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There and Back Again

The theme for July at JCF is Community, a term that draws all sorts of positive, warm and fuzzy projections today. In its broadest sense, a community is a social group with interests in common.

Nevertheless, in his description of the traditional hero’s journey as depicted in myth, Joseph Campbell seems to set the individual at odds with the larger community:

Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss. (A Joseph Campbell Companion, 21)

Is society then the villain here? Just what does Campbell mean by “community”?

Traditionally, according to Campbell, a mythology grows up within a bounded horizon, whether a tribe, a village, or a culture. "A system of mythological symbols only works if it operates in the field of a community of people who . . . share the same realm of life experience." (Thou Art That, 8)

There are two ways of living a mythologically grounded life. One way is just to live what I call “the way of the village compound,” where you remain within the sphere of your people. That can be a very strong and powerful and noble life. (An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms, 23)

Though the community may not understand the individual who craves more than what “the way of the village compound” offers, Campbell does not suggest that such a divide need be permanent—far from it.

It’s no surprise that many interpreters of the hero’s journey motif naturally focus on the beginning of the quest (hearing a Call, which often involves realizing something significant is missing in life), with the idea of encouraging their audience to risk the adventure and dare to “depart from the ordinary world,” leave one’s comfort zone and step beyond the expectations, support, and protections of society. 

Much attention is also paid to detailing the trials, ordeals, helpers, and guides one meets along the way, as well as the transformative initiatory experience that is the climax of the quest. Though this might include a literal, physical journey, the real work of initiation ultimately requires an inward turn.

On occasion, though, I notice the end of the journey gets short shrift from some who popularize it—little

more than a mention in passing, as if it just naturally follows that everything will come out right. 

Nevertheless, the hero quest Joseph Campbell explores in The Hero with a Thousand Faces has three equal movements: Separation (from the community); Transformation (physical and psychological); and Return (once again part of the community, but in a new role):

You don’t have a complete adventure unless you do get back . . . It's not an easy thing to know how to handle that return threshold; it's even more difficult than the departure threshold. But it is the same threshold. It's the threshold where that which has been missing is reintroduced to that which missed it, but didn't know it missed it. (Joseph Campbell, Archive Audio L0604 – Odysseus Discussion Q & A, 8/14/1980)

I’d like to focus on that last line, “where that which has been missing is reintroduced to that which missed it, but didn't know it missed it.”

Which begs the question: whom, exactly, is one questing for?

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.(The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 23, emphasis mine)

There is a natural tendency to think of the concept of the hero’s journey as totally subjective: I’m off on my quest, for my benefit.

But that’s not exactly how it works in myth.

Centuries ago, the Plains Miwuk in the part of California where I live told a tale of how, back in the beginning, this land was always drenched in fog. No one could see anything in the perpetual cold and gray—and none who lived there had ever seen or heard of the Sun. Then, one day, Coyote departs and wanders up into the Sierra Nevada range, where he stumbles across the Sierra Miwuk, who just happen to possess the Sun. Enraptured by its warm glow, he craftily manages to steal the golden orb and beat it on down the hill—where, eventually, an arrangement is brokered between the Plains and Sierra Miwuk that allows a balance between the sun's blistering summer heat and the cold, damp, gray of fog in winter. (We are still plagued by thick, impenetrable tule fog here, but only some 20 to 40 days of the year—thank you, Coyote!)

Coyote didn’t keep the Sun to himself in order to read in bed at night; he shared it with his community. Parzival wasn’t after the Grail so he could upgrade his coffee mug; his success on this quest healed King Amfortas and restored a blighted kingdom. Moses didn’t confront Pharaoh to secure power and riches, but to free his people.

That’s not to say mythic heroes never have selfish motives. Many may start from there (such as Han Solo in Star Wars, whose participation in Princess Leia’s rescue is secured with the promise of financial reward), but generally tend to rise to the occasion as the adventure unfolds. Contrast that with the older brothers in “The Water of Life”—one of the fairy tales preserved by the Grimm Brothers—each of whom undertakes the dangerous journey to retrieve that healing elixir with the intention of inheriting the kingdom for himself; rather than rise to the occasion both fail in their task, while the youngest prince’s quest is instead guided by his focus on restoring his father (and, by extension, the entire realm) to health.

Maybe the Hero’s Journey isn’t just all about me…

It’s a cycle of departure, tests and ordeals, a realization of some kind. It may be great. It may be little. But it gives you the sense of realization. And then the return with your realization to the society that you left and somehow contributing to it. That’s the elixir boon. (ZBS Media Interview with Joseph Campbell, 1971, emphasis mine)

That doesn’t necessarily mean you come back to the exact same circumstances and relationships. I think of fairy tales where a youngest son of a king leaves his father’s kingdom and experiences a series of adventures that culminate in marrying a princess in another kingdom, where together they rule in peace and prosperity—slightly different setting, but same vibe as where he started.

Asked whether you “go home,” Campbell responds,

The world you come back to is the one you left; otherwise, the journey isn’t complete. . . It may not be exactly the same locus, the same village, the same town, but you might say it’s the same career. You are coming back to your life. (Joseph Campbell, Archive Audio L1185, "EXPLORATIONS: Aim of the Hero’s Journey," Esalen, Big Sur, CA 11/8/83

What boon did Joseph Campbell bring back from his own hero’s journey—and with what community did he share it? We can find a sampling in JCF’s July book selection, Correspondence: 1927 – 1987, as Evans Lansing Smith observes in his introduction to this collection of Campbell’s exchanges:

The letters that were written to and about Joseph Campbell . . . come from an astonishing diversity of individuals who were touched and inspired by his books and lectures. This remarkable web of correspondents extends well beyond the halls of academia. It shows how widely influential Campbell’s work was, inspiring creative endeavors and subtle shifts in many people’s lives.

What about your community? On whose behalf do you quest?


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