Joseph Campbell's _The Hero with the Thousand Faces_ is one of the most important works ever written in the history of the study of "myth". Penned a half-century ago, it brought a (largely Jungian) psychoanalytical perspective to the study of mythology-- and of literature and through it, argued that asame basic narrative pattern could be found all myths-- and even folktales and literary texts. Campbell termed this pattern the 'monomyth' and argued that it was essentially the basic narrative form that informed all myth-making and story-telling,
of all kinds, among all cultures.
Campbell recognizes, of course, that this basic pattern-- this narrative 'archetype' (to borrow a good Jungian word) varies somewhat in different stories. But ultimately, he argues, it's based on one basic kind of story. Campbell takes the time to outline what he sees as being the basic structural components of this story-- the 'stages of the hero', which include the 'call to adventure', the various kinds of adventures that happen on the hero's quest, and the return home. Campbell spends a great deal of time talking about each of these, as well as their various substages-- in particularly psycoanalytical terms. One of the likely encounters in the monomyth, fr example, is the 'encounter with the temptress' or the encounter with the benevolent goddess, who comes to represent the mother. For each of these stages, he provides ample quotations and summaries of various myths to show that this isn't just some crazy theory-- you actually can see it operating in the stories of legend, folktale, myth, and even literature.
For those sympathetic to a psychoanalytical reading of myths, this book is highly compelling. It also seems to be compatiable with a wide range of other 20th century ideas on the nature of myth and literature, with connections to Northrop Frye's theory of archetypes (in _An Anatomy of Criticism), to the work of structural folkorists (like Vladimir Propp), and of course to the the work of Freud, Jung, and those who sought to apply their ideas to the study of story (especially Otto Rank's _The Birth of the Hero_).
While I am generally sympathetic to this kind of approach, I nonetheless feel that this classic text, important and full of insight as it is, strikes me as a bit flawed. The biggest problem I have is the fact that it just ties everything up a bit too neatly, a bit too certainly, a bit too conveniently. Campbell always chooses mythic stories that support his particular point-- or at least he interprets them in ways that seem to. Yet, there are plenty of stories out there that would seem to go against a particular point-- and many of the ones he cites could well be interpreted quite differently. Moreover, the fact the remains that, while there may be fundamental similarities among mythic narratives, there are still differences. