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The Hero With A Thousand Faces: A Modern Marvel

Updated: May 17

Joseph Campbell gesturing while Bill Moyers listens.
Still from The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

As the editor of the MythBlast Series, I have the privilege of introducing the new year of 2024 MythBlasts. I’m honored and humbled that you, and other readers-subscribers like you, have made the MythBlast Series so popular. Not only does it continue to grow in popularity, but we continue to experiment with themes and ideas that push at the edges of Joseph Campbell’s work in ways that make his thoughts more accessible and more relevant to contemporary culture.  

This year our theme for the MythBlast Series is “The Power of Myth.”  The Power of Myth was filmed over the last years of Campbell’s life, aired in 1988 not long after his death, and remains one of the most popular series in the history of PBS. The series consists of six-hour long episodes, and these episode titles will provide the monthly themes to which our MythBlast authors will write. You will see a few new authors writing for us in 2024, and I think that these authors help constitute our strongest group of contributors yet.

Quotes and references to Campbell’s most famous book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, were sprinkled throughout The Power of Myth series, and it just so happens that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Hero’s publication. This book has inspired millions of readers, and I suspect it may well inspire millions more.

For a book that constantly finds itself on lists of the greatest nonfiction books of all time—for example, The Greatest Books of All Time website named Hero the 348th greatest nonfiction book of all time, it made Parade Magazine’s list of The 75 Best Books of the Past 75 Years, and on Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Best Nonfiction Books, Hero clocks in at number 46—this one had a difficult time as a neonate. Reviewers were hard on Campbell and his first offering as a solo author.

It seems that the animus toward Campbell’s book was largely related to his reliance on psychoanalytic and Jungian theory. Sigmund Freud, armed with his new theory of psychoanalysis visited the U.S. only once, in 1909 to celebrate Clark University’s twentieth anniversary. America was initially cool toward psychoanalysis. Perhaps cool is putting it mildly; prominent physicians and public intellectuals routinely referred to Freud’s theory as “filth.” By the 1930s, however, psychoanalysis had grown in popularity and was even being taught in medical schools and universities. Jung’s popularity was initially more immediate in America and by the 1940s, the disciplines of art, literature, and comparative religion had embraced his theories. In addition to Campbell, Jackson Pollock, and Martha Graham, even the physicists Wolfgang Paulie and Erwin Schrodinger embraced Jung’s analytical psychology.

The old guard, the establishment figures in “institutions” such as some university literature departments or The New York Times, were nevertheless still reluctant to embrace the influences of modernism and the new abstract dialectics of the time. Twenty years earlier Ernest Hemingway, for example, had to endure largely ad hominem, dismissive attacks for The Sun Also Rises. Time magazine complained that Hemingway’s "interests appear to have grown soggy from too much sitting in cafes in the Latin quarter of Paris," the Chicago Daily Tribune said the novel is a "bushel of sensationalism and triviality," and The Springfield Republican lamented that the novel’s "extreme moral sordidness at such length defeats artistic purpose."

These sorts of scolding, smug reviews were also leveled at The Hero With A Thousand Faces. On June 26th, 1949 The New York Times published a review of Hero which consisted of mostly snide remarks without making even a grudging attempt to find sympathy with Campbell’s thesis. In that review Max Radin glibly wrote,

Mr. Campbell undertakes to reinterpret all mythologies on the basis chiefly, but not exclusively, of Jung's psychoanalytical theories. Freud is cited just as much as Jung, and Geza Roheim, Wilhelm Steckel and Otto Rank are frequently referred to. Adler is not mentioned. Apparently those who tell stories about heroes are not troubled by inferiority complexes, even as a matter of compensation-fantasy.

Certainly Mr. Campbell is not troubled by an inferiority complex, since his book is quite consciously a “key to all mythologies.”

Mr. Radin seems to have issues with the ambitious nature of Hero, and yet he seems at least a little captivated by it at the same time:

[Campbell’s] sweep in space and time is impressively broad, and his boldness is highly commendable…There is so much in this book, and the analogies and comparisons are so interesting and stimulating, that it is too bad that it is all presented in the mystical and pseudo-philosophic fog of Jung.

But ultimately, Mr. Radin could not accept Campbell’s idea that mythology has many different purposes and functions. Campbell described myth as “a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world…,” as misunderstood poetry, as allegorical instructions to help the individual accept his place in the social group, as “a group dream symptomatic of archetypal urges,” as well as being “the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights.” Mr. Radin implicitly appealed to authority by quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when he wrote, “I cannot restrain a lingering doubt.”

Finally, Mr. Radin reveals a stunning lack of imagination when he writes that Campbell makes too much out of myth:

I fancy that mythology may well be in large measure what those who made the myths—heard them, read them, or saw them depicted in the painting or statuary, apparently thought they were: tales told as tales, without any purpose, other than that of telling them.

Radin wraps up his pronouncement against Hero by penning this piece of mind-numbing nonsense:

And when we are asked to believe that the ancient Greeks or other peoples could not…introduce any fact of common experience which was not an allegory of something quite different, I am tempted to exclaim with Andrew Lang: “Who ever heard of such tales!”

In its way, I suppose, the Times was simply trying to stem the symbolist, anti-authoritarian, and potentially revolutionary tide of modernism. Change is always a difficult challenge with which to be faced, and at its core, modernism insisted that the world had to be rethought and reimagined in fundamental ways. Old authorities were no longer recognized by modernism, and its passion for novelty and feeling disposed of hidebound customs and unquestioned orthodoxies while simultaneously opening up and displaying the world’s complexity, nuance, and absurdity, a radical re-visioning that was at the same time reaching across class and economic barriers to be inclusive and uplifting, emboldening and revitalizing.

Campbell’s approach to myth was firmly rooted in the thoughts, experiments, and products of modernism, which I must emphasize was not necessarily atheistic, and his finger was on the pulse of a culture increasingly fascinated with new spiritual and metaphysical explorations like Theosophy, Christian Science, spiritualism, and the religious and philosophical systems of Asia. It was into this milieu, this zeitgeist, that Joseph Campbell, with his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, introduced a reimagined study of mythology, and made the rituals and beliefs of ancient societies relevant to contemporary life.

Thanks for reading,


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

A picture of Duncan Trussell smiling

In episode 4 of The Podcast With A Thousand Faces, initially released in November 2022, Duncan Trussell and John Bucher of the Joseph Campbell Foundation talk about Duncan's work as a comedian, and his interest in religion, mythology, artificial intelligence, and consciousness. Duncan is the host of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour Podcast and creator of the Netflix show, The Midnight Gospel.


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religion, philosphies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth."

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


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