It’s Time to Throw Out The Hero With a Thousand Faces

A mosaic of face pictures forming the image of a bearded man's face, from the cover of The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Joseph’s Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (HWTF) has been incredibly influential since it was first published in 1949. The book is the basis for the popular structure known as The Hero’s Journey, and it’s influenced numerous storytellers such as George Lucas, Richard Adams, and Stanley Kubrick. A memo on the book by Christopher Vogler influenced Disney movies such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.

In the storytelling world, it’s not uncommon to hear Campbell praised as a genius and HWTF lauded as the most insightful work on storytelling ever written. But neither of those things are true, and it’s past time we stop worshipping this book.

It Repels Critics by Being Dense

The Hero’s Journey structure retains its credibility with storytellers because it is supposedly based on the rigorous scholarship of Joseph Campbell. Christopher Vogler’s popular book on the subject, The Writer’s Journey, doesn’t have to back up its claims that The Hero’s Journey is universal to all stories because it can tell people to go read HWTF. But there’s a reason everyone reads Vogler’s book instead of Campbell’s: HWTF is an amazingly dense and tedious read.

Below is a completely normal paragraph from the book, taken from page 5.

The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind—whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self. Destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life—that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm that we carry within.

It’s one thing to simply read through this enormous, meandering paragraph. It’s another to actually understand what point Campbell is trying to make. With some studying, you can figure it out, but imagine doing that for each paragraph in a 400-page work.

The result is that only its most devoted fans want to read this book in depth. Few critics will be willing to invest the time in studying this work to bring to light its weaknesses. When deterring critics from reading the book doesn’t work, Campbell’s cryptic writing style makes it easy for fans to play fast and loose with what he’s saying. The result is a work that has outlasted its expiration date.

This is also why cherry-picking the worst excerpts from the book to support my criticism would be prohibitively time-consuming. Luckily, I don’t have to examine all 400 pages in detail to find excerpts that display the book’s flaws. Almost every page has something questionable on it.

It’s Based on Outdated Pseudoscience

The Hero With a Thousand Faces asserts that all stories throughout history share common patterns. While part of that is The Hero’s Journey structure I also criticized recently, stepping through that structure in detail makes up less than half of the book. Campbell’s primary focus throughout is describing specific imagery and symbolism such as pools, trees, serpents, and the like. Not only that, but he fixates on a specific explanation for the symbols and patterns he finds in folklore. From page 2:

For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.

What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach?

Today many sciences are contributing to the analysis of the riddle. […]

Most remarkable of all, however, are the revelations that have emerged from the mental clinic. The bold and truly epoch-making writings of the psychoanalysts are indispensable to the student of mythology; for, whatever may be thought of the detailed and sometimes contradictory interpretations of specific cases and problems, Freud, Jung, and their followers have demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times. In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream.

For anyone who’s unfamiliar, Sigmund Freud is the famous psychoanalyst who thought that men subconsciously want to have sex with their mothers and kill their fathers, and that women have “penis envy.” Whereas Freud’s theories dwelt on subconscious symbolism that he felt originated in common personal experiences like separation anxiety between mothers and babies, Carl Jung proposed a collective unconscious. This is the idea that humanity has an innate collective psyche inherited from our ancestors that contains specific symbolism.

While Campbell refers to Freud’s and Jung’s work as science, that’s pretty questionable. Freud scoffed at the idea of experimentally testing whether his ideas were true, insisting that his professional observations were enough. While some of his ideas, such as repressed memories and feelings, are still useful today, even the psychotherapists most sympathetic to him have discarded much of his work. In particular, dream analysis is highly outdated. Campbell opens his book by referencing case studies of dreams and their Freudian interpretation.

