Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The disappointing hero

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This week, I have read (increasingly, skimmed) about half of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, ending with the chapter “Initiation”. Again, I find that a work that has been highly lauded, has had a great impact on thought, whatnot, is poorly reasoned, poorly written, and unconvincing.* I will not bother with the remainder.

*Disclaimer: There might or might not be more worthwhile content in the latter parts of the book.

A fatal flaw of this particular book is the psychoanalytic framework that Campbell imposes on the material, including a near obsession with sexual acts, Oedipal themes, and similar, as well as using cherry-picked dreams as support for his thesis and engaging in Jungian mysticism.* In his defense, psychoanalysis was taken much more seriously when the book was written than it is today, but even accepting a psychoanalytical framework, I suspect, the book would not stand up well to scientific scrutiny. For instance, giving examples of superficially similar stories (that might or might not have a common mental origin) or even stories with just some similar aspect** from various parts of the world, is not very convincing. How does the reader know that these stories are not (like the dreams) cherry-picked? If they are, what do they prove? Even if truly universal themes can be found, can we conclude that they go back to Campbell’s explanations? The reasoning used is usually thin, unconvincing, or specious.

*I originally intended to say that he was trying to force a square mythological peg into a round psychoanalytic hole, but that too might have been sexualized by someone like Campbell…

**I have not analyzed examples in detail, but looking back, I would particularly say that the proportion of the stories that cover even most of the entire suggested “hero’s journey” is quite small. However, the similar aspect need not even relate to one of the stations of the arc, but might well be something like presence of bodily fluids.

To boot, the information density is quite low, because most of the book appears to consist of the unreflecting retelling of myths, myth fragments, dreams, tribal customs, and similar, which seem intended to serve as proof more than illustration. It seems to be a disease in the social sciences to cover a lack of convincing arguments by just increasing the mass of text…

There might be a greater underlying principle (but then likely not psychoanalytic)—or there might be a whole lot of coincidence. (Or cherry-picking, or whatnot.) I might suggest a conclusion like “human brains have a tendency to enjoy or be fascinated with certain story elements, because they are ‘wired’ hat way”—but that would have been my claim even without reading Campbell’s book… From another perspective, at least parts of the “monomyth” just seem like natural narrative choices, e.g. in that putting a hero in an unaccustomed environment gives greater opportunities than having him remain in his familiar environment, or that a journey gives more opportunities for diverse encounters than a non-journey.

The same book written as a study on comparative mythology, the psychology of mythology, or similar, with a more scientific approach, could have been a very worthwhile read. Ditto, as a study of the characteristics of successful stories. As it is written, it is mostly pointless.


Written by michaeleriksson

September 8, 2019 at 11:51 am

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  1. […] the thing had been investigated more open-mindedly and more in it self. Note e.g. my criticisms of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and (with reservations for how much I left unread) Der Untergang des Abendlandes; how Marxism, […]

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