Thoughts on Joseph Campbell

16 10 2008

          Joseph Campbell is, in many ways, the progenitor of modern mythological studies. Heavily influenced by Carl Jung, Campbell studied myths from many cultures and advanced very influential theories about why so many cultures seem to have the same mythic structures. One of these structures—the hero quest—has become so influential that even Hollywood screenwriters have followed Campbell’s formula in writing such screenplays as Star Wars and The Princess Bride, based in large part upon Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Joseph Campbell

          Campbell was not the first to propose these ideas; as stated earlier, Jung had proposed archetypes as a way of explaining so much of what we see that is common to humanity. However, Campbell was able to apply Jung’s ideas across a broader spectrum and to popularize them by writing in a more readable style. Later in his life, he did a PBS series with Bill Moyers that made him even more well-known.

          The Hero Quest is, according to Huck et al., the basis of virtually all young adult fantasy novels (and indeed of juvenile literature as a whole). Campbell’s basic argument is that all quests follow the same basic pattern:


I.          Departure

A.        Blunder—the hero chances upon a situation and is drawn into a relationship with forces not rightly understood (Dorothy in Oz).  A “herald” may appear and give the call to adventure (e.g., Glenda in Oz); often, the herald often seems dark, loathly, or judged evil by the world (frog) or a beast (white stag in Lion).

B.         The Refusal of the Call—Hero does not rise to the challenge (e.g., Arthur & Excalibur).  It can occur later in an adventure—Lotus Eaters & Circe in Odyssey

C.         Supernatural Aid

1.         The first encounter is with a protective figure, often an old crone or old man, who provides a talisman and/or advice = the benign, protecting power of destiny.

a.         SW Indians—Spider Woman, a grandmotherly dame who lives underground.

b.         Fairy godmother

c.         a goddess or witch

D.        The Crossing of the First Threshold—the first limits of the hero’s sphere

1.         The hero meets a guardian at the entrance to the zone of magnified power.  Beyond is darkness, danger, the unknown. 

2.         It may be a doorway, gate, bridge, road, or body of water, etc.  Passing it shows the hero’s willingness to go beyond.  There may be a choice in which boundary to go through.

3.         The guardian is often neutral—the hero must make the choice.

E.         The Belly of the Whale

1.         After passing the threshold, the hero is swallowed into the unknown and would have appeared to die.

a.         Red Riding Hood

b.                   Greek gods swallowed by Kronos

c.         Osiris in sarcophagus in Nile

d.         Jonah; Joseph; Christ

2.         The passage through the threshold is a form of self-annihilation and rebirth.


II.         Initiation

A.        The Road of Trials.  After crossing the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms where he must survive a succession of trials.  The supernatural helper he met earlier often aids him.

1.         Orpheus (What Dreams May Come)

2.         The labors of Hercules

3.         The dream vision

B.         The Meeting with the Goddess (Athena in Odyssey)

C.         Woman as the Temptress (Circe; Deer Woman)

D.        Atonement with the Father

E.         Apotheosis

F.         The Ultimate Boon


III.       Return

A.        Refusal of the Return (Odysseus with Circe; Lotus Eaters)

B.         The Magic Flight

C.         Rescue from Without (Glenda reappears to help Dorothy)

D.        The Crossing of the Return Threshold

E.         Master of the Two Worlds

F.         Freedom to Live


IV.       The Keys—the Ability to Live Wisely & Well, to rule the kingdom



          When the male hero returns from his quest, he get to rule; the adventure and the trials have taught him valuable skills he can then use to transform his society. Thus, Beowulf, after killing Grendel and his mother, rules for many years in relative peace—he has rid his world of the evils that destabilized the culture. Odysseus returns from his odyssey to reclaim Ithaca, drive out his rivals, and reestablish order. Jason brings back the golden fleece and gets to live as a hero and king.



Jason and the Fleece

Jason and the Fleece


          However, while this has been the generally accepted understanding of the quest motif, some have challenged it as a bit outdated. While the older myths, embedded in patriarchal systems, almost always focus on a male hero, modern writers (especially women) create female protagonists; the young woman’s quest has become a predominant motif in its own right. When we consider that of the fantasy works which have been awarded the Newbery Medal, at least half have been written by women and feature a female hero: A Wrinkle in Time, The Hero and the Crown, The Tombs of Atuan, The Grey King. I’ll be developing this is later posts.




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