As for Jung, if his work hasn’t been largely disproven, it’s because his claims aren’t falsifiable. There is simply no way to scientifically disprove that humanity has some inherent collective unconscious, just like it’s impossible to disprove that a tree spirit is dancing the Macarena on Neptune. In such cases, the burden is on the proponent to prove their theory is true, and obviously that hasn’t been done.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Freud’s and Jung’s work to HWTF. In the book, Campbell performs a Freud- and Jung-style psychoanalysis of folklore. He searches for reoccurring Freudian themes and cites Freud in his explanations. The character archetypes of the Hero’s Journey are Jung’s archetypes. Jung, and therefore Campbell, really believed that babies are born with subconscious ideas about wise old men and tricksters.

It Exhibits Poor Scholarship

Campbell claims to have found remarkably common patterns and symbols in stories around the world, demonstrating how humanity’s collective unconscious emerges in our stories. Because he spews symbolic references to stories at every opportunity, it’s easy to miss that his assertions are only thinly supported by the folklore he’s referencing.

Let’s take the Belly of the Whale chapter. This is a stage in the Hero’s Journey where the hero enters a new magical realm by being symbolically devoured. To demonstrate that this theme is found in folklore worldwide, Campbell first summarizes two stories where characters are eaten only to find themselves in a livable and perhaps magical space. Assuming Campbell is not misrepresenting these stories, so far, so good. Then he simply rattles off the names of five more stories:

  • Finn MacCool being swallowed by a péist
  • Little Red Riding Hood being eaten by the wolf
  • Maui being swallowed by Hine-nui-te-pō
  • Zeus’s siblings being swallowed by Kronos
  • Heracles diving into the maw of a monster and cutting his way out

While I couldn’t find information on the Finn MacCool tale, the other four stories simply feature characters being consumed, not making some magical transition. What I found on Maui suggests the story ends with him dying inside Hine-nui-te-pō, and Zeus’s siblings are damsels that he rescues rather than the heroes of their story. Campbell follows the list with this statement.

This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Its resemblance to the adventure of the Symplegades is obvious. But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.

But this isn’t supported by the five stories he rattles off. And since Campbell is arguing that this annihilation and rebirth symbolism is universal to stories all over the world, he should be able to do better than the two stories he summarizes.

The only thing his list of examples demonstrates is that characters who survive being eaten are common enough to justify this TV Tropes page. It’s also unsurprising that storytellers of different cultures all decided to use a trope inspired by the danger of being eaten by predators. And emerging alive is just the kind of sensational twist that a storyteller would like. We don’t need some elaborate collective unconscious to explain this pattern.

The rest of HWTF is just like this. Campbell finds tropes in folklore and makes claims about them that his examples don’t support even though he has a huge wealth of material to pull from.

On top of that, Campbell frequently makes statements so absurdly broad, it shows a disregard for accuracy. Take this statement from page 35.

Ancient cities are built like temples, having their portals to the four directions, while in the central place stands the major shrine of the divine city founder.

He’s saying that all cities in all ancient time periods, in every culture, all have four portals facing the four cardinal directions. Plus a shrine of a city founder in the center. And supposedly this is the same as a generic worldwide temple layout that he thinks we have. I can believe Campbell has seen some similar city designs. But if he cared about good scholarship rather than trying to make facts fit his preconceived notions, he would state exactly which cities were like this instead of making such a broad statement.

In this way, it appears Campbell takes after Freud. He thinks as long as he observes something a couple times, he doesn’t have to give it any rigorous evidence or reasoning for the claims he makes about it.

It’s Bigoted

It’s hardly surprising that a work from 1949 is bigoted, and works can be full of problematic content and still have ideas worth keeping. However, since the ideas of HWTF are dubious at best, its bigotry is one more reason to let it go.

First, the way that Campbell talks about many other cultures is gross. He makes a number of broad statements about “primitive” people that are condescending and exotifying. Take this nugget from page 84.

“In every primitive tribe,” writes Dr. Géza Rôheim, “we find
the medicine man in the center of society and it is easy to show
that the medicine man is either a neurotic or a psychotic or at
least that his art is based on the same mechanisms as a neurosis
or a psychosis. Human groups are actuated by their group ideals,
and these are always based on the infantile situation.” […] The medicine men, therefore, are simply making both visible and public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of their society. “They are the leaders in this infantile
game and the lightning conductors of common anxiety. They
fight the demons so that others can hunt the prey and in general
fight reality.”

