Many of the DIY writing books I’ve been consuming over the last couple years mention Joseph Campbell’s extensive mythology analyses (written in 1949!), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and credit him with inspiring them. George Lucas says Star Wars is a result of having read Campbell’s seminal work.
I went into this book with the wrong expectations and was immediately disappointed. His 416-page work has little to do with writing. Although it labels all the familiar (and unfamiliar) legends from around the world, the connection to writing is coincidental. It’s not about how your story should be written, but how similar other stories are to each other through the ages.
So, after I realized that other books do a better job of detailing the modern writer’s journey using mythology (Vogler’s Writer’s Journey is a good example), I found myself appreciating Thousand Faces more as a series of interesting legends and myths that might inspire my own writing and not a how-to book for writers. This book is a thesis, an incredible in-depth review of hundreds of stories from the past. For me, a page with more footnotes than text better be a Terry Pratchett book and not a textbook, but you have to be impressed by the sheer amount of research that went into this book.
After the analysis, Campbell categorizes the hero and his path. We may be familiar with the Greek and Roman myths and their heroes, but Campbell uses examples from Buddhist texts and Native American oral tales to show how the hero has a call to adventure, turns it down, receives supernatural aid, crosses the first threshold, and commits in the belly of the whale (either voluntarily or otherwise).
But the journey is not simple. Relationships with mothers and fathers cause damage or offer aid. I found the Freudian dream examples not as helpful in contributing to my writing. He stops using them as the book progresses. The hero’s initiation, adventure, and return are shown in various stories.
Part II of the book is the Cosmogonic Cycle and deals more with the adventure than the adventurer. It deals with various creation myths, virgin births (there are many in ancient legends), and the various roles of the hero (warrior, lover, emperor, tyrant, redeemer, and saint).
In the Epilogue, Mr. Campbell discusses how mythology and its study in today’s world help determine our place in society. We are all the things that encompass a hero, but no person is all things.
This was a very interesting book and nice background for any story we create today. We are story creators by nature. Seeing the similarities between cultures which had no contact with each other in ancient times is amazing. I’d recommend this book as background for writers and perhaps give them story ideas. Not what I expected, Mr. Lucas.