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The Hero-Heart in the Classroom

Updated: May 17

Joseph Campbell demonstrating in the classroom
© Joseph Campbell Foundation

I love to hear stories about when people first encountered mythology, or how they first felt themselves drawn to myth. There’s often a sense of breathless amazement and detailed recollections that accompany life’s seismic moments. For many of us, our mythic origin stories speak to when we first found the work of Joseph Campbell. 

My first encounter with Campbell’s ideas was in the late 1980s in a college English class called “Introduction to Folklore.” I was attending a large, conservative, religious university with strict oversight of course syllabi to make sure we students weren’t exposed to anything that might challenge our belief in the literal truth of scripture. Instructors had a Sunday-best dress code—suits and ties for men, skirts or dresses for women—and we all had to sign an honor code promising not only that we would behave ourselves in all the required ways, but that we would inform on any students we saw breaking the rules. I’ll never forget that Orwellian sense of living beneath a theocratic tyranny. But the Folklore class met in a small room tucked away at the end of a basement hallway in a quiet evening time slot, and the class had only fifteen or twenty students. It felt like I was able to inhabit a forgotten pocket of freedom away from the glare of religious assessment and evaluation. In an act of rebellion, which my younger self found thrilling, the professor wore blue jeans and flannel shirts. One day, in another gesture of defiance, he brought a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces to class and read it out loud to us. I don’t remember the passage he read, but I remember the electricity in the air. I felt like I was floating on it. 

The second time I encountered Campbell’s work was in another English class, but this one was at a scruffy public community college, where I enrolled after leaving the religious university. The class topic was nature writing, and one day the teacher interrupted our normal activities to march us into the media room to watch Episode 1 of The Power of Myth, “The Hero’s Adventure.” Now I could see Campbell, hear his voice out loud.

“My general formula for my students,” he said to Bill Moyers from the TV screen, “is follow your bliss! I mean, find where it is and don’t be afraid to follow it.” These words were nourishing to me as I was struggling to put my life back together after stepping away from religion. Hero, of course, phrases the idea more obliquely: “the hero-heart must be at hand” (4). Where Hero’s literary prose is highly crafted, The Power of Myth is conversational, but both works illustrate Campbell’s signature commitment to the underlying unity of mythic traditions and the diversity of expressions through which the mythic spirit speaks. 

In different voices, both works reveal Campbell’s insights about heroes, adventure, and bliss. Hero discusses bliss more objectively in the context of recurring mythic patterns, and The Power of Myth makes it practical: follow your bliss already! The implication, I think, is that following bliss has much to do with living the hero’s adventure. It’s about saying yes to its invitations, which means heeding what calls to you regardless of what anyone else says, because the alternative would shrink your soul and leave you filled with regret. Following bliss means facing fear head on and daring to see through it, past it, to the possibilities that await on the other side. It means rebellion and defiance. It means summoning your hero-heart’s reserves of courage. 

Heroism and bliss-following are lived soul experiences, psychological states marked by a willingness to risk danger on behalf of someone or something you believe in—very much like my professor who defied university rules to read Campbell to us. He put himself in real jeopardy. At that same school, I saw a group of young, muscular, angry zealots confront a beleaguered biology professor because he had dared to teach evolution. If anyone in my English class had reported the professor, he could easily have faced personal, professional, and religious retribution. But he had the courage to defy a system that was trying to control and contain him and us. By bringing Hero to that basement classroom, he brought heroism as well, literally in word and deed. In reading to us about heroes, he showed us what it meant to be one. 

Campbell died before I took either of those English classes, so in a sense he was speaking to us from beyond the veil, as he still does today through works like Hero and The Power of Myth. When my professor read to us from Hero the book had already been inspiring readers for almost forty years. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its publication, and it’s still going strong, with its unique combination of insight, awe, and wisdom. 

Neither of my teachers made Campbell a homework assignment. Neither put him on the syllabus or in any kind of test. They just saw to it that he joined us in the classroom. In so doing, they each embraced the radical, subversive heroism of educating our hearts, souls, and imaginations as well as our minds. I am forever grateful to both of them.


A collage featuring The Hero's Adventure

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 1, and The Hero With a Thousand Faces.


Latest Podcast

Pathways Podcast cover with green design and title.

In this episode of Pathways entitled, "Literary Wizardry - A Discussion with Joseph Campbell" recorded on December 15th 1970, Joseph Campbell holds a discussion session with students after his address to the student body of Sarah Lawrence College on the work of Thomas Mann. Host Bradley Olson gives an introduction and commentary after the lecture.


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. "

- Joseph Campbell -The Hero with a Thousand Faces (p1)


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1 Comment

Unknown member
Jan 08

Hi, Thanks for your article. My experience of first hearing about Joseph Campbell's work was pretty similar.

Thank you,


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