Which groups of people are we talking about exactly? Who knows! And while psychology terms might have been different then, it’s difficult to imagine calling all medicine men “neurotic” or “psychotic” could be anything other than racist and ableist. Add in that Campbell is using other cultures to support his theories, and the whole book has the distinct taint of colonialism and exploitation.

As for sexism, we need look no further than the Woman as the Temptress chapter. This chapter is about how the hero possesses a woman as a symbol for his mastery of life, and then this sexy life symbol reveals itself as a symbol of sin. The below excerpt is the chapter opening.

The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents
the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride.

Then on page 102, he brings in the good old Freudian Oedipus complex.

Where this Oedipus-Hamlet revulsion remains to beset the soul, there the world, the body, and woman above all, become the symbols no longer of victory but of defeat. A monastic puritanical, world-negating ethical system then radically and immediately transfigures all the images of myth. No longer can the hero rest in innocence with the goddess of the flesh; for she is become the queen of sin.

Campbell wants you to believe that every person is born with the idea of women as sinful possessions baked into their subconscious.

Spirituality Is What Makes It Popular

If The Hero With a Thousand Faces is so dense, is based on outdated notions, and its arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, why do so many people like it? They like it because it sells a highly romantic idea, one that is particularly attractive to fantasy writers. The Hero With a Thousand Faces claims that ancient stories have secret wisdom encoded in mystical symbols, and that understanding these symbols will allow us to understand our subconscious needs and live better lives. It’s a spiritual work that many people find emotionally meaningful.

Below is a paragraph from the first page of the prologue.

It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. The old teachers knew what they were saying. Once we have learned to read again their symbolic language, it requires no more than the talent of an anthologist to let their teaching be heard. But first we must learn the grammar of the symbols, and as a key to this mystery I know of no better modern tool than psychoanalysis. Without regarding this as the last word on the subject, one can nevertheless permit it to serve as an approach.
The second step will be then to bring together a host of myths and folk tales from every corner of the world, and to let the symbols speak for themselves. The parallels will be immediately apparent; and these will develop a vast and amazingly constant statement of the basic truths by which man has lived throughout the millenniums of his residence on the planet.

Not only does Campbell clearly have intent that is of a religious or spiritual nature, but the scholars who follow him are also clear about that. Take this excerpt from the Introduction to the 2004 Commemorative Edition, written by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

I am honored to be invited to write this introduction to the work
of a soul I have regarded in many ways for so long. The context and substance of Joseph Campbell’s lifework is one of the most recent
diamonds on a long, long necklace of other dazzling gemstones that have been mined by humanity—from the depths, and often at great cost—since the beginning of time. […] This phenomenon of the necklace of lights should not be understood as some mere trinket. Its reality is that it has acted, since forever, as a swaying, glowing lifeline for human souls trying to find their ways through the dark.

[…] The Hero with a Thousand Faces is about the heroic journey, but it is not written, as some works on the subject are, by a mere onlooker. It is not written by one simply hyper-fascinated with mythos, or by one who bowdlerizes the mythic motifs so that they no longer have any electrical pulse to them.

No, this work is authored by a genuinely inspirited person who himself was once a novice, that is, a beginner who opened not just the mind, but also the longing heart, all in order to be a vessel for spiritual realities—ones greater than the conclusions of the ego alone.

In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler also mentions that The Hero’s Journey’s structure has a deeper meaning for him. From the Second Edition preface:

In this book I described the set of concepts known as “The Hero’s Journey,” drawn from the depth psychology of Carl G. Jung and the mythic studies of Joseph Campbell. I tried to relate those ideas to contemporary storytelling, hoping to create a writer’s guide to these valuable gifts from our innermost selves and our most distant past. I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more: a set of principles for living. I came to believe that the Hero’s Journey is nothing less than a handbook for life, a complete instruction manual in the art of being human.

