A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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A Practical Guide to
(by Joseph Campbell)
In the long run, the most influential book of the 20th Century may 
turn out to be Joseph Campbell's THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.

It's certainly true that the book is having a major impact on 
writing and story-telling, but above all on movie-making. Aware or 
not, filmmakers like John Boorman, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, 
George Lucas, and Francis Coppola owe their successes to the ageless 
pattern that Joseph Campbell identifies in the book.

The ideas in the book are an excellent set of analytical tools.

With them you can compose a story to meet any situation, a story 
that will be dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true.

With them you can always determine what's wrong with a story that's 
floundering, and you can find a better solution to almost any story 
problem by examining the pattern laid out in the book.

There's nothing new in the book. The ideas in it are older than the 
Pyramids, older than Stonehenge, older than the earliest cave 

Campbell's contribution was to gather the ideas together, recognize 
them, articulate them, name them. He exposed the pattern for the 
first time, the pattern that lies behind every story ever told.

Campbell is a mythographer -- he writes about myths. What he 
discovered in his study of world myths is that THEY ARE ALL 
BASICALLY THE SAME STORY -- retold endlessly in infinite variation.

He discovered that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows 
the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest 
jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in 
terms of the "HERO MYTH"; the "MONOMYTH" whose principles he lays 
out in the book.

Campbell was a student of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and the 
ideas in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES are often described as 

The book is based on Jung's idea of the "Archetypes" constantly 
repeating characters who occur in the dreams of all people and the 
myths of all cultures.

Jung believed that these archetypes are reflections of the human 
mind -- that our minds divide themselves into these characters to 
play out the drama of our lives.

The repeating characters of the hero myth, such as the young hero, 
the wise old man, the shape-shifting woman, and the shadowy nemesis, 
are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as shown in 
dreams. That's why myths, and stories constructed on the 
mythological model, are always psychologically true.

Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mind, true 
maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic 
even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events.

This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories 
built on the model of THE HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES have an appeal 
that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal 
source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect 
universal concerns. They deal with universal questions like "Why was 
I born?" "What happens when I die?" "How can I overcome my life 
problems and be happy?"

The ideas in the book can be applied to understanding any human 
problem. They are a great key to life as well as being a major tool 
for dealing more effectively with a mass audience.

Christ, Hitler, Mohammed, and Buddha all understood the principles 
in the book and applied them to influence millions.

If you want to understand the ideas behind the HERO MYTH, there's no 
substitute for actually reading the book. It's an experience that 
has a way of changing people. It's also a good idea to read a lot 
of myths, but it amounts to the same thing since Campbell spends 
most of the book illustrating his point by re-telling old myths.

Campbell gives a condensed version of the hero myth on p. 245. 
However, since he uses some specialized technical terms that require 
going back to his examples in earlier chapters to find out what he's 
talking about, I've taken the liberty of amending his outline 
slightly, re-telling the hero myth in my own way. Feel free to do 
the same. Every story-teller bends the myth to his own purpose. 
That's why THE HERO

                       HAS A THOUSAND FACES

The stages of the HERO are:


Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and 
alien to its hero. If you're going to tell a story about a fish out 
of his customary element, you first have to create a contrast by 
showing him in his mundane, ordinary world. In WITNESS you see both 
the Amish boy and the policeman in their ordinary worlds before they 
are thrust into alien worlds -- the farmboy into the city, and the 
city cop into the unfamiliar countryside. In STAR WARS you see Luke 
Skywalker bored to death as a farmboy before he takes on the 


The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure. 
Maybe the land is dying, as in the Arthur stories about the search 
for the Holy Grail. In STAR WARS again, it's Princess Leia's 
holographic message to Obi Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the 
quest. In detective stories, it's the hero accepting a new case. 
In romantic comedies it could be the first sight of that special -- 
but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing/sparring 
with the remainder of the story.


Often at this point, the hero balks at the threshold of adventure. 
After all, he or she is facing the greatest of all fears -- fear of 
the unknown. At this point Luke refuses Obi Wan's call to adventure, 
and returns to his aunt and uncle's farmhouse, only to find they 
have been barbqued by the Emperor's stormtroopers. Suddenly Luke is 
no longer reluctant, and is eager to undertake the adventure. He is 


By this time many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like 
character who is the hero's mentor. In JAWS it's the crusty Robert 
Shaw character who knows all about sharks; in the mythology of the 
Mary Tyler Moore Show, it's Lou Grant. The mentor gives advice and 
sometimes magical weapons. This is Obi Wan Kenobi giving Luke 
Skywalker his father's light sabre.

The mentor can only go so far with the hero. Eventually the hero 
must face the unknown by himself. Sometimes the wise old man is 
required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the 
adventure going.


He fully enters the special world of his story for the first time. 
This is the moment at which the story takes off and the adventure 
gets going. The balloon goes up, the romance begins, the plane or 
spaceship blasts off, the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets 
out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is now committed to his 
journey... and there's no turning back.


The hero is forced to make allies and enemies in the special world, 
and to pass certain tests and challenges that are part of his 
training. In STAR WARS, the cantina is the setting for the forging 
of an important alliance with Han Solo, and the start of an 
important enmity with Jabba The Hut. In CASABLANCA, Rick's Cafe is 
the setting for the "alliances and enmities" phase, and in many 
westersn it's the saloon where these relationships are established.

