Book review: “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell

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Book review: “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell

 

 

There is much about Joseph Campbell’s 1948 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I find problematic.

Campbell displays amazing erudition in this book and a vast knowledge of the mythologies, literatures and sacred writings of cultures from one end of the globe to the other.  Perhaps this is why so much of it, particularly the second half, seems so esoteric and arcane.

Perhaps it’s because, intellectually, I can’t keep up with him.  Perhaps it’s because such myths as virgin births don’t resonate with me.

For whatever reason, I read the first half of The Hero with a Thousand Faces with great excitement and enjoyment.  By contrast, the second half was heavy sledding.

 

“His deeds have been good”

The book’s first half deals with the archetypal hero’s journey that shows up universally in all cultures — a call to search for some treasure, the endurance of many trials, the winning of that treasure and the return of the hero, much changed, to his or her old setting.

For me, the epitome of Campbell’s look at the many ways this hero’s journey plays out in human mythology is his discussion of the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible.

According to the Bible, Job is “a simple and upright man, and fearing God, and avoiding evil.” Nonetheless, God permits him to be beset by a host of afflictions, including the deaths of his children and the loss of his fortune.  He’s left plagued by disease, sitting on a dung hill.

Job’s friends come to him, piously saying that, to deserve such horrible torments, he must have committed great sins.  Campbell writes:

But the honest, courageous, horizon-searching sufferer insists that his deeds have been good; whereupon the comforter, Elihu, charges him with blasphemy, as naming himself more just than God.

 

“Out of the whirlwind”

This, it seems to me from reading Campbell’s book, is a key part of the hero’s journey — being true to the call.  Job knows he has been a good man.  He knows he doesn’t deserve his tortures.  He doesn’t know why he’s undergoing what he’s undergoing, but he refuses to accept false judgements.

Even so, if you read the Book of Job, you see how, despite the title character’s reputation for patience, Job is anything but patient.  At least in terms of quietly accepting his fate.

He complains loud and long to God, and Campbell describes what God’s answer is:

When the Lord himself answers Job out of the whirlwind, He makes no attempt to vindicate His work in ethical terms, but only magnifies His Presence, bidding Job do likewise on earth in human emulation of the way of heaven:

“Gird up thy loins now like a man; I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayst be righteous’? Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty. Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud and abase him. Look on every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place. Hide them in the dust together; and bind their faces in secret. Then I will also confess unto thee that thine own hand can save thee.”

 

“The fact of facts”

Campbell notes that God doesn’t explain.  Instead, he offers “a thunder-and-lightning demonstration of the fact of facts, namely that man cannot measure the will of God, which derives from a center beyond the range of human categories.”  God doesn’t fit human categories.

Even so, God’s non-answer answer ultimately makes “soul-satisfying sense” to Job.  Campbell writes:

He was a hero who, by his courage in the fiery furnace, his unreadiness to break down and grovel before a popular conception of the character of the All Highest, had proven himself capable of facing a greater revelation than the one that satisfied his friends.

We cannot interpret his words of the last chapter as those of a man merely intimidated. They are the words of one who has seen something surpassing anything that has been said by way of justification. “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

 

“Tossed from the womb to fail”

For me, the Job story dovetails with much else in Campbell’s book about the hero’s journey.

Ultimately, to take the journey is to walk away from the commonplace ways of living and ways of thinking.  It’s to search out a new understanding, a deeper understanding, a truer understanding, of what it means to be human.

As Campbell delineates, this involves a death of the old way and a rebirth in the new way.  Indeed, life is a series of deaths and rebirths.

Viewed from one perspective, life is a no-win situation.  We’re born to die. Campbell notes, “The myths of failure touch us with the tragedy of life…”  And modern literature sees itself as taking a clear-eyed view of how each of us has been “tossed forth from the womb only to fail.”

 

Open to mystery

Viewed, however, from the perspective of the hero, the journey is nothing but a series of deaths and rebirths.  Success in life is to come to this understanding.

But what of the end of life?  Just as Job came face-to-face with the unknowable that is God, we come face-to-face with the unknowable of death to the only life we know.

Yet, if all human mythologies deal with this death-rebirth cycle and if all of life is a series of deaths and rebirths, then why should that pattern end when a person stops breathing?

Is what comes after death similar or even the same as what came before birth?

The key, according to my reading of Campbell, is the acceptance of the mystery — a recognition that we simply don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know how we fit into things, we don’t have any real control.

The one exception is that we can embrace this mystery or run from it.

If we run, we end up building walls around ourselves.  We wall out life with all its richness.

The only way to get at that richness is to be open to life with all its mystery and uncertainly.

To be open to life’s pain as well as joy.

That’s the treasure we, as heroes, must journey in search of.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

11.5.18

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