If believing in Campbell’s ideas about myth and collective unconscious makes your life better, then power to you, go on believing. But believers are pitching HWTF as rigorous scholarship indispensable to storytellers, not as a religion based on Jung’s theories and folklore. New writers who are trying to learn their craft are misled into thinking of HWTF and The Hero’s Journey in particular as essential when they are not.

By treating stories as romantic and mystical, HWTF may also sabotage the learning process for these writers. The feeling of mystery and wonder depends on ignorance. Once we fully understand something, it is no longer mystical. Writers who are emotionally invested in viewing storytelling as a magical process may resist any ideas that make it feel mundane. That often includes the storytelling principles they need to learn to master their craft.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces shouldn’t be forgotten. Like the works of Freud and Jung, it changed the conversation and influenced many of our stories. But its era is gone. It’s time to honor this book for how it impacted us and stop celebrating it as a storytelling achievement.

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  1. Jeppsson

    It was many years ago now that I studied religion at uni, but I remember Campbell being used as an example of a kind of “scholar” who never really studied other peoples or their religions – they got their info from “explorers” and “adventurers” who talked about the weird-ass primitive people they encountered in weird-ass primitive areas of the world, and built their theories mostly on that.

    Our lecturers gave more cred to the priest and scholar Wilhelm Schmidt. He was also super biased: he was convinced that among “primitive people” you could find a true, uncorrupted and perfect kind of religion. Basically he and his disciples set out to prove this thesis, rather than doing unbiased research. BUT because they actually learnt people’s languages and talked to them, rather than just listening to tall tales from “explorers” and “adventurers”, it was still a major step up reserach-wise.

  2. Cay Reet

    I have to admit that I bought a copy of the book ages ago, but have barely cracked it open. Some of that stuff here is just so … WTF?

    First of all, without leaving his home town, I’m sure Campbell could have laid hands on the maps of old cities around the world (a lot of libraries carried them and there is such a thing as an atlas, too). One look at those old cities and their layout shows that they were built into the landscape (because a lot of landscaping and moving of earth wasn’t possible yet) and that they rarely had their roads in any kind of modern grid (which would have enabled the cardinal direction for the gates). The roads usually were following the path of the cows going to the water or similar logical things (or simply the rule of ‘people need space to walk in, dontchernow?’). Not to mention that gates usually correspond with the access to overland routes, because that is by which direction people usually enter and leave a city.

    I’ve also always wondered why Freud used Oedipus for his complex of ‘kill the father and sleep with the mother’. While Oedipus does indeed kill his father, it is an accident. He also has no idea the man he killed was his father, having grown up away from his family. While he does indeed sleep with his mother, he doesn’t know she is his mother and is shocked and mortified the moment he learns about it. Really, Oedipus never wanted to kill his father or sleep with his mother, so the complex should have been named after someone else.

    Personally, I have my doubts about the whole principle of the hero’s journey. Yes, stories tend to follow certain patterns, because those are the patterns which create tension and because we’re used to those patterns and like to reproduce them (such as the different groups of three which are in many fairy tales and also often come through in modern stories with two failed tries before the success). I just don’t really buy into the structure of the hero’s journey, but that is, perhaps, because I’m German and we never went over Campbell when I studies literature in uni. Not that we never talked about stuff like using psycholanalysis to interpret stories (that can put you off fairy tales for life, I swear), but Campbell and his hero’s journey weren’t even mentioned. I’m more partial to the five-act-structure of classic plays, because it nicely describes the rise of tension, which is good for a story.

  3. Juan

    I had never even heard of this book, but now I’m sure I won’t every buy it.

    • Some Lass

      I would say that regardless of the quality of the book, you shouldn’t let a review dictate what you think. You should give it a chance and form your own opinion, positive or negative.

      • mourningcrow

        don’t we all wish we had so much time in our lives!!

