Study Guide

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Themes

  • Identity

    The Hero's Journey is basically a quest for identity: finding out who you are and what you're capable of. The irony, Campbell observes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (like the philosophical little leprechaun that he is), is that identity keeps changing and growing and evolving.

    The heroes go out trying to figure out who they are and end up realizing that we're all connected, and identity is just another mask we wear when it suits us. The heroes succeed not because of who they are, but because they see the truth that everyone and everything is part of the same great big cosmic system.

    Whoa, man; that's deep.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does the hero's identity change to match specific cultures? Is it just the surface details that change?
    2. What happens when the hero's identity becomes cemented and no longer changes?
    3. Do the hero's companions or opponents ever change their identities? How and why?

    Chew on This

    The hero's identity drives him forward, even though it's always changing.

    The hero's identity is largely determined by the stages he is at on his journey, not from anything internal.

  • Good vs. Evil

    Like a lot of things in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Good and Evil usually aren't quite what they seem. On the surface, the hero is the good guy and he (or she) sets out on a journey to stop something evil from happening.

    But as the hero continues, he's shown that evil is just as much a part of the universe as good is, and in trying to banish it, you only make it stronger. You gotta show some love for the dark side of yourself every now and then…or else it just gets bigger and bigger.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. How does evil change to good and good to evil in the Hero's Journey?
    2. Is evil always what it appears to be in the Hero's Journey?
    3. How are external evils shown as reflections of internal fears in the Hero's Journey?
    4. How is good truly achieved in the Hero's Journey?

    Chew on This

    Evil and good move in cycles, just like the life and death of the universe.

    Good and evil can be physical places in the Hero's Journey as much as characters.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Destiny plays a pretty big hand in the The Hero with a Thousand Faces, tapping the hero or heroine on the shoulder and showing him or her the path. But it's not all set down on shining steel rails.

    The hero has to make choices, which determine his or her fate. And sometimes he or she makes the wrong one. Destiny won't be denied, but she can take a wrong turn here and there. Only by choosing wisely can the hero align his or her energies with fate and the universe.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How and where does the hero have a chance to exercise free will on the Journey?
    2. What are the consequences, both good and bad, of practicing free will?
    3. How does fate aid the hero in his or her quest? How does it hinder him or her?
    4. What is the ultimate purpose of fate in the Hero's Journey?

    Chew on This

    The hero must submit to fate in order to thrive.

    Fate teaches the hero about his or her own potential, and in order to practice that potential, the hero needs to exercise free will.

  • Mortality

    Hey, anytime there's a dangerous quest, there's going to be a little death involved. We tend to think of death as evil, since we don't want to die and don't like it when people close to us do.

    But death is really just another illusion, and immortality is one of the boons the hero might find on his or her journey. And it's not really immortality of the body, but immortality of the soul… leaving all those earthly fears behind and accepting the unending joy of the eternal cosmos.

    Don't fear the reaper, Campbell says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces—we're all part of the same team.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does mortality work in the Hero's Journey? Is it just a fear of death or is it something more?
    2. What does it mean to be immortal for Campbellian heroes?
    3. Is immortality bound to a specific location in the Hero's Journey? If so, what happens when the hero leaves that location?
    4. Who or what bestows immortality in the Hero's Journey?

    Chew on This

    Death is a true death in Campbell…a loss of self and the ability to affect the universe around us.

    Death is just a transition to another state of being, and actually reveals our true immortal selves.

  • Spirituality

    When it comes down to it, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is about spirituality…but it's not about any one specific religion.

    Campbell believes that the stories we tell are ways of symbolizing and connecting our souls to the cosmic oneness of the universe. Whether you call that God or Krishna or the Cosmic Hum, it's pretty much the whole enchilada…but because we're flawed individual beings with an inflated sense of self importance, we really get in our own way a lot as far as spirituality goes.

    The Hero's Journey is kind of an entry point to more serious spiritual considerations, a way of easing us into the serious Very Deep Thoughts that are involved.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. How do the hero's deeds reflect a growing spirituality while on the Journey?
    2. In what ways does spiritualty enhance the hero during his or her journey? In what ways does it hinder him or her?
    3. What does spirituality mean according to Campbell?

    Chew on This

    Spirituality is a means the hero uses to attain enlightenment.

    Spirituality is the goal of the hero's quest, not just a means to an end.

  • Tradition and Custom

    The Avengers, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and the Star Wars crew are all new creations, but they're actually part of a way, way older tradition. The customs we engage in are the same way: weddings, graduations, funerals, all follow an established pattern that matches the same patterns people followed hundreds and thousands of years ago.

    By understanding why ancient cultures told stories like ours, and why the traditions and customs they practice still endure, we can start to answer some of the big questions about life. It starts by studying the customs and the purpose they serve (boring), then connecting it to the way we practice them in our own lives (less boring) and looking for the common threads.

