Study Guide

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Setting

By Joseph Campbell



Call it Middle Earth or Panem. Call it Hogwarts or Gotham City. Call it the Merry Old Land of Oz, or a galaxy far, far away. Call it the corner bodega at 4:30 next Tuesday.

Wherever it is, it's less about a place than what happens in it.

The Hero's Journey can be anywhere and everywhere, and you'll never see it presented quite the same way twice. The specifics are less important than the basic purpose of the landscape.

Generally speaking, it's divided into three basic stops: the known world, the unknown world and the universe beyond. Listen to it straight from the horse's (the horse in question is named Campbell) mouth:

The adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit above described:
a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.

From there, we get a pretty good 1-2-3 punch covering each of these pit stops on the road of creation.

As long as the hero perceives it as a life-changing adventure, it can be anywhere from the house next door to the far side of the universe. We'll talk about each one by one…but we need to stick to the blueprint rather than the specifics. Otherwise we're just going to get buried by examples.

Because if there's one thing Campbell loves, it's his examples.

The Known World

The first part—the known world—is the world the hero is accustomed to, where he or she grew up. It's fine, but usually a little boring, and things tend to go on there as they have for a long time. Campbell doesn't spend much time on it, except as it relates to the hero or heroine at the heart of it all.

This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the "call to adventure" —signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. (53.4)

The "zone unknown" part is coming, but you can't have an unknown unless there's something known, and something known tends to be super-boring.

It's the small town blues multiplied by a thousand. It's every dusty bus stop and one-light street corner you've ever seen. It holds nothing of interest and sometimes the hero is just going to go bust unless he can get out of there. (Don't believe us? Ask Mr. Potter about how much he loves his residence under the stairs of 4 Privet Drive.)

So we've got two things here: a get-me-outta-here mentality from the hero, and a problem in desperate need of solving. That takes the hero out of his or her sphere of comfort and perhaps makes that mundane old world a little shinier and new by the end of our hero's journey.

The Unknown World

The call to adventure gets the hero off his butt and into the larger world—going into the unknown to stop a threat to his safe little known part of it—and sending him to part two: the unknown world.

This can get pretty dark and scary, but turning back isn't an option, and as the hero moves forward, he or she gains new powers and devices to help overcome the obstacles in the way. Again: these new powers and devices can run the gamut from "spidey-senses" to "figuring out how to use the bus in a new city."

But first, let's talk about the dark and scary part (because we just love the dark and scary part). If the hero's going to grow and change into the figure she needs to become, she's going to be tested…and you can't really be tested if someone tells you the answers in advance.

Because that's just cheating.

Which brings us to the unknown world, whether it be a haunted forest, the far reaches of the universe, or crossing the railroad tracks into a different part of town. As the hero moves through it he faces challenges and tests that help him gain skills and knowledge and wisdom. Every step takes him closer to the ultimate goal.

Campbell refers to it as kind of descent: the unknown world swallowing the hero whole (yikes):

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died. (83.1)

Death, we soon learn, isn't a literal thing. It's a surrendering of the self: a humility before creation and a general notion of he truly important things instead of fleeting evils like pride and money. It all takes place in the unknown world… and by the end of it, it's not such an unknown world any more.

The World Navel

The road back isn't necessarily any different than the road there, but the hero walks it much more easily. You know this sensation—it's why the return journey of a family trip always seems somehow so much shorter:

If the hero in his triumph wins the blessing of the goddess or the god and is then explicitly commissioned to return to the world with some elixir for the restoration of society, the final stage of his adventure is supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron. (182.2)

But before we get to that, there has to be a mojo infusion: the place where the hero faces a final challenge. (Because, you know, the poor hero hasn't had enough challenges already.)

The darkness usually just gets bigger and scarier until a final point is reached. Campbell called it the World Navel—does that mean that there's World Bellybutton Lint?—but it's really just the point where the whole thing began: some inner core at the center of all creation.

Again, it can take on almost any form, but the idea beneath it is very straightforward: it bestows anything the hero needs…but most importantly the wisdom and understanding of the universe.

The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world. The miracle of this flow may be represented in physical terms as a circulation of food substance, dynamically as a streaming of energy, or spiritually as a manifestation of grace. (37.3)

That's the World Navel: the heart of it all and the point the hero has been fighting to reach for the entire adventure. Once the World Navel's reached, the hero sees that, as the Beatles sang, I am he and you are we and we are all together: that all three worlds are one and the same, and the people in them are all collective parts of a beautiful universe.

Again, there are usually specifics to lend some snazziness to that blueprint. But setting is just as important to Campbell as character, and once you understand the role that every setting in every story plays, it's really as simple as 1-2-3.

Although we still can't get over how nasty and unhygienic crawling inside the World Navel sounds.