  4. Tyler Hill

    Maybe it was the lack of context, or maybe because I don’t read much outside of fiction, or maybe I’m just dense; I didn’t understand a single word of what this guy has written. And… this was used as a standard for spec fic for years? How could anyone decipher it? Is it just me, or is the author trying to be purposefully vague to come off as intelligent? I’d greatly appreciate it if anyone could just tell me actually WHAT this book was about.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I believe the paragraph could be summarized as ‘myths and mythological archetypes originate from the subconscious, but someone else might need to correct me.

      Preferably somebody with a degree or five in literary analysis; I am NOT going to be touching any paragraph in that book, not even with a 10-foot pole.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        (I’m talking about just the first paragraph, in case I didn’t make that clear.)

      • Cay Reet

        As someone who studied literature science for two years on the German equivalent of a master level, I read the ‘For the symbols of mythology’ stuff like this:

        The symbols can’t be created or ordered by humans, because they are somehow produced within the mind of humanity, but don’t ask me why.
        I’ve noticed that mythology everywhere has common themes and think that’s something we can’t understand.
        Science is just about to unravel what happened when myths were created and I’m sure it’s something metaphysical.
        My big idols Freud and Jung have written about that stuff, too and, even though they can’t agree on some of it, I’m sure they’re right and that there’s a bit of that mythology in our dreams and that’s why we write about it.

        Which, all in all, is a lot of words thrown around for ‘I don’t know how mythology works, but I’ve read these nice books by two blokes who normally try to heal mentally ill people and now I’m going to claim that we all share this mythology and it comes from our dreams (and not just from the fact that we’re all humans and have similar experiences in life).’
        Honestly, I’ve read a lot of convoluted interpretations of literature texts in my time and a lot of textbooks on it at uni, but most of them were a breeze to read compared to that sample of paragraphs.

        • Tyler Hill

          Cay and A Perspiring Writer, thank you so much! Now I know never to read that book!

      • A Perspiring Writer

        i just realized i forgot to add a closing quotation mark

    • Maria

      Eh, I kinda liked it – it was a nice journey, imagining some hidden Aladdin caves in the mind where scary but fasciating things stir and move and are the coagulating point of stories. If this can serve as a scientific method for writing/analysing stories – yeah, that is a different matter.

      • Cay Reet

        I would say for analysing stories it’s a dubitable, but also usable tool. For writing stories, not so much.

      • Bellis

        I also kind of liked reading the first excerpt. But it was more poetic than scientific or instructional. It was difficult for me to actually make sense of and it did meander a lot. Metaphors and imagery are nice, but they can also make the content less apparent. It’s not necessarily a good fit for a (pseudo-)scientific book. I also don’t know if Hero With a Thousand Faces was meant as an instruction for writers (I remember hearing that it was not, that Vogler’s Writers Journey was meant as an instruction and also easier to read), but at best it could be inspiration.

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        I’ve experienced the same thing a million times as I write. I don’t use the Aladdin’s cave idea, but rather that of an iceberg, where most of what I know is hidden and inaccessible even to me most of the time. As I write I often find myself dredging up material that I’d learned/heard/seen and then forgot that I had done so.

    • K.A.

      It’s not just you. With every excerpt from the book, my eyes glazed over. I actually bought the book years ago, but I couldn’t finish it because all the long, dense explanations made my brain tired. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment for insulting the intelligence of folks who don’t like Hero With a Thousand Faces. None of that elitism here, thank you.

  5. Michael Schuler

    You make some good points, but it seems a bit questionable to complain about the dense writing style of an literature professor whose previous project was essentially a translation of Finnegans Wake; he’s not going to write at the same grade level as Stephen King. I find William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and Chuck Wendig’s writing books hard to read, but I appreciate that they have intentionally cultivated their writing styles, and I know that I’m going to get something out of the process, even if it is disagreement with the author, when I read even a bit of their work.

    • LeeEsq

      I think the difference between difficult writing in literature and difficult writing in non-fiction is that with the latter you can’t really tell if the obtuse writing is because the academic/emperor has no clothes or because they believe this is stylistically important. The Frankfurt School also had a lot of dense and bad writing. With modernist writing in literature, you know that the author is either trying to play with language or be artistic in some way rather than obscure the fact that they aren’t a good story teller. Although, I’m guessing people that don’t like modernist writing will say that modernist authors are bad story tellers for not being straight forward.

