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 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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