The Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
Robert Holden first introduced me to Joseph Campbell in a mentoring session we had. He told me that his favorite ever video is a series produced by PBS called “The Power of Myth”. It is a series of six episodes where Bill Moyers interviews Joseph Campbell at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Wait, Skywalker Ranch? As in Star Wars? Yep, that’s right. Robert explained to me that Joseph Campbell’s work on “The Hero’s Journey” inspired much of the storylines in Star Wars. And George Lucas was a big fan of Campbell.
Star Wars has been an essential part of my own hero’s journey. There’s no doubt about it. The original Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope debuted in theaters in 1977 and I have a vague memory of going to see it in the theater with my parents. I would have been 2 ½ years old. I’m pretty sure it was the first movie I ever saw on the big screen. I vividly remember waiting in long parking lot lines to see The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I also remember getting sent home the first time we went to see Return of the Jedi because it was already sold out when we got there. When the prequels came out in 1999 I was in my early 20s. I had already graduated from college, moved out of my childhood home, and started early adulthood in a new city. One of my best childhood friends and I started a new tradition of meeting up to watch the new movies since they were such a part of our friendship growing up. In 2015 I was age 40, a husband and a dad of two girls, and the latest Star Wars trilogy came out blending a new cast of characters with the old in The Force Awakens. My childhood friend, my wife, my girls and I saw them all together in theaters, multiple times. This past December, the final movie in the last trilogy came out, The Rise of Skywalker. It doesn’t really matter what I thought of the movie itself, but it definitely felt like the end of a hero’s journey that had defined the entirety of my life up until that point.
Having just come off of 42 years of Star Wars and eleven movies (including Solo and Rogue One), when Robert told me that Joseph Campbell had largely influenced the Star Wars movies, I was hooked. Being a voracious reader, I was ready to dive right into his most well-known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. However, Robert encouraged me to start with The Power of Myth video series first. I did, I loved it and just had to move on to the book.
I just finished reading The Hero with A Thousand Faces this afternoon. It was a really hard read. Now I understand why Robert suggested the video first. Admittedly, I probably absorbed 10% and the rest was over my head. Joseph Campbell has clearly accumulated an immense amount of knowledge about fables, mythologies, fairytales and other stories. Much of the book is quotes and excerpts from mythological stories from all around the world. Campbell clearly understands the meaning behind all the elements of these stories and while he categories them inside his Hero’s Journey framework, he leaves much of the interpretation to the reader. For a novice like me that has always struggled with metaphors, poetry, Shakespeare and the like, I just trusted Campbell’s take.
I’d like to think I did grasp the bigger picture, however. The point that I took away from this book was that all of the great mythologies from around the world, from societies with no connections to one another, separated by mountains, oceans, and time, there exists the same basic theme of the Hero’s Journey. It is a journey that calls to each of us, takes us through a wild (inner spiritual) adventure, and brings us back to where we started but with a whole new way of seeing the world and ourselves.
The Hero with A Thousand Faces is a deeply spiritual book if you can get past the intensity of the esoteric and extraordinarily exhaustive mythological references. We all have a hero inside of us. Across the planet, in the vast array of cultures and societies throughout time, the journey of the hero is always the same. This book tells the story of the thousands of variations (faces) of that hero. It further validates one of my favorite Eckhart Tolle quotes that “There is and always has been only one spiritual teaching.” It is a recognition that duality are separateness are illusion. Your mind, body, heart and soul are one. All “things” in the universe are parts of a whole. Oneness. Interconnectedness.
In my love of reading I have discovered that there are books that contain truly originally ideas and content. I’ll call these foundational books. Then there are books that written based on the foundational books. The Hero with A Thousand Faces is most definitely a foundational level book. Now that I’ve read it, I can identify other books that I’ve read which clearly used the Hero’s Journey as the framework. We already know Joseph Campbell inspired Star Wars. Other examples which have been adapted in other ways include Donald Miller’s Building Your Storybrand and Steve Kamb’s Level Up Your Life. In the former, Donald Miller uses the Hero’s Journey brilliantly to help businesses devise a marketing plan to attract a client base. As one of my mentors, Brian Buffini says, “Facts tell, stories sell.” And in the latter, Steve Kamb writes an inspired book about stepping out of the mundane life and answering the call to adventure by taking action and living the life you’ve always wanted, by following the hero’s journey. I’m fairly confident that you’ve heard reference to the Hero’s Journey and once you know about it, your reticular activator will begin to notice it all around you. I know mine has.
I’m certain that as my spiritual practice develops, this book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces will become easier to understand. I’m glad I’ve made a first pass and I’m certain it’s a book I’ll return to often as I continue on the path.