The Hero with a Thousand Faces Book Summary - The Hero with a Thousand Faces Book explained in key points
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The Hero with a Thousand Faces summary

Joseph Campbell

Understanding the Hero’s Journey Through Psychology and Mythology

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What is The Hero with a Thousand Faces about?

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) is a seminal work of comparative mythology. It reveals that foundational myths from around the world share similar structures and themes, which trace back to some of our earliest stories and continue to hold a strong power over us today. 

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    The Hero with a Thousand Faces
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    Stage One: The Departure

    As we embark on the hero’s journey, it’s important to know that we’re going to be dealing with mythology, which is a world of symbols and metaphors. Campbell notes that this is very much the same world as our unconscious dream state. After all, these myths are the result of the fertile human imagination, and were often created in response to our ancestors’ deepest fears and concerns. In fact, after studying the case files of the famous psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Campbell found that modern people’s dreams were still full of the same symbols and conflicts that make up the monomyth.

    So, why is this important? Because the hero’s journey is as much about unlocking inner truths as it is about slaying dragons. Along the way, the hero inevitably discovers they had everything they needed to overcome adversity and find enlightenment the whole time.

    So, let’s start at the beginning – at the first stage of the hero’s journey – which is known as the Departure. The Departure covers five steps, or subsections, in which the hero leaves the comfort of their ordinary environment and crosses the threshold into a more dreamlike world.

    The first step is known as the “Call to Adventure.” This is the moment when the hero is confronted with something that lures them away from their normal routine. It could be a mysterious stranger standing by the side of the road, or something as fantastic as a talking animal. In some cases, the hero might catch a brief glimpse of a hidden world. Either way, in symbolic terms, this encounter is also a momentary personal revelation. The hero recognizes that the call to adventure is speaking to something special that has been repressed within them – which is why the hero often greets this development with a mix of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.

    Right from the start we have a conflict, which leads us to the second step: the “Refusal of the Call.” Often, we don’t want to leave the comfort of our normal lives. We don’t want to venture forth into some new and potentially dangerous world. Or, more to the point, we don’t want to confront that scary, repressed element that lies within us.

    But for the heroes who eventually do answer the call, there is encouragement in the third step, known as “Supernatural Aid.” This often comes in the form of a mercurial elder or mentor who supplies the hero with the advice and protective amulets they need to embark on their journey. This is the character who first mentions that the hero has a “destiny” they must fulfill – that the repressed element within them is a gift that must be unlocked. The mentor figure might be the fairy godmother of children’s lore. But more often than not, they’re a mixture of friendly and menacing. Yes, they serve as guardian and guide – but also as someone who is luring the hero into danger. In Dante’s Inferno, this is the character of Virgil. In Goethe’s Faust, it’s Mephistopheles who sends the hero off to face the trials and tribulations that await.

    Essentially, this supernatural guide is leading the hero across the border into a realm of darkness and mystery, which is why the fourth step is called the “Crossing of the First Threshold.” At this point, the hero tends to encounter another menacing figure – a “threshold guardian” who challenges and wards off intruders. Numerous mythologies are populated with fearsome characters and monsters who reside on the borders of uncharted forests, oceans, jungles, or deserts.

    This brings us to the fifth and final step of the Departure stage: the “Belly of the Whale.” This is where the hero is consumed by the unknown. The first impression at this point is that, rather than capturing the power of the mysterious dark world, the hero is overcome and killed by it.

    Death is one of the most important parts of the journey. Throughout the mythologies of the world, there’s a common notion that to attain a higher state of being, the old form must cease to exist. So before the hero can continue their journey of transformation, their previous unenlightened form must be extinguished.

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    About the Author

    Joseph Campbell was a writer and professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. He devoted much of his life to studying and comparing mythologies from around the world. He compiled his results in multivolume works such as The Masks of God and Historical Atlas of World Mythology.

    Who should read The Hero with a Thousand Faces?

    • Anyone interested in storytelling
    • Fans of myths and fables
    • Writers looking for inspiration

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