Joseph Campbell

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

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  • Features 8 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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The Hero With A Thousand Faces Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 82-page guide for “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 8 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Myth and the Unconscious and The Enlightened Hero and the Oneness of All Things.

Plot Summary

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a nonfiction work about world mythology published in 1949. Campbell, a mythology scholar and professor of literature, presents his theory of the “monomyth,” or the narrative tropes common to all storytelling traditions. The first half of the book covers the monomyth of the hero’s journey. The second half deals with similarities among a wide range of creation myths.

In his Prologue, Campbell considers why people from all geographical regions, time periods, and cultural traditions tell such similar stories. He views the monomyth as the product of the human psyche, which is encoded with Oedipal impulses and infant fears that are the subject of contemporary psychoanalytic study. Campbell draws connections between modern dreams and ancient myths, which share a common symbology and represent the insistent meaning-making of the human mind. The Prologue also begins exploring the spectrum of tragedy and comedy in myth, the role of heroes and gods, and the ultimate source of power in the universe as represented in myth, which Campbell calls “The World Navel” (40).

Part 1 traces the path of the hero’s journey, a narrative framework Campbell finds throughout mythology. Using a diverse collection of myths, Campbell shows how the hero, an archetypal protagonist, is called to his quest, receives help from supernatural figures, and crosses a threshold separating the familiar from a magical zone full of unexpected power, possibility, and danger. In the mystical world, the hero might be tested by monsters, a meeting with a goddess figure, and/or a face-off with a fatherly god. If the gods favor him, the hero might receive a reward such as marriage to the goddess, magical objects, spiritual insight, or divine status.

The hero’s journey concludes with the return from the mystical world. Campbell considers the hero’s alternatives: to remain in this mystical world, steal his boon and flee from a pursuant god, be rescued, or enjoy a peaceable journey home. Once he has come back to his community, the hero can bestow his divine blessing upon the world. He can live as an enlightened being who has experienced both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Part 2 of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is entitled “The Cosmogonic Cycle.” Campbell turns to the mythology of the universe at large, studying how various traditions discuss creation and destruction. The commonalities among cosmogonic myths, he argues, also derive from basic human psychology: The creation and dissolution of worlds mirrors a human mind passing in and out of a dream state. Campbell identifies how myths picture the creation of matter from the void, the development of life, and the role of divine power in the formation of the universe. He transitions to the motif of the virgin birth, which he locates in certain creation myths and hero myths from around the world.

The creation myth sets the foundation of many world mythologies, but after the divine manifests the made world, humanity remains on earth to create, improve, and redeem it. Chapter 3 of Part 2 returns to the model of the hero’s journey, weaving his story into the fabric of the creation narrative that precedes him. Campbell discusses the hero’s childhood narrative, which, like the adventure of his adulthood, follows a pattern of “separation—initiation—return” (30). He also considers the various forms a hero will take, such as warrior, lover, emperor, tyrant, world redeemer, or saint. Campbell concludes this chapter with a meditation on several hero deaths from various traditions. The following chapter, “Dissolutions,” brings together the death of the hero with the death of the universe. According to the myths Campbell includes here, both entities pass through a series of stages to attain oneness with the silent, eternal void from which all things emanate and into which all things are absorbed.

The Epilogue, “Myth and Society,” considers the role of mythology in previous world traditions and in modern secular culture. Whereas former cultures depended on mythology to confront mystery and attain spiritual maturity, modern Westerners have no such framework. Campbell states that the modern hero must journey within the mind to find the mystical world, the path to enlightenment, and the god within.

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