Study Guide

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary

By Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary

Joseph Campbell launches into a lengthy blueprint for storytelling, commonly known as the Hero's Journey.

Does that sound dry? Maybe a little. But think of it as the literary equivalent of being handed a skeleton key…because this book unlocks the plot of basically every movie (and most books) ever made.

The Journey consists of a series of specific steps, laid out by Campbell one by one. He sums it all up after he talks about each step—about two-thirds of the way through the book in the chapter helpfully labeled "The Keys"—but we're gonna include an outline right here just to give you a little road map to figuring it all out.

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. Refusal of the Call
  3. Meeting the Mentor
  4. Crossing the Threshold
  5. Tests
  6. Approaching the Innermost Cave
  7. Ordeal
  8. Reward/Bliss
  9. The Road Back
  10. Resurrection
  11. Master of Two Worlds

With that in your back pocket, let's talk about how Campbell breaks it all down (and down, and down).

He starts out by discussing the notion of the Monomyth…which sounds like the villain from an Avengers movie but is actually the fact that all stories from all cultures are essentially the same, since they try to convey the universal truths of life and the way our living experiences are reflected as part of the larger universe.

Whoa. That's deep.

From there, it's straight into the Hero's Journey, which he divides into three parts: going away, being initiated, and coming back.

First, there's a call to adventure, in which the normal world is threatened and a hero rises who must go on a quest to stop it. Sometimes he or she refuses the call and bad things happen. (Remember Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru? Yeah. Don't stay on that farm, guys.)

Assuming the hero is down with the plan, he or she receives supernatural aid, most notably from the nearest convenient wizard-type. The hero eventually arrives at the first threshold: the place where the world he's known gives way to the unknown. (Dark forests and scary music are usually involved.) As he passes it, he's swallowed up or descends into "the belly of the whale," which is the symbolic center of the universe.

From there, he encounters all kinds of tests and challenges on "The Road of Trials," which kicks off the second part of the Hero's Journey. This climaxes (literally in some cases—bow chicka bow bow) with the meeting of the mother-goddess, who holds the entire universe inside her. (Sometimes things go pear-shaped, and that loving figure becomes a wicked temptress, but not always.)

The hero must atone with his father, or convenient father figure in most cases, which involves claiming the father's place in the world. With the completion of the quest comes the realization that the hero is a part of a larger universe, and understanding that everything within it—good and evil alike—are all part of the same cosmic system.

Again: whoa, that's deep.

The revelation is like a bolt of lightning and he suddenly Gets It on a universe-sharing level. That gives him or her the Ultimate Boon: the thing he or she has been looking for the whole time, and which now he or she understands has been a part of him or her the whole time.

Sometimes, the hero doesn't want to go back home but instead remain with all the snazzy power and enlightenment and possibly epic sex and whatnot. Other times, however, he heads home with all his newfound goodies: either instantly or being pursued by various demons and evil creatures.

Sometimes he needs an outside force to rescue him…but in any case the road back is a lot faster than the road there. Once he returns he exits as a master of two worlds, able to move freely between the mundane and the transcendent, and has the freedom to live in a state of enlightened grace.

Having formally spelled out the Hero's Journey, Campbell finishes his little opus with a discussion of the Cosmogonic Cycle: the creation and destruction of the universe.

We'll say it until we're blue in the face: whoa, that's deep.

It starts out one meaningless empty blob before a god or creative force endows it with shape. It's unified and perfect, but as it's populated with people, the one divides into many, which creates chaos and disorder. Eventually, that leads to a doom or end-of-the-world scenario, which brings the many back into the one and the whole cycle repeats itself.

Campbell closes with a breakdown of several types of successful hero—the tyrant, the lover, the world redeemer, the warrior, and the saint—before discussing the ultimate departure of the hero, and a little bit of hand-wringing that modern society just isn't set up for the kind of meditation that the Hero's Journey is supposed to make easy.

Yeah. Now that you've uploaded all that knowledge into your brainpan, go try applying it to various movies/books/rock operas. This bad boy works pretty much every time.