The Hero With a Thousand Faces : Prologue


The Monomyth : Myth and Dream

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

Stories and myths of man have flourished from the beginning and will do so until the end.  They have been told to remember life and to explain.  And according to Joseph Campbell, no matter when or where you are in the world, stories and their characters remain relatively constant.  Campbell argues that, “Freud, Jung, and their followers have demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times” and that, “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream.”  A dream that, although shifts in shape, is always the one marvelously constant story – that life is a struggle, full of victories and humbling defeats yet redeemable through love and grace, magnified through beauty and passion, punctuated by birth, death, and rebirth. 

            Campbell says, “to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilization of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change . . . The so-called rites of passage which occupy such a prominent place in life of primitive society (ceremonials of birth, naming, puberty, marriage, burial, etc.), are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.”  Suddenly, the primitive and uncivilized actions of ancient and distant lands don’t seem so primitive, or distant.  They’re marvelously constant.

            So too are the roles of the hero and combatant villain. According to Campbell, “The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same.  He is the hoarder of the general benefit . . . the monster avid for the greedy rights of “my and mine” . . . and wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the rooftops, 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.” 

            The hero and his or her journey is extensive and will be discussed at a much deeper depth later, but for now, let us understand the most simple and basic element of any hero: they are a man or woman “of self-achieved submission” who must die.  Campbell says, “Within the soul, within the body solial, there must be – if [the hero is] to experience long survival – a continues ‘recurrence of birth’ to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death” because “only birth can conquer death.”  The hero’s journey brings him or her far from home, engages them against and past their “personal or local historical limitations”, then brings them home, “perfected, unspecific, universal man” – a reborn man who is able to teach, guide, and bring healing their home community.

            “The heroes of all time have gone before us,” Campbell writes in his concluding paragraph, “the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.  And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god.  And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with the world.”   


The Monomyth : Tragedy and Comedy

“’Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’  With these fateful words, Count Leo Tolstoy opened the novel of the spiritual dismemberment of his modern heroine, Anna Karenina.  During the seven decades that have elapsed since that distracted wife, mother, and blindly impassionate mistress threw herself beneath the wheels of the train – thus terminating , with the gesture symbolic of what already had happened to her soul, her tragedy of disorientation – a tumultuous and unremitting dithyramb of romances, news reports, and unrecorded cries of anguish has been going up to the honor of the bull-demon of the labyrinth: the wrathful, destructive, maddening aspect of the same god who, when benign, is the vivifying principal of the world.  Modern romance, like Greek tragedy, celebrates the mystery of dismemberment, which is life in time.  The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved.”

            Stories that end with “once upon a time,” most often end with, “happily ever after.”  They follow the traditional storyboard and cannot be taken seriously, belonging to the “never-never land of childhood,” where the young mind is protected from the “realities that will become terribly known soon enough.”  They do not represent real life as a whole, rather as a “transcendence of the universal tragedy of man,” but more importantly, they do not unite mankind, because they’re not relatable.

            The early ritual katharsis (“a purification of the community from the taints and poisons of the past year, the old contagion of sin and death”), attempted to unite the meditated mind of the community with the mystery play, with the pain and suffering and loss, and with the “continuous life that for a time inhabited it.”  Everyone in the audience understood and related to the tragic story before them, because they’d all felt it, experienced it, and survived it.  And for a time, they could sit in the same room watching the same play, and be united in the truth of truth before them – the dismemberment of life in time. 

            But life is not lost because it is not full of disaster and pain, it is also littered with joy, love, and happiness.  If tragedy “is the shattering of the forms and our attachment to the forms,” then comedy is “the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.”  Comedy, as a satire, is acceptable, because it’s a “pleasant haven of escape,” but they are also the combatant to the “dark interior way” of the tragedy: “they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs.” Which is why they are not portrayed as lifelike, but dreamlike figurations; “for the point is not that such-and-such was done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams.”  Namely, that evil and destruction will not win.  And that is an encouraging thought.

            “Life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power.”  And as mankind can unite under the suffering of life, so much more through hope and love, “like happy families, the myths and the worlds redeemed are all alike” and united together, singing with the world the “prodigious, angelic, but finally monotonous, siren music of the spheres.”