found that the best way to read this book was to read 10-15 pages, then go do something else for a while, then come back and read another 10-15 pages (which is part of the reason that it took me a week to get through the book).

Another issue that I have with the book is that it’s a little dated at this point.  The original edition was copyright 1949 and a very large part of the discussion is based directly around Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.  This is a large part of why the book is difficult to read.  I have some familiarity with Freud’s ideas (as we discussed them in nearly every Psychology class I took) but I don’t have a deep understanding of them because for the most part Freud was wrong about nearly everything.  Freud was absolutely vital in getting the ball rolling on psychological research, but his theories were based almost entirely upon his own life and he had no empirical evidence to back them up.

The second section deals with more of the common aspects of the worldview of mythology as opposed to the hero’s actions and motivations and as a result is a much easier (and in many ways more interesting) read.  It’s interesting to see just how common most of the ideas that occur in mythology and religion from around the world really are.

So what’s the verdict on the book?  It’s easily one of the most influential books of the 20th century because it inspired so many different stories.  But while it’s important, it’s not something that I would suggest for a casual read.  If you’re a writer interested in the Hero’s Journey, there are various other places where you can find all sorts of information about the stages of the Hero’s Journey that are much easier to get through than this book.

Overall Grade

A monumentally important book that I would never suggest as a casual read.