King Arthur
King Arthur is one of the thousand faces of the universal hero (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, heroic myth functions on three levels:

1. The stories contained in the book

2. Campbell’s journey as a scholar

3. The reader’s experience

In other words, we read about heroic myth from a heroic scholar and, by doing so, experience the heroic for ourselves.

Reading it for the first time last month, I marveled at Campbell’s feverish prose. Take the book’s first paragraph–a sentence majestically gnarly in syntax and playful in content:

“Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of the argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challenging persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.”

I was also struck by how, like an episode of Columbo, the villain of the hero’s quest is revealed at the very beginning. Here is what we get on page 15:

“The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends and even nightmares, of the world; and his characteristics everywhere are essentially the same. He is the monster, avid for the greedy rights of “my and mine.” The havoc wrought by him is described in myth and fairytale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his own household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs seem to prosper. Self terrorized, fear haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence will liberate the land.”

This passage made my brain feel like it was bending. For someone like me living in 21st Century America, it isn’t too hard to look in the mirror and find the tyrant monster. We live in a culture that values “self achieved independence” and praises the “giants” of our society. Our culture inflates egos, and we may not notice that we are a curse to ourselves and the world “no matter how [our] affairs seem to prosper.”

I was struck by how Campbell focuses on “uncontrollable impulses to acquisition,” which made me think about the consumerist economy we inhabit. The tyrant’s greed sets him up as nature’s antagonist, which prevents him from a moment’s peace.

So who is the hero? Here’s Campbell on page 16:

The hero is the man of self achieved submission.

The book’s remaining 375 pages are a hallucinatory journey through the world of mythology that provides countless examples to illustrate this simple yet profound observation. It’s a journey I recommend wholeheartedly.

For me one of the best examples isn’t mentioned by Campbell (though I’m sure he encountered it): Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. The book’s main character, a young man in India who lived in the same time as the historical Buddha,  goes on a quest that echoes the Buddha’s life. The main character’s submission to enlightenment at the story’s conclusion illustrates perfectly Campbell’s point.

Hesse made Siddhartha another face of the Buddha. Campbell made his career a hero’s quest, from which thousands of readers launched their own journeys.

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