The first time I opened The Hero With A Thousand Faces I got about 120 pages in and stopped cold. I picked it up again 2 years later, and it alternated between delivering inspiration for stories and just plain blowing my mind. I’ve read it three times now and almost every page is dog-eared and many sections are underlined. What changed? I was able to look past my old meaning of God, allowing me to see Campbell’s brilliance in explaining the challenge we face today as individuals in a society built against our nature.
Campbell talks a lot about God in all the forms the idea takes, and you will have to get past your meaning on either side. Here’s a passage that should help you get around that word if you’re worried that reading anything that has the word God in it means you believe in the Christian doctrine. It’d be a shame if you let that keep you from the secrets in this book (and others).
‘Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult.’
If that offends you, don’t take it so hard. The idea of God has been around a lot longer than society has used that word for it. It’s an attempt at telling the story of existence, it’s bigger than Christianity or any religion.
Campbell begins with the introduction of the Monomyth, ‘the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story ‘ that we find in the heart of all stories, ‘together with a enchantingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.’ It’s born from our culture’s myths and dreams, lost or found in the tragedy and comedy of our lives, acted out between the heroes (you) and the gods (also you), and kept alive through eternity by the continuous creative force of the World Navel.
This sets the stage for The Adventure of The Hero. Campbell walks you through specific steps like The Call to Adventure, The Road of Trials, and The Crossing of the Return Threshold using examples from myths around the world.
Then he steps into the nature of the universe in the sections on the Cosmogenic Cycle, which are particularly fascinating.
Summing up this book in short order is harder than most. It is dense, like neutron-star dense. You could write full-blown essays on any number of sentences or paragraphs throughout the adventure. My favorite section comes in his brilliant summation of it all.
‘… it is not only that there is no hiding place for the gods from the searching telescope and microscope; there is no such society any more as the gods once supported. The social unit is not a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization. Its ideals are not those of the hieratic pantomime, making visible on earth the forms of heaven, but of the secular state, in hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources. Isolated societies, dream-bounded within a mythologically charged horizon, no longer exist except as areas to be exploited. And within the progressive societies themselves, every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay.’
This is to say that our collective stories have run out of power and we have replaced them with empty versions, a black and white reality that stands in defiance against the natural world. The challenges facing the hero used to exist past the edges of society. Stepping out of society was part of the journey, but culture wasn’t the monster to be slain. Society and culture were largely on the side of the hero, even though tyrants sometimes had to be killed.
In our day, the challenges are society and culture themselves. Our stories and myths are the monsters that must be defeated to find ourselves. The monsters no longer wait outside the edges of the campfires, hiding in the woods.
They are inside of us.
They are our rituals, our religions, our beliefs, and the controlling structures of distraction from truth that hold our society together.
‘The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed, must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.’
If you’re to find yourself in today’s world you must live a life that defies the stories that make up the fabric of our civilization. You must cast off meaninglessness and resist coercion to buy into the lies and confusion with your entire being.
The modern hero has to travel underneath our culture’s misunderstanding of what it means to be human and find secrets to set themselves free, and hopefully in turn, others.
We each have to write a new story about ourselves and our world to realize our full potential, and nothing is more difficult or more essential.