Study Guide

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

By Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Introduction

Have you seen any of the Star Wars movies? Picked up a comic book? Read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games? Participated in pop culture at all in the last few centuries?

We're betting you said "yes" to at least one of these…unless you're somehow reading this from the recesses of your hermit's cave, where you do nothing except cook over an open flame and meditate. (In which case, how did you get hold of an internet connection?)

And that means you've already been exposed to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was originally published in 1949 and now coming pretty close to swallowing pop culture whole. It's a work of philosophy, but you can see its impact every time you turn on the TV or buy a ticket to a movie theater.

Smarty pants philosophers like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud have had their moments, but Joseph Campbell, who wrote the book, was interested in more than politics or religion or even human identity.

He figured out a way to connect with the cosmic awesomeness of the universe that didn't involve locking yourself in a monastery and contemplating your bellybutton lint.

So what did it involve? As you may have guessed, it involved storytelling: myths, legends, and tales of heroes that started in caves around campfires. Every culture on the planet had its own stories, and yet Campbell picked up common themes in each one: details that go way beyond the merely cultural and could be found littered all over the pop culture landscape going back to the dawn of civilization.

From stories of the Buddha to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to Anansi the Spider in Africa and Native American legends of all varieties—all of these myths share not only the same DNA, but pretty much the same skeleton.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces presents a single "monomyth," usually called the Hero's Journey, which covers the key details of all those stories and their common roots. Through them, he argues, we can get in touch with the basic Bigness of the universe and our understanding of who we are and how we fit into it.

Whoa, man.

They may seem like just stories, but they do so much more than just entertain us. They become the foundations of religions in some cases, and in all cases help us look beyond our day-to-day lives and into some serious Big Picture stuff.

The Hero's Journey is basically one big story: the story that all other stories come from. A threat arises, a hero is called, and through the quest to deal with the threat, the hero (or heroine) realizes his or her power and wisdom. At the end of the story, s/he realizes that the universe is made of up countless tiny pieces like him or her, and that s/he's ultimately an embodiment of that single all-encompassing connection.

Minds are blown, enlightenment is gained, and the hero returns home to share the good word with all the people he or she left behind.

And, as you can tell if you've picked up more than one book or watched more than one movie, you can apply ye olde Hero's Journey in some way to almost every story ever written.

And, bonus: through these various Hero's Journeys, we can begin to understand how our own lives match the Hero's Journey…and in fact how those Journeys connect us with life, the universe and everything.

It turns out that the answer to all our questions isn't the magic number "42." It's every comic book ever written.

We're not going to lie: Campbell lays down some pretty heavy stuff, and he lays it down in pretty academic language. Luckily, most of us have seen Star Wars, which – to paraphrase one of its characters – represents the first steps into a larger world. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is there to take us the rest of the way.

What is The Hero with a Thousand Faces About and Why Should I Care?

We're card carrying Lit Nerds, with the collection of bookmarks, weird reader's posture, and bottles of Old Book Smell perfume to prove it. And as such, we're big on stories—from Chaucer to Goethe to George R.R. to Rowling. We respond to the sight of a book like a dog hearing the word "walk."

We're also movie buffs—you can tell by the popcorn butter stains on our t-shirts. Give us Star Wars. Give us Star Trek. Give us A Star Is Born. Give us Jesus Christ: Superstar.

But we're willing to bet that we're not alone in this. You're probably a fan of stories—on the stage, screen, Kindle, or comic book. You probably grew up reading harrowing tales like Frog and Toad Are Friends, moved on to a little Madeleine L'Engle, and found your stride at Hogwarts like the rest of us.

Because stories are the best.

But…why? Why do we love make-believe so much? What's in these stories, old and new alike, that keeps us coming back to them whenever was have a free moment? In other words: why is it impossible to watch just one episode of Stranger Things? Why must we binge?

Joseph Campbell knows.

Part of our love of stories is simple human nature. Campbell thought that humanity's myths and stories all had common roots and that, by studying those roots, we could learn a lot about life. The 21st century has stories of heroism, just like people did in the old times. Only now, they have names like The Hunger Games and make bank at the box office.

But these stories are more than just ways for production houses to make the big bucks. These stories explain how to deal with adversity in life, and how to become better people in the process. And Campbell is going to walk you through exactly how that lesson gets told…in often the most entertaining way possible.

George Lucas, who created the Star Wars saga, was a big believer in Joseph Campbell's thought and patterned the first movie directly after the Hero's Journey. We're pretty sure it's a big reason why Star Wars has become what it's become—despite the problems the series sometimes runs into. (Jar Jar Binks, we're looking at you.)

So get reading. Don't worry, we're here to hold your hand when Campbell gets impenetrable, or when he uses his trademark zillion examples.

But hey: the only reason he's using so many examples is because the Hero's Journey is pretty much everywhere you look, whether it involves a kid named Peter Parker or an old fogey named Gandalf.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Resources

Websites

The Joseph Campbell Foundation
Campbell's website… or at least the website of the people looking after his legacy.

Campbell's Biography
A biography of Campbell from good ol' Biography.com

The Book!
Need a copy of the book itself? We got you covered.

Movie or TV Productions

Star Wars
There are no actual productions of The Hero with a Thousand Faces out there—it would be impossible—but most of our beloved movies follow the pattern pretty closely. We're going to list some of the most prominent ones here…starting with this one.

Indiana Jones
George Lucas knew his Campbell, and he applied the Hero's Journey to that other iconic film series he created.

Harry Potter
Author J.K. Rowling is no dummy, so she put a lot of Campbell into her Hero's Journey too.

The Hunger Games
There's no magic in The Hunger Games – it's straight science fiction – but it uses notions of fame and the media the same way Campbell's book uses monsters.

The Lord of the Rings
They don't get more Campbell-y than this one, courtesy of J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson.

Batman, Too
The DC universe hasn't been quite as successful as Marvel lately. But yeah…they have some skin in this game too.

The Wizard of Oz
We'll stop with the movies with maybe the most beloved version of the Hero's Journey ever.

Articles and Interviews

Star Wars, The Matrix and Joe
Here's a handy breakdown of Star Wars and The Matrix in Campbellian terms.

George Lucas Meets Campbell
Campbell's Number One fan finally gets to meet him.

And…More Star Wars
More on how Lucas pulled from Campbell to give us that galaxy far, far away.

IRL?
Here's a great piece on The Hero with a Thousand Faces explaining a seemingly mundane trip to see a band in New York.

Time
Time Magazine listed the book as one of the hundred most influential of all time.

Video

The Power of Myth
Campbell sat down with Journalist Bill Moyers for a very famous PBS documentary about his work. Here's a selection from it, courtesy of Moyers' website.

Buy It Now
If you're interested in seeing Moyers and Campbell get their myth on, the whole thing is available on DVD.

Becoming an Adult
Big Joe lays down the 411 on growing up.

Images

In Younger Days
Big Joe laying it down as a younger man.

A Cheat Sheet
Another handy guide to the Hero's Journey, with help from someone we know.