      • Cay Reet

        With a good author, you can also see a good use of words, if they’re treating a story as something akin to painting with words instead of really telling a story. With a bad author, the words don’t fit together to evoke anything, so even the painting with words doesn’t work out.

        Reading the excerpts here, I feel reminded of books I read during my time at uni, where someone tried to hide their overall failed understanding of the topic behind big words – often even misinterpreting what others had written.

      • Rose Embolism

        It’s not so much that his writing is dense, but that he belongs to that style of writer that uses dense language to obfuscate the fact that their research is cherry picked, examples are taken out of context, and the conclusions are in no way justified by his evidence.

        In short, it’s an agglomeration of bullshit, which by it’s very density conceals it’s bad smell.

  6. AlgaeNymph

    Let’s address the bantha in the room: Hero With a Thousand Faces is popular because Lucas made it so. If our boy George didn’t credit it as inspiration for Star Wars the only Campbell’s work we’d know of would be *soup.* The Hero’s Journey is nothing more than a marketing tactic for the Entertainment Industrial Complex to con us that their latest popcorn flick is somehow #deep.

    I never liked the Hero’s Journey; not only did it insist that all stories are formulaic, it convinced people that they *ought* to be.


  7. GeniusLemur

    That’s how many full examples Joseph Campbell gives for the supposed monomyth. That’s how many times he says “Here’s how the Illiad/Journey to the West/Myth of Quetzalcoatl/etc. matches up with all 17 stages of the monomyth.” That’s how many times we get an example of the full archetypal story that’s supposed to be universal.
    And the pattern for the few examples he does give actually undermines he argument. What happens to Raven when he goes into the belly of a whale isn’t one piece of a larger Inuit story, it’s the whole thing. The story starts and stops in the belly of the whale stage of the supposed monomyth and there’s no place to add the other sixteen.

  8. Rose Embolism

    I really appreciate this post- it’s far too rare to see someone actually confront the pseudo-scholarship that is the basis for the Hero’s Journey. But I would go even further.

    The Hero’s Journey is basically ethnocentric nonsense, concocted by a scholar who was trying to understand James Joyce’s Ulysses. His data is cherry picked at best, he takes stories out of cultural contexts and turns them into a bland puree fit for consumption by script writers, and his conclusions are racist and sexist flights of fancy. In short, he is the Erich Von Daniken on folklore- and I mean that most deliberately, because there are very strong parallels in both men’s “scholarship” methods.

    And the damage that Campbell has done hasn’t just been limited to folklore and English majors- far too many writers in Hollywood and elsewhere have “Hero With a 1000 Faces” based writing guides. If you really want to know one of the big reasons that so many Hollywood films suck, it’s because they are deliberately crammed into a “Hero’s Journey” format.

    I’ve been ranting about Campbell adn his pernicious for years

    • Cay Reet

      LOL … love the Erich von Däniken comparison. I think it’s pretty fitting, too.

      I’ve found books about writing more interesting when they analysed the actual structure of stories … how plots work, for instance. They usually come up with suggestions of how to raise tension and when to put in breaks for the audience (since you can’t raise tension infinitely). They’re much more about what makes the story tick and how you can get the effects you want in your book than about some kind of monomyth or suchlike which you need to follow. Instead of having those steps of the hero’s journey, they give advice on how to shape your dark moment (the moment when the hero has to realize they’ve got to go all in to win) or how to create a line of smaller climaxes without letting the tension go down completely afterwards, just giving the reader some relief, but not taking away the tension completely. Much more useful for actual writing.

