Should writers read The Hero with a Thousand Faces?

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been sitting on my bookshelf all year. I bought it back in January but I’ve been putting off reading it. Now, as the year end draws near, I’m finally done with it – so I thought I’d share my impressions!

What is The Hero with a Thousand Faces about?

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book by Joseph Campbell that examines world myths and argues for the existence of a “monomyth”, a sort of universal story structure. The book has influenced many fiction authors, filmmakers and game designers since its release in 1949.

The Hero’s Journey

Of the book’s two parts (Part I: The Adventure of the Hero and Part II: The Cosmogonic Cycle), the first part is the more famous. This describes what is commonly referred to as “The Hero’s Journey”, a structure that many mythic stories follow.

Campbell provides many examples of stories that follow this structure from diverse societies across the globe. Here it is:

  1. Departure
    1. The Call to Adventure
    2. Refusal of the Call
    3. Supernatural Aid
    4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
    5. The Belly of the Whale
  2. Initiation
    1. The Road of Trials
    2. The Meeting with the Goddess
    3. Woman as the Temptress
    4. Atonement with the Father
    5. Apotheosis
    6. The Ultimate Boon
  3. Return
    1. Refusal of the Return
    2. The Magic Flight
    3. Rescue from Without
    4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
    5. Master of the Two Worlds
    6. Freedom to Live

In the first act (Departure), we meet the hero in the world he has grown up in, but he is then called away from his home to go on an adventure.

In the second act (Initiation), the hero adventures into the unknown, where monsters dwell. This is the “good bit” (where all the exciting stuff happens!).

In the third act (Return), the hero returns home, and his society is changed in some way as a result of his adventure.

A quick note on pronouns

In the previous paragraph, I referred to the hero as “he”. This is how Campbell refers to the hero, and of course his work is based on traditional myths, many of which portray gender roles that we would consider dated today.

This is one reason why writers probably shouldn’t use the Hero’s Journey as a basis for their stories (or at least not without some tweaking). All stories certainly do not require a “Woman as the Temptress” moment near the midpoint!

Not a writer’s handbook

I mentioned earlier that the Hero’s Journey has been hugely influential. A particularly famous example of its use is in the Star Wars movies, with George Lucas having publicly acknowledged his debt to Campbell.

Given all the chat about the Hero’s Journey that I’ve heard in writing circles over the years, perhaps it’s understandable that I came to think of The Hero with a Thousand Faces as some sort of writer’s handbook, and this is how I initially approached it. Big mistake!

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is more like an academic study of world myths and an argument that there is a commonality between them, despite the geographical distances between the various cultures in which these myths emerged.

The book is not a guide in how to craft stories, only a study of stories that have been around for centuries or in some cases millennia.

The Writer’s Journey

The three acts of the Hero’s Journey and the events of each act are already well documented for writers both online and elsewhere. In fact, a few weeks ago I reviewed the software Plottr. Plottr actually includes the Hero’s Journey as a template that you can use!

I thought I might gain some extra understanding by going back to the original and reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces for myself. This didn’t turn out to be the case, however. The truth is that, from a writer’s perspective, a summary of the key concepts is probably enough.

Perhaps I’d have been better off reading The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Vogler takes Campbell’s ideas and then applies them in a more practical way for writers. The book started as a memo that Vogler wrote while at Disney Studios and which influenced such hit films as Aladdin and The Lion King.

Myth overload

Of course, it would be unfair to negatively review The Hero with a Thousand Faces because I expected it to be something that it’s not!

The book was still a relatively interesting read, although I must confess that as it went on I started to skim-read more and more of it.

I’m interested in myths and I did enjoy Campbell’s recounting of various mythic stories. However, each stage of the journey was exemplified with an excessive number of examples, in my opinion.

In addition, the constant jumping between mythic traditions, while necessary for his argument, was a tad overwhelming. From page to page you can go from European myths to Native American myths to Japanese myths to Maori myths, and many more besides. Your head might just explode!

Dream analysis

It’s also worth pointing out that, given the book was first published in 1949, some of the ideas in it may be a tad dated.

In particular, Campbell was big on dream analysis. He frequently references dreams throughout the book and links these to the monomyth. He also suggests that, given the commonality of myths across societies, and given how the same structure can supposedly be identified in dreams, this means something truly significant.

Maybe I’m a sceptic, but all the dream stuff came across as pseudoscience to me, and I generally skipped over it.

To sum up

There are various different story structures out there, and as a writer I’m always interested to learn how others choose to tell a story, even though I don’t believe that any one structure is “right” or even that you need to follow a particular formula to tell a story.

The Hero’s Journey is one of the more famous story structures and it’s worth learning about, but writers can gain a good understanding of it without having to battle through The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

As I said above, I’ve not read it myself, but The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler may be a better read for writers.

Until next year!

All right, next week is Christmas, so this will be my last post until 2021. Let’s hope 2021 is a better year than 2020! 😁