The Hero With a Thousand Faces: Summary and Key Takeaways

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Several decades ago, a young filmmaker was inspired by this work, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, and set out to create a story that would embody the principles taught in this book.

The resulting film would not only become one of the highest grossing films of all time, when adjusted for inflation, but for many has come to fully represent Joseph Campbell’s work so completely, that it might have been created by Campbell himself.

That filmmaker was George Lucas, the hero was Luke Skywalker, and the film was Star Wars. And thanks to the success of Star Wars, the hero’s journey as it is taught in Campbell’s book, has become the centerpiece of many story structure techniques. Not only in film, but also in writing. Almost every hugely popular story has elements of the hero’s journey and it, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.

But what often gets overlooked is the effect that this academic book has had on the self development space. Because each of us constitute one of the hero’s thousand faces.

And when it comes to finding your purpose, this book can actually give you a pretty good idea of how to search for it, and how you can expect to find in your life.

About Joseph Campbell and His Book

Joseph Campbell was born in 1904, and had a blossoming interest in Native American mythology from an early age. That interest led him to other mythologies from around the world, from Greek Mythology to the legends of King Arthur, and he was the first to really identify that the archetypal hero story often plays out the same way different cultures around the world.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in 1949 by Princeton University Press, as a work of academic comparative mythology. No one knew that a relatively obscure academic book would eventually become such a huge influence, not only for storytellers, but also for those seeking personal enlightenment.

Indeed, Campbell has stretched beyond his academic origins and is now regarded more as a literary philosopher.

Time magazine listed his book as one of the 100 best and most influential books since the magazine’s publication in 1923.

Campbell has written many books about comparative mythology, but he is most well-known for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, largely due to its formulaic approach to the hero’s journey. The entire Joseph Campbell series is readily available today thanks to the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

Get it here!

So let’s take a look at a few of the key ideas.

The Monomyth

The central idea at the heart of this book is Campbell’s theory of the Monomyth. In this case, the prefects “mono-” meaning one, refers to the idea that there is only one hero myth.

It plays out more or less the same way in every instance, with only a few variations. And it is seen, in our modern day, in some of the most popular works of our time. The popularity of these stories is evidence that the Monomyth speaks to some universal aspect of our psyche.

The Hero’s Journey

Chances are you’ve heard of the hero’s journey. It’s a common trope (at least it’s common today), that involves a hero starting from a place of ordinary life, who was thrust into a chaotic world where they go on many adventures and undergoes many trials. Then, complete with everything they have learned, they returned back to where they came.

There are many steps to this process, most of which I won’t outline here. If you want a full outline, I have already written a full book on the subject of purpose in the hero’s journey.

Instead, we can group all of the steps of the hero’s journey into three basic categories:

  • The Call: at some point near the beginning of the story the hero receives a call, and encouragement to leave the life they have led, to leave the ordinary world. Sometimes it’s voluntary, and sometimes it’s not, but in every case it is the start of change for our hero, the start of the adventure.
  • The Quest: the majority of the story then takes place in the form of a quest, which is a series of trials, adventures, failures, and victories. In it, the hero also gains supernatural aid, but it is not enough. The quest is the hammer beating the steel against the anvil. It is during the quest that the hero gains strength, abilities, and a boon against evil.
  • The Return: after our hero has had many adventures, and learn many things, they returned to the place where they came, bringing with them everything they have learned. Meaning that the hero gives back what they had game to a new generation, a selfless act.

So what can we glean from this information? Well, when it comes to our purpose, we have to go through our own hero’s journey. So let’s talk about a few crucial points in our life, and how they match up with the Monomyth.

Moving Beyond the “Threshold”

After the hero receives the call to adventure, he or she crosses the first threshold, where they must leave their place of comfort, the known world, into a world of uncertainty.

This is a crucial concept understand when finding your own purpose in life. In order to become the best version of ourselves, we have to constantly be pushing ourselves out of our own threshold, outside of our comfort zone.

We see this in countless examples of those who have truly excelled in their discipline, from Michael Jordan to Michael Phelps to Steve Jobs, all have this quality in common: they continue to push themselves beyond their known limits.

For many of us, it will seemingly take very little to push us out of our comfort zone. When I first started going to the gym, simply going was discomfort enough, so I didn’t even do much exercise when I got there. I simply went, did a few exercises, and headed home. Soon that discomfort faded and I had to find a new way to challenge myself. That’s when I actually started increasing the amount of exercise I did.

Receiving the Boon

Another key concept of the hero’s journey is that after all of the struggle and strife comes the ultimate boon, the reward for going through all those trials.

It is important that we pick what truly matters, otherwise we may prioritize the wrong thing, and choose the wrong boon, much as King Midas did when he asked that everything he touched would turn to gold.

That said, do you want to have superpowers? By completing the quest and receiving the boon you have the opportunity to become superhuman when compared to your previous self.

Your own hero’s journey is your own journey towards the ultimate version of yourself.

Which brings me to my last point…

Your Hero’s Journey

Campbell says, “The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,’ Nietzsche says, ‘as though the day were here.’ It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silence of his personal despair.”

In other words, you are the hero. This is your story.

Yes, there will be trials, there will be hardships. You will have to endure things you never thought you could handle.

But imagine if the hero had never answered the call. Imagine that they had stayed home, and never left the safety of their sanctuary. If they had done that, they would not be a hero, they would not have a boon, they would not have learned anything.

The same is true of us. We must answer the call and see if the world, because that is what we are destined to do. The very fact that the hero’s journey has resonated so broadly throughout all time, and in almost all cultures, is an indication that these stories are important, and they resonate with the deep part of our self.

So answer the call. It will change your life.

Great Quotes from The Hero With A Thousand Faces

“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”

“Not all who hesitate are lost. The psyche has many secrets in reserve. And these are not disclosed unless required.”

“Perhaps some of us have to go through dark and devious ways before we can find the river of peace or the highroad to the soul’s destination.”

“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”

“It is only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

“He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable.”

“Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”

“And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal —carries the cross of the redeemer— not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”

“Only birth can conquer death—the birth , not of the old thing again, but of something new .”