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Questioning Campbell

Updated: May 17

Joseph Campbell in a library, looking into the camera.

These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported man's life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don't know what the guide signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself.

(Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Episode 2)

Our MythBlast theme for February is “The Message of the Myth,” title of the second episode of the interview series that first aired on PBS eight months after Campbell’s passing. Given his influence on popular culture, many today are surprised to learn Joseph Campbell was little known during his lifetime, apart from a relatively small circle of influential artists, scholars, and readers. It’s The Power of Myth that is responsible for posthumously introducing Campbell and his work to the public-at-large.

The six hours of this popular series are distilled down from twenty-four hours of discussions filmed in 1985 and 1986 at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in California, and the Museum of Natural History in New York. This was not Moyers’ first encounter with Joseph Campbell: in the spring of 1981, he invited Campbell to be a guest on two episodes of Bill Moyers Journal. The overwhelming public response to these conversations provided the impetus for a more extended exploration of the aging mythologist and his ideas, before it was too late . . . and the rest is history.

MOYERS: So there is in the myth a kind of message from the unconscious to the conscious.
CAMPBELL: Right. And it takes only a little training to be able to understand the language of this vocabulary. 

(Bill Moyers Journal, April 17, 1981)

The Power of Myth programs also spawned a companion volume with the same title, edited by Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D. (Emerita Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, and former director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum).

Despite plenty of overlap, The Power of Myth book is not a transcript of the televised interviews; these are distinct, albeit related, works. This is immediately clear from their structure: the PBS series consists of six episodes, in contrast to the book’s eight chapters –– and even those chapters that share the same title as programs in the series include additional and often rearranged content. For example, “The Message of the Myth,” the program that supplies our February MythBlast theme, does not have its own chapter in the companion volume; nevertheless, much of the content from that episode appears in the book’s first two chapters (“Myth and the Modern World” and “The Journey Inward”).

Betty Sue Flowers faced a formidable task editing the book. Where Bill Moyers was able to directly engage Campbell, she instead engaged the material generated from that collaboration, though their goals were the same: to create a platform that allowed Campbell to convey “the message of the myth.”

While the book’s themes and much of the content overlap with the broadcast interviews, the questions have been moved around and many of the responses on video broken up, rearranged, and spliced together with bits and pieces taken from other episodes, as well as material that did not make it onto the screen. The result is more than just a transcript; it’s a new work, created from the same raw material, that complements rather than duplicates the PBS series.

What draws my interest are the editorial choices that lead to such differences between the video and print versions of the Power of Myth interviews (hence my title: “Questioning Campbell”). Books that Joseph Campbell authored during his lifetime are essentially solo efforts; he alone determined how best to convey the message of the myth. Interviews, on the other hand, are collaborative efforts between interviewer, subject, and often, after-the-fact, an editor.

This is more than just a passing fancy, given my role as editor of this month’s featured title, Myth and Meaning: Conversations on Mythology and Life, the most recent addition to The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. Sourced from 34 relatively obscure print and audio interviews over the last twenty years of Campbell’s life, along with 10 lengthy audience question-and-answer sessions following lectures, this is a “big picture” survey, gathering together bits and fragments of Campbell’s thoughts from many different conversations and blending those fragments into one whole. 

The fifteen years spent compiling and editing this work offered insight into the different kinds of questions (and questioners) Campbell encountered.

Of those sources, a handful are live radio interviews that aired one time on one or another local station as much as half a century ago, with no opportunity for editing before broadcast; there is a sparkle and spontaneity to these exchanges that comes through even very fuzzy audio. Others are local newspaper articles written by a reporter assigned to interview Campbell during a book tour, who may or may not have known anything about myth, or what to ask (in such moments, Campbell skillfully pivots away from generic queries, answering instead the unasked questions).

And then there are skilled interviewers who have done their homework and are willing to dive deep, allowing Campbell the time and space he needs to thoroughly cover a subject; a few of these, however, also have their own thoughts to share, and questions sometimes morph into speeches longer than Campbell’s response.

Sources also include a few lengthy taped sessions where only a small portion of the recorded discussion made it into print, along with two detailed transcripts of interviews that remain wholly unpublished, all providing insights and observations no one has seen before now. 

But my favorite sources are Q & A sessions with audience members, regular people rather than journalists, motivated to understand Campbell’s work and its relevance to their own lives. Their sincerity and desire to learn delighted Joe, which comes through in his replies.

My challenge was to sift through this wealth of material, extract the gold, and meld the results into one seemingly seamless conversation.

Naturally, it was essential to eliminate repetition, especially on topics Campbell frequently addresses. For example, he would often “set the stage” by providing a description of the four functions of mythology before launching into a more direct response to an opening question. It wouldn’t do to bore the reader with eight iterations of the same concept; nevertheless, having access to so many versions did offer considerable flexibility, allowing me to weave the best from each into the conversation.

At the same time, many of Campbell’s lengthy responses tended to cover multiple topics tangential to the specific point of an interviewer’s question, so it wasn’t unusual to discover several sentences in one answer that could serve as the perfect coda to an interrupted description culled from a completely different discussion.

Given that, I opted to compose a truly syncretic work: tickle out the constituent ideas, break them apart, and then braid them together to form a comprehensive, dynamic reflection of Campbell’s mythological perspective, taking care not to dilute his meaning or present his ideas in a scattershot pattern. No wonder the process took fifteen years!

After early efforts kept hitting a brick wall, what made the most sense was to discard the original questions and then sort Campbell's comments into separate "bins," or categories, based on the central theme of each passage. Some paragraphs could find their way into more than one bin; for example, a discussion of the Bronze Age Goddess might include references to the emergence and development of agriculture, so could fit into two different bins; much later, I'd have to decide which category fit best, or whether it was possible to split the comment into separate statements on separate subjects without doing damage to Campbell's intentions.

Of course, trying to combine insights from so many different conversations over so many years into one unified text could have come across as forced and disjointed. I believe I successfully resolved this conundrum by composing new questions to help stitch these many discrete pieces together.  

Of course, the focus of Myth and Meaning is wholly on Joseph Campbell and his ideas; the questions merely serve to get us there. Questions are generally brief and suggested by the material, or what might be missing from the material, thus bridging gaps and helping Campbell’s comments move gracefully from point A to point B to point C. The questions provide a sense of continuity and internal cohesion, serving as the strand on which are beaded Joe's observations. Whether new to Joseph Campbell’s work, or longtime aficionados, I trust readers will be pleased with the results.

Hearing the song that is beyond that of your own individual life cycle is the thing that opens you to wisdom. You can hear it in your life, interpreting it, reading it, not in terms of the calamities or boons of your individual existence, but as a message of what life is. (Joseph Campbell, Myth and Meaning, 16)

Find out more about what Campbell means by “the message of the myth” by delving into one or all of these works. You should be able to purchase the hardcover edition of Myth and Meaning at your local bookstore, as well as any of the usual online platforms, or by downloading the Ebook directly from JCF.You can order the paperback of The Power of Myth here (JCF receives a small percentage of the sale price when purchased through an Amazon affiliate link).

And all six episodes of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers can be viewed for free on JCF’s YouTube Channel.


Red Collage with a pegasus, moon, flowers and ladders.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 2, and Myth and Meaning.


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"Hearing the song that is beyond that of your own individual life cycle is the thing that opens you to wisdom. You can hear it in your life, interpreting it, reading it, not in terms of the calamities or boons of your individual existence, but as a message of what life is."

- Joseph Campbell - Myth and Meaning, p.16


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