Study Guide

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Prologue

By Joseph Campbell


The Monomyth

  • Campbell jumps right in, discussing recent anthropological studies that have benefited from a mythic approach.
  • Psychology, too, he says, is down with those mythic vibes, in part because they help people – even modern people – understand what drives them.
  • He tells the story of a young American man who dreamed that he accidentally killed his father by dropping a hammer off the roof.
  • His mother comforts him in the dream, and Campbell points out how Freudian this all is.
  • He explains how the father represents danger, the mother safety, and how killing the father to enjoy the attentions of the mother was pretty much what Freud was all about.
  • You can find this idea in ancient stories such as Oedipus, whose famous complex was based on killing his father and marrying his mother.
  • Campbell talks about another dream, this one from a woman afraid of a big white horse following her.
  • The horse is sent to a barbershop and comes out as a man.
  • Campbell talks about how the dream represents the way we face our fears: leaping into the unknown where there's great danger…but also rewards and treasures too.
  • He discusses psychoanalysis, the science of reading dreams, and says that ancient cultures had their own rituals for reading dreams too.
  • Dreams, and the stories that come from them, speak to the painful transitions we experience in life: growing up, finding a spouse, working hard for the things we want, saying goodbye to family members who die, and so on.
  • Mythology provides symbols to help us understand these transitions in life, and how our triumphs and heartbreaks can be reflected in those symbols.
  • In short, if we want to know how to be brave in the face of trouble, to enjoy the good things life sends our way, and to understand why life works the way it does, we look to our myths.
  • In the modern world, we try to halt the progress of life: we want to stay young, stay strong, never grow old, and never die.
  • In Campbell's opinion, this isn't a healthy way to live.
  • Men dream of childhood heroes while being doctors and lawyers and such.
  • Women look for love while men are away.
  • According to Freud, the first half of life focuses on the rising sun: the goals and dreams we want to achieve when we head out into the world.
  • The second half of life involves an inversion of that, dealing with the eventual return to the grave.
  • He tells the Greek myth of King Minos, who was busy with being king and ignored his wife.
  • His wife fell in love with a bull and gave birth to a monster, the Minotaur, which was caged in an elaborate maze beneath King Minos's palace
  • Campbell explains that Minos, not the queen, is to blame for this because he's seduced by the material things of this world…which creates monsters.
  • Heroes are created to deal with monsters, and the rewards heroes reap aren't just for them – like Minos and his selfish pursuit of gain – but for everyone.
  • When monsters are created, they're a sign of spiritual death.
  • When heroes crush those monsters, they signal a spiritual rebirth.
  • That's the essence of the Hero's Journey.
  • The hero (or heroine) can survive adversity, brave dark paths, and fight through all their own weaknesses and self-doubts.
  • In the process, they can save the people of their community who choose a less adventurous life.
  • Campbell finishes the story of the Minotaur with the arrival of Theseus.
  • Minos's daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and turns to him for help in solving the labyrinth: just as we normal people turn to the hero for help in unraveling the labyrinth of our fears and problems.
  • Campbell breaks his chapters into individual sections, and because those sections contain specific steps in the Hero's Journey, we're not about to leave them out here.

Comedy and Tragedy

  • Modern literature, Campbell claims, is focused on failures, flaws and the shortcomings of human existence; in short, it's often tragic.
  • Comedy serves as satire, but not as any logical expression of happiness or joy.
  • Fairy tales and myths fill in that gap, providing triumph, success and fulfillment in a dramatic context, and redeeming us.

The Hero and the God

  • The arc of a mythic tale can be summed up in three words: separation, initiation, return.
  • The hero leaves the mundane world, faces challenges, gains skills and becomes an adult, only to return to his place of origin and share the bounty of what he has earned.
  • Examples follow (oh man, Campbell loves his examples): Jason and the Golden Fleece, Prometheus, the story of the Buddha, Moses, and others.
  • Campbell then lays out the basic pattern of this story, and the steps it encompasses (we're not gonna list it because each step has its own chapter).
  • He stresses the importance of the hero returning from his or her adventure to share the rewards with the whole community.
  • That's what separates a hero from a selfish person like Minos.
  • The powers the hero brings are powers that have been in him or her all the time, and only need to be brought out with the trials of his or her adventure.
  • The hero and the god are thus one and the same: mirror images of each other that the hero's journey has brought out.
  • This theme recurs in stories told throughout the world.

The World Navel

  • The purpose of the Hero's Journey is to release the power of the divine into the world: to reconnect us with the primal forces of the universe.
  • The divine energy is surrounded by the universe: The World Navel.
  • The World Navel brings both good and evil, linked together just like everything else in the universe.