      “The Anatomy of Story” by John Truby, for instance, analyses what makes modern stories work for the audience, giving examples from movies and novels that have been successful. It works with principles like the wants and needs (he calls them needs and weaknesses, but it’s the same principle) and lines up 22 steps for structuring a story, but not with a ‘they all must be there’ line. Some can be missing and the story still works. (One reason why Disney’s “Hercules” is so weak, by the way, is because his want and his need are not aligned – he is treated as if he needs to learn humility in the end, but he’s not a fame hound, he just wants to go home to his real family).

  9. Mystoriker

    It’s certainly true: Campbell isn’t the greatest writer.

    But before judging his ideas, everybody should read “The Power of Myth”. I believe anybody can understand him there. If you read it, you can criticize his ideas as you like.

    If you don’t want to read “The Power of Myth”: Please have fun in criticizing art and people, because they aren’t “falsifiable.” Certainly Science will help us learn to understand our todays life increasing (!!!) struggles with drugs, alcohol, fast food, allergys, racists, morbid individualism, Trumps and Corona etc. with only enough 1’s and 0’s. Good luck! You’ll need it.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem is that even within the book, there are many inconsistent parts. He claims that this and this is part of all myths, then he lists myths as an example, then, if you follow the myths, you see that it works out very differently in each. It’s simply not the same, not just because, to keep to an example from above, people in different myths are being eaten alive by a predator. Some die inside – so this step, not final for Campbell, is the last in their story -, some free themselves to go on, some pass on to another reality, some are saved by others. It’s a predator eating someone, which could be seen as a central theme of humanity, but it’s not a consistent trope in myths.

      As far as science goes … it already has explained most of what you list. We know that people are more likely to take drugs of any kind or develop other addictive behaviour (such as gambling or buying stuff they don’t need) when they are bored with their lives and don’t feel there’s a lot of meaning in them. Some people are growing addicted more easily than others in general and the situation in which they first comsume a drug or show other addictive behaviour also has an impact – for instance, South American tribes have consumed coca leaves (from which cocaine is made) for many centuries, but only during rituals. They didn’t develop any addiction, because any emotions caused by the drug were connected to the ritual.

      The combination of different ingredients in fast food (mostly ingredients to heighten the taste) make it taste better to us, so we can become addicted to it as well and prefer it to regular, home-made meals. In addition, a lot of people can’t cook, so they depend on preprepared meals of any kind and will not stop eating them easily.

      Allergies are earlier recognized these days (even very minor ones you usually hardly notice) and there are studies that people who live in a very clean environment are more likely to get them. With more people living in places where sanitizers are regularly used and more children not being able to regularly play in the mud or other dirty areas, it’s not a surprise allergies happen more often.

      Racism comes from xenophobia, which humans unfortunately are tending to have. Humans are afraid of ‘the other’ and try to categorize and put it away. Couple that with colonialism and the need to justify why one can walk into other people’s places and take them, you get racism – those ‘lower races’ need to be controlled and led by the ‘higher races’. What the lower races are, can be redefined, but the structure remains the same. It’s very well-understood by now.

      Individualism is bred by capitalism and the ‘American Dream’ and similar ideas. We put the individual person first, ourselves before everyone else. It’s a natural instinct to secure your own survival, but it was mellowed in the past by social structures in which the community was more important than it is today. We’re being taught that ‘greed is good’ and ‘everyone has to fend for themselves’, so we become extreme individualist only looking out for ourselves. ‘America First’, anyone?

      Trump played himself as the saviour who could make America better than the professional politicians and used the ‘average Joe’ card – the regular person who knows better than the specialist. With that coming up in so many stories, quite some people are prepared to believe it. Then he got control of your electoral college – he didn’t win the popular vote, but he got enough members of that college to vote for him. How that happened, I don’t know, but there are ways to do that (mostly bribery, but also individuals preferring Trump, no matter what their district mostly voted for). His ‘successful businessman’ image, wrong as it is, has led to hope in his followers that they, too, will be more successful under his rule. ‘Make America great again’ and so on.

