Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
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One Line Summary
Discover the truth behind all mythology
Have you ever wondered where myths come from?
Myths are stories we share as a society. They exist in all cultures of all time and provide us with fantastic entertainment. Yet, it’s easy to wonder if there’s something more to them.
Joseph Campbell clearly wanted to know.
Campbell is one of the most famous mythologists of all time. He studied our stories from all around the world to see if there was something waiting to be discovered.
Turns out, there is something of hidden value in our myths. Campbell realized that almost all our myths, no matter how different on the surface, correspond to an underlying pattern and theme. That pattern is The Hero’s Journey.
In The Hero’s Journey, an individual goes on a journey to get some sort of ultimate reward. They face numerous trials, struggles and triumphs along the way and eventually return home.
In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell lays out the format of the Hero’s Journey and explains it implications with psychology, society and even deep spiritual truths. If you want to understand the personal development journey, this is a brilliant map.
Why it’s Awesome
When I first started to look at personal development as a journey (or process, take your pick), I can remember feeling extremely confused. I knew there were stages people moved through, and yet I had no idea what they were and where I personally was.
So part of the reason I like books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces or Becoming Enough is that they give you that road map. You can say, “okay, so first I start at A, then I go to B, then to C” etc.
It also gives you a larger context in which to view your experience. If you’re going through some sort of pain or trial, it’s easy to get caught up and assume that pain will last forever or that’s all there is.
But when you have a road map like The Hero’s Journey you can see the bigger picture for everything that’s happening.
So what’s the road map look like? Here’s the basic layout of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Remember, the specifics aren’t overly important, just look at the underlying patterns.
The hero is living an average, comfortable existence. Nothing is really happening out of the ordinary. They aren’t really being challenged or growing in any significant way.
You could basically say that the hero is “in a rut”. Stagnation and conformity are the main themes of the Status Quo stage. Also, a sense of resentment for whatever the Status Quo is by the hero may start to become obvious as this point.
In Harry Potter, this stage is represented by Harry’s time with the Dursley’s growing up. He just goes to school, comes home and struggles to be happy.
For me, I’d say this more or less represents the first 19 years of my life. Kind of just doing the normal life, not going too much outside the box or questioning things too much.
Something, usually unexpected, reaches out to the hero and calls them to expand. It could be a message from a stranger, an accident, or even some sort of tragedy. But something taps the hero on the shoulder and says “time to move”.
The call is often ignored by the hero at first, which Campbell calls “The refusal of the call”. The hero does not consciously want to leave the Status Quo. And while the hero can do this, usually this only intensifies the magnitude of the call until it’s finally answered.
Also, The Call is also usually a time when the hero is made aware that there is some sort of ultimate reward or “holy grail” that they should be seeking. This reward informs the motivation of the hero from then on out.
In Harry Potter, this is the arrival of the letters from Hogwarts to the Dursley’s house. A new world is calling out the Harry and The Call is initially refused. The volume of letters simply increases until something that can no longer be ignored (Hagrid) shows up.
For me, I’d say The Call started with my arrival at college and breakup with my ex-girlfriend, which happened simultaneously. The breakup was devastating at the time and both events forced me into a serious period of expansion.
The hero can no longer refuse the call. They get exactly what they had been avoiding by staying in the Status Quo, which is trial by fire.
The hero faces numerous enemies, challenges and other obstacles. These are often portrayed as fantastic monsters or beasts but really can take any form.
However, the hero is not alone. They receive guidance, mentors and usually acquires new abilities or powers of some kind.
In Harry Potter, you classify his whole time at Hogwarts as this stage. He is continually battling enemies, growing his abilities and being challenged.
Another important theme at this stage is the disillusionment of what the hero previously believed to be true about reality. For Harry, it meant learning about this bizarre, new magical world that he had no idea about before.
For me, I’d say this stage is where I’m at in my life. I’ve done of battling of my own, not against magical beasts but my own self. Facing fears and old beliefs.
This is the Hero’s darkest hour. Whatever “holy grail” they’ve been fighting for seems impossibly out of reach. Many times the hero even temporarily dies at this stage.
In Harry Potter, I’d argue this is when (spoiler alert) Harry is “killed” at the battle of Hogwarts. All hope is lost and it seems Evil has won.
By miracle, the hero wins the day. They slay whatever “final boss” they were facing in the Crisis stage and claim their prize.
In Harry Potter, this is (spoiler again) the victory over Voldemort and the forces of darkness. Peace has been returned.
Having completed the quest, the hero circles back to the Status Quo in the Return stage. They return to their everyday life.
Sometimes there is an initial refusal to Return, much like there was a refusal to accept The Call. But all hero’s eventually return.
However, things are not the same. The journey has changed the hero forever and they do not see the Status Quo the same way they used to. They have new eyes for what hasn’t changed.
Sometimes, the hero also realizes that the “holy grail” they were chasing had been with them all along. Or they realize the “holy grail” is not what they expected and that the journey itself was far more significant.
In Harry Potter, this is when Harry finally has what he had always wanted: a family. He finally has filled that initial wound of being an orphan.
So there it is. That’s The Hero’s Journey. Now let me explain why this matters to you.
First thing that’s important to understand about The Hero’s Journey is that it’s fractal in nature. You often may have a Hero’s Journey within a larger Hero’s Journey, which is the case in Harry Potter. With each book in the series, you could argue there is a unique journey with a climax.
Second, it’s important to realize that the personal development journey is the hero’s journey. You challenge, grow yourself and discover Who You Truly Are.
For those of you who are deep on this path, you likely can already see how your life reflects the outline I’ve laid out here. It’s universal.
Third, it’s metaphorical. Don’t get caught up in whether you’re going to actually battle a dragon. Often these myths use larger than life imagery to simply make a point or reflect something real.
For instance, maybe your “dragon” is the fear of abandonment you received as a foster child. Again, specifics do not matter. That’s why it’s referred to as the Hero With A Thousand Faces. The journey comes in all forms.
Fourth, the journey is unique. Have you noticed that no person is exactly the same as another? There comes a point in every Hero’s journey where no one can tell you what to do or how to continue.
Fifth, The Hero’s Journey does not make you superior to others. I understand that using language like “I’m on the hero’s journey” can sound overly dramatic or pompous. But in reality, everyone is on this journey whether they know it or not. So everyone is a Hero.
I’ve found that the journey can be so challenging at times that I have no idea anyone would choose to go on it. That’s why I don’t push anyone to do this unless they want it.
So it’s a paradox. You can’t resist The Glory and yet the struggle you go through to get it makes you seriously question whether it’s even worth it.
That is why many heroes come out with an attitude of “the journey is everything”. But notice, this is impossible to properly realize without ACTUALLY going through the journey.
It’s one thing to say intellectually that “the journey is everything”. It’s another thing to have actually taken the fire of that process and speak it from experience.
Why Does It Suck
Some of the conclusions Campbell comes to are based on out-dated psychological principles. It would be interesting to see a modern analysis of this book.
The Wrap Up
Extremely important book for understanding the bigger picture of your life and what the personal development journey can look like. Read it to expand your perspective if you feel caught up in what’s happening right now.