The tests and challenges phase is represented in STAR WARS by the 
scene of Obi Wan teaching Luke about the Force, as Luke is made to 
learn by fighting blindfolded. The early laser battles with the 
Imperial Fighters are another test which Luke passes successfully.


The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, 
where the object of his quest is hidden. In the Arthurian stories 
the Chapel Perilous is the dangerous chamber where the seeker finds 
the Grail. In many myths the hero has to descend into hell to 
retrieve a loved one, or into a cave to fight a dragon and gain a 
treasure. It's Theseus going into the Labyrinth to face the 
Minotaur. In STAR WARS it's Luke and company being sucked into the 
Death Star where they will rescue Princess Leia. Sometimes it's the 
hero entering the headquarters of his nemesis; and sometimes it's 
just the hero going into his or her own dream world to confront his 
or hers worst fears... and overcome them.


This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He faces the 
possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a 
mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave 
waiting for the victor to emerge, it's a black moment. In STAR 
WARS, it's the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, 
where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. 
Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the 
sewage, and is held down so long the audience begins to wonder if 
he's dead. E.T. momentarily appears to die on the operating table.

This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero 
appears to die and is born again. It's a major source of the magic 
of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to 
identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the 
brink-of- -death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily 
depressed, and then we are revived by the hero's return from death.

This is the magic of any well-designed amusement park thrill ride. 
Space Mountain or The Great White Knuckler make the passengers feel 
like they're going to die, and there's a great thrill that comes 
from surviving a moment like that. This is also the trick of rites 
of passage and rites of initiation into fraternities and secret 
societies. The initiate is forced to taste death and experience 
resurrection. You're never more alive than when you think you're 
going to die.


Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, the 
hero now takes possession of the treasure he's come seeking. 
Sometimes it's a special weapon like a magic sword, or it may be a 
token like the Grail or some elixer which can heal the wounded land.

Sometimes the "sword" is knowledge and experience that leads to 
greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces.

The hero may settle a conflict with his father or with his shadowy 
nemesis. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both, as he 
discovers that the dying Darth Vader is his father, and not such a 
bad guy after all.

The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Often she is the 
treasure he's come to win or rescue, and there is often a love scene 
or sacred marriage at this point. Women in these stories (or men if 
the hero is female) tend to be SHAPE-SHIFTERS. They appear to 
change in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly 
changing aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the hero's point 
of view. The hero's supreme ordeal may grant him a better 
understanding of women, leading to a reconciliation with the 
opposite sex.


The hero's not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes 
come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces 
from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure. This is the 
chase as Luke and friends escape from the Death Star, with Princess 
Leia and the plans that will bring down Darth Vader.

If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile with his father or the 
gods, they may come raging after him at this point. This is the 
moonlight bicycle flight of Elliott and E.T. as they escape from 
"Keys" (Peter Coyote), a force representing governmental authority. 
By the end of the movie, Keys and Elliott have been reconciled, and 
it even looks like Keys will end up as Elliott's father. (The script 
not the final cut, guys).


The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his 
experience. There is often a replay here of the mock 
death-and-rebirth of stage 8, as the hero once again faces death and 
survives. Each ordeal wins him new command over the Force. He is 
transformed into a new being by his experience.


The hero comes back to his ordinary world, but his adventure would 
be meaningless unless he brought back the elixir, treasure, or some 
lesson from the special world. Sometimes it's just knowledge or 
experience, but unless he comes back with the exlixir or some boon 
to mankind, he's doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. Many 
comedies use this ending, as a foolish character refuses to learn 
his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in 
the first place.

Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just 
the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. 
Sometimes it's just coming home with a good story to tell.



The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the 
call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by 
the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he 
encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where 
he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure 
and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and 
transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with 
a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.


As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following 
the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural 
structure, and there is danger of being too obvious.

The HERO MYTH is a skeleton that should be masked with the details 
of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention 
to itself. The order of the hero's stages as given here is only one 
of many variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and 
drastically reshuffled without losing their power.

The values of the myth are what's important. The images of the 
basic version -- young heroes seeking magic swords from old wizards, 
fighting evil dragons in deep caves, etc., -- are just symbols, and 
can be changed infinitely to suit the story at hand.

The myth is easily translated to contemporary dramas, comedies, 
romances, or action-adventures by substituting modern equivalents 
for the symbolic figures and props of the hero story. The Wise Old 
Man may be a real shaman or Wizard, but he can also be any kind of 
mentor or teacher, doctor or therapist, crusty but benign boss, 
tough but fair top sargeant, parent, grandfather, etc. Modern 
heroes may not be going into caves and labyrinths to fight their 
mythical beasts, but they do enter an innermost cave by going into 
space, to the bottom of the sea, into their own minds, or into the 
depths of a modern city.

The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the 
most sophisticated drama. It grows and matures as new experiments 
are tried within its basic framework. Changing the sex and ages of 
the basic characters only makes it more interesting, and allows ever 
more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them. The basic 
characters can be combined, or divided into several figures to show 
different aspects of the same idea. The myth is infinitely 
flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of 
its magic.

And it will outlive us all.
Adapted from coverage by Chris Vogler