The Hero With (Slightly Less Than) 1,000 Faces
D. Paul Angel
Interim Review, currently at “Not Good”
I first heard about The Hero With a 1,000 Faces when I was at UCSB, over 20 years ago now. As with many Star Wars fans, I had heard how much George Lucas praised the book, and how much it had inspired his storytelling. So, I put Joseph Campbell’s famous tome on my reading list right then and there. I just didn’t get around to cracking it open until fairly recently.
Despite my youthful exuberance, I pretty much forgot about it for large chunks of time, until Sonia Lal over at Story Treasury wrote about her frustrations with it. My memory rekindled, and having just finished The Wheel of Time series, I replied to Sonia and we were soon reading it together via the twitters. Katherine Hajer joined us shortly thereafter, and the three of us embarked on reading about the universality of myths and their symbology across the vast expanse of human cultures.
It has been, to say the least, a trudge. Katherine and Sonia have both shared some of their early thoughts, and I frankly think that, but for the other two reading with us, we would have each cast this book aside long, long ago. Phrases such as, “it’s a product of its time” and “you have to remember the era it was written in” often come to mind. So does, “shit show.”
That Campbell rests his thesis on Freud’s theories is a rather largish problem. The only takeaway I have ever gotten from reading Freud is that he had some serious issues and wasn’t shy about projecting them on every human ever. I certainly give him gumption points, but those on the wrong side of the proverbial couch always seem to excel in those anyways. Suffice to say, if he were alive today, he would probably have already added his name to the GOP ticket.
Campbell’s fascination with Fraud Freud however is nonetheless not necessarily a fatal error, but it also isn’t his only, deeply flawed, unspoken assumption. Campbell also writes with the certainty that there is a definitive hierarchy to cultures, and that the White, Western European model of Imperialism is the pinnacle of them all. Ergo, all the other cultures are merely waystations on the way to such benighted enlightenment.
So while it is clear that Campbell has an extensive knowledge of myths from a stunning array of cultures, and shares them with encyclopedic knowledge, the symbolism is only viewed through the prism of his “civilized,” and privileged, Anglo-centric world. So, where the myths differ from his thesis, and don’t align with the Universal Story, it isn’t because different cultures may have different priorities and perspectives, it is because the cultures aren’t “advanced” enough. To be clear, I can’t give you a quote in the first half of the book where Campbell flat out says that, but the implications run throughout his writing. He has no problem though with explaining away significant differences as the effect of storytellers embellishing certain parts at the sacrifice of the true story. He does not, however, have the self awareness to realize the arrogance required to dismiss a culture’s myths for diverging from his thesis!
The sad part is, there does appear to be a lot of overlap in the various stories and myths of hundreds if not thousands of cultures spanning centuries of human awareness. Campbell’s cherry-picking to shore up his thesis, however, doesn’t give a true insight into all these stories. The stories he shares are also edited, and while I don’t know the source material well enough to know for sure, I certainly got the impression that he only shares the parts of the stories that help, leaving silent the bits and pieces that do not.
The final, huge difficulty for me, is his assumptions regarding symbolism. For him there is one, and only one, interpretation of symbols; regardless of where they are found. His view of the symbols is not only definitive, but also Universal. Needless to say he so certain of his interpretations, that he speaks of them with absolute authority despite only a modicum of support. Support which is as likely to come the dream analysis done on people mailing their dreams into a psychologist’s newspaper column as anything else. And no, I am not making that up.
There is enough fascinating similarities and differentiations in myths, legends, and stories that examining them across cultures would be a lifetime of work. As obvious as Campbell’s knowledge is, it is also blatantly clear that he cannot escape the dominating perspectives of his own addressed assumptions in discussing them. I think that is why The Hero With 1,000 Faces is so wince inducing: there is a huge, huge potential for an amazing work here, that is completely lost in the junk science of Campbell’s day.