Review | The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

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All the way back in 1949, Joseph Campbell wrote a book titled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The book contains hundreds of examples of stories from a wide range of mythology, including those from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Native American, and Greek (and countless other) canons.

Campbell identifies similarities in style as well as structure between the great adventure stories/mythologies throughout human history. Famously, he determines specific characteristics about the hero and his or her journey, hence the term (coined by Campbell) familiar to readers and writers alike, The Hero’s Journey. In effect, there is a very specific set of rules governing what makes a great story. And just in case I wasn’t certain of the extent of Campbell’s research, the book contains over forty pages of endnotes and other references. The man put in the research time.

Reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces came at the perfect time for me. I’d heard of it and seen it recommended to me on Amazon for quite some time, but I never took the time to actually read it. Actually, I “Wikipedia’d” it a few times, but that was the extent of that. But in finally reading the book, Campbell has helped me understand much better some of the ideas that I’ve been working out in my weekly “Books of the Bible” review posts. If you’ve read any of my recent Bible book reviews, you’ll immediately recognize that Campbell has already clearly written what I’m still trying to figure out for myself. For example:

“For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche…”

Powerful stuff.

Here are the rules governing the first great stage of the adventure story (some of it is paraphrased in my own words):

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. Initial Refusal to Heed the Call
  3. Supernatural Aid/Mentor/“Old Man” (Old man is a direct quote from Campbell.)
  4. Crossing the First Threshold
  5. Belly of the Whale (The Point When the Hero’s Death/Ultimate Failure seems Certain)

Truly, Exodus would have been the perfect story to compare with Campbell’s ruleset, but I just wrote a review of Exodus last week, so I wanted to do something different. The Karate Kid might just might be the most perfect modern example of them all (and one of my favorite movies). So I thought it might be interesting to see just how closely the writers of this movie follow Campbell’s rules.

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Young New Jersey native Daniel is called to the great land of adventure (California) by his mother. He hates it there (his initial macro-reluctance to heed the call) and would like nothing more than to move back home. The only saving grace (besides a pretty girl) is a mentor (Mr. Myagi) that he meets when he arrives. After getting into some trouble with the local bullies, Daniel’s mentor signs him up for a karate tournament. Daniel is mortified and has no faith in his ability to survive a karate tournament like that (Micro-reluctance to Heed the Call), “I cannot believe… what you got me into back there!”

But Daniel does as his mentor says and enters the tournament anyway (Crossing the First Threshold), where he manages to make it to the semifinals, further than he ever dreamed, before even hitting a snag. When he gets there, young bully Bobby cheats in a most despicable manner, kicking Daniel directly in the knee, damaging Daniel’s body seemingly beyond repair (into the Belly of the Whale, i.e., Daniel’s ultimate defeat seems certain). But just as soon as all hope is lost, Daniel’s mentor heals his leg through supernatural methods and Daniel comes back to win the tournament, his dignity, and the girl. Indeed, it’s a Hero’s Journey almost worthy of Moses.

Note: There are other rules and further stages to the story that I haven’t included in this short review, but it seems to me that these are certainly the essential components to the modern story. Maybe some other time, I can write about the further stages and which stories they apply to (Lord of the Rings comes to mind).

My final say on this book is as follows: If you’re a student of religion, mythology or philosophy, or if you are a writer (whether of music, poetry, or fiction), read this book. It contains a lot of good information.

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Thanks for reading! If you are so inclined, go pick up my book (available on Kindle or paperback) at Amazon. It’s called “Jamey Jones and the Sons of Noah.” It’s a fun science fiction book about a group of teenagers living on a planet called Kepler 438b. It’s seventy pages long, inexpensive, and it’s kinda good, even if I say so myself.  

Link: http://a.co/iMGFJUR

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