      As far as Corona is concerned – the virus has been known before the pandeminc started, but only in animals. Yet, it isn’t unusual for viruses to jump species, since they reproduce in the host’s cells and can incorporate some of the host’s genetic information in the next generation. Everything else is down to how the virus spreads – Covid-19 is so dangerous, because it spreads through air and can be breathed in. Such viruses are very hard to defend against, unlike those who are only transferred through touch or bodily fluids. That, too, has been known for a while. The outright refusal of the government to lockdown early and the refusal of so many people to follow the rules, not go out without need, and wear masks, has helped enormously with the spreading.

      So, as you see, we don’t need luck, science has already come through for us.

  10. Oren Ashkenazi

    So of all the silly quotes, this one is my favorite:

    “The context and substance of Joseph Campbell’s lifework is one of the most recent diamonds on a long, long necklace of other dazzling gemstones that have been mined by humanity—from the depths, and often at great cost—since the beginning of time.”

    What cost does this person think Campbell paid, exactly? Even if you’re super racist and think of anthropology as inherently dangerous, Campbell wasn’t doing any of that personally.

  11. Mike

    > For anyone who’s unfamiliar, Sigmund Freud is the famous psychoanalyst who thought that men subconsciously want to have sex with their mothers and kill their fathers, and that women have “penis envy.”

    I’m sorry, but I stopped reading your post at this exact point. Kind of gives an impression that you may have read Campbell as cursorily as you read Freud.

    • Cay Reet

      Sorry, but this is what Freud is known for. Far from all he wrote about psychology, but what most people who haven’t studied psychology know about him. The guy who was obsessed with sexual themes, invented the Oedipus complex, and thought women were envious of men having a penis. He wrote a lot of other things, too, but those stuck – as sex themes usually will.

      • Deana

        It may be what Freud is “known for”, but it isn’t what Freud is actually “about.”

        The criticism is valid Freud is far more complex than you give him credit for. Yes, he spends a lot of time on sex, but without Freud, we quite simply do not have modern psychology at all.

        Without Campbell, we likely do not have comparative religion as a viable subject at all. He certainly makes more sense than either Levi-Strauss, Rand or Kepling.

  12. Dave L

    I referenced this post in a comment I made on Sean Carlin’s post The Road Back: Revisiting “The Writer’s Journey”

  13. David vun Kannon

    I think you overstate your case, and a part of the problem in this essay is that it can’t choose between criticising a specific work and criticising an idea.
    Sure, we can, in retrospect, criticise a work written in 1949 for being too much of its time and not enough of ours. So what. No one reads it because they can read the Vogler condensed version. No one also reads The White Goddess, by Robert Graves or The Golden Bough, by Sir George Frazer. Are you doing those next?
    What can we say about an idea used to structure some of the most beloved and profitable films of the 20th century? Most aspiring authors are more than happy to have a working template for their first efforts. If there is something to criticise here, it is that the authors never grow, not the idea.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      When I wrote my first novel it was very much in the vein of the hero’s journey. Not because I was trying to but simply because I wasn’t trying not to. I was basing my story on the books I had read up to that point, and I suppose they were all hero’s journeys. When I wrote my second novel and all the books after that, I was making an effort not to write the sort of books I’d written before, or even seen written, and those books do not have the structure described here.

  14. David vun Kannon

    Also, not that I’m any fan of Jungian psychology, but there are human ‘universals’. They are created by evolution, not drawn from a shared unconscious. For example, being scared of snakes. Laughing, smiling, etc. are also on the list. You could make an evolutionary just-so-story about why people are born with trust in old people, so the idea of a monomyth isn’t rooted in HWTF or Campbell’s personal failings, or at least, doesn’t have to be.
    You could also argue that our global culture is almost as well mixed memetically as we are genetically. In this reading, only really isolated tribes don’t know that opening the last container is going to be bad, even though they are also the ones that still have rites of coming of age that fit closely with the HWTF pattern.

  15. Andrew

    Thank you for this. I just gave this book a brief look after having heard about it so much over the years, and found it self-congratulatory and vacuous. I agree with your assessment of its shortcomings, glad to hear it’s not universally praised. It fit very well in the zeitgeist of when it was written, and it’s badly outdated by now.

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