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What is the Hero with a Thousand Faces?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a non-fiction work by American author and mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. The book outlines the journey of the hero, which can be seen to share a structure throughout a number of different myths and stories around the world. Campbell illustrates that the basic structure of most stories are the same, and the value is in the way in which a story is told.

The journey of the hero is what Campbell refers to as the monomyth. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he compiles examples from a number of myths that illustrate the typical stages that a hero goes through on his journey through the story. The book compares myths from very different cultures that all have the same basic structure, including Greek myths such as the story of Ulysses, the Chinese stories of the Buddha and many Christian stories. While not all myths or stories have events that correspond to each stage, the events in stories can be broken down into the various sections of the monomyth.

Campbell breaks down stories into sections that correspond with the life of the hero. Three main sections, called separation, initiation and return, are further broken down into more subsections. In the separation section, the hero is born, grows up, and is called away on a quest or adventure of some sort. The initiation section deals with his or her completion of the quest, and the return portion of the story tells of the hero not only coming home, but also passing on what has been learned on the journey.

Within these three sections, The Hero with a Thousand Faces breaks down stories even further. There is usually a section about the birth of the hero and the circumstances surrounding this, then stories about his upbringing, and then the introduction of an older mentor figure. Stories often follow with an event that initiates the adventure, and from there the hero is faced with a number of tests or obstacles he must overcome, usually with the help of some newly made acquaintances. This builds up to a final confrontation, after which the hero leaves the adventuring world and returns home, usually with knowledge or an item he brings back.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces demonstrates how this has been a way of telling stories from the earliest days of Greek mythology up until the present. It illustrates how this time-honored storytelling tradition has become rooted in the human imagination and how it can be applied to any kind of tale without the story losing any of its mystery and power. Even though there are some stories in which this pattern may be heavily shrouded, it can still be found throughout literature and religion.

Perhaps the most well-known example of the inspiration The Hero with a Thousand Faces has provided is with the Star Wars movies. George Lucas has said that the book was in many ways the inspiration behind his space fantasy, and the events in the movie can be laid out into Campbell's template. Countless other movies, books and even songs have followed in the same pattern, which remains a timeless template with endless possibility.

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