    And that's pretty much what The Hero with a Thousand Faces is all about.

    Questions About Tradition and Custom

    1. What kinds of traditions do we see in our various versions of the Hero's Journey? What purpose do they serve?
    2. Why is it important to understand the functions that older customs served in those societies?
    3. What kinds of symbols are in place with our customs? What do they represent?
    4. Is the formal blueprint for the Hero's Journey a kind of custom in and of itself? How does it benefit us to tell our stories with the same patterns?

    Chew on This

    Tradition and customs are symbols that help us the same way the symbols in the Hero's Journey do.

    The Hero's Journey constitutes a tradition in and of itself, linking us spiritually to older cultures like the Greeks and Egyptians.

  • Transformation

    Traditions and customs help keep things the same…or at least in the same spirit as the past. But life means growth and change, and that means transformation. We're never quite the same as we were a year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago.

    The heroes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces are the same way. Their adventures mean growing and changing—becoming stronger, wiser, and more skilled…and occasionally making mistakes and slipping backwards the way we all do. That's what connects them to us, with one of the fundamental truths of life.

    Transformations are going on every day; life is all about transformation. And that's actually a pretty great thing, since it helps us connect to all those bigger issues.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Are there specified points in the Hero's Journey where transformation is supposed to take place? Where and why?
    2. Does the hero stop transforming once he or she has reached the goal?
    3. Which components of the Hero's Journey (other figure, landscapes, etc.) besides the hero undergo transformations?
    4. What purpose does transformation serve in the Hero's Journey?

    Chew on This

    Transformation is a means to an end, helping the hero (and us) achieve our true selves.

    Transformation is an end unto itself, helping the world cycle and recycle constantly.

  • Coming of Age

    Above all else, The Hero with a Thousand Faces shows us how a young person becomes a grown-up: taking on adult responsibilities, gaining the skills we need to pay the bills, and otherwise accepting that s/he can't be six years old forever.

    The Hero's Journey almost always involves a coming-of-age, which is why it often involves teenagers like Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen. That's the age when you start picking up all of these skills…and the age when the training wheels come off and you get to start solving big problems all by yourself.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Is a coming of age story limited to a certain stage in the hero's life? Can "coming of age" arrive in middle age, or even later?
    2. What purpose do the mentor, the guardian of the threshold, and other figures play in coming of age?
    3. What happens after a hero or heroine comes of age? How does the journey continue, and in what ways is it complete?

    Chew on This

    Coming of age is essentially the purpose of the Hero's Journey, a microcosm of the whole thing.

    Coming of age is just one step on the Journey: a dry run to prepare you for other challenges.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    The tag says "Wisdom and Knowledge," but those aren't necessarily the same things in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

    Wisdom is understanding the greater mysteries, and having the humility to see how little our individual selves matter in the face of that all-encompassing connection. Knowledge is understanding things about the world that can help us in practical matters—and, while knowledge may lead us to wisdom, it isn't wisdom in and of itself.

    In any case, both are what the hero seeks in the midst of his or her adventures…initially as rewards, but ultimately as a means of finding that cosmic bliss promised at the end of the journey

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. How do knowledge and wisdom serve a practical purpose on the Hero's Journey?
    2. Who bestows knowledge upon the hero? How does such a boon alter the nature of the hero's quest?
    3. In what ways do knowledge and wisdom serve as obstacles rather than aids on the quest?
    4. How does gaining knowledge and experience help the hero in ways that have nothing to do with his or her quest?

    Chew on This

    Wisdom and knowledge are just stepping stones on the path to enlightenment.

    Wisdom and knowledge point the way to enlightenment, but they are also rewards unto themselves.

  • Exploration

    At the end of the day, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is all about exploration: going somewhere you've never been before and seeing what it has to offer. Again, the mileage may vary depending on the story, but it always involves venturing into new territory and learning from whatever is found there.

    Most of the time, that entails some kind of physical exploration, since the hero needs to go to a new place to find the knowledge or other cosmic goodies required by the quest. But it also involves internal exploration: finding the parts of the self that the hero may not be aware of and expanding that knowledge in order to understand just who he or she is.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What is the purpose of exploration in the Hero's Journey?
    2. In what ways do physical and spiritual exploration overlap on the Hero's Journey?
    3. What kinds of symbols or images are used to illustrate the unknown in Campbell?
    4. Why is exploration more powerful than simply receiving knowledge of the unexplored area from a mentor or guide?

    Chew on This

    Physical exploration invariably leads to spiritual exploration. The two are intertwined.

    Physical and spiritual exploration are separate paths, and the hero must attend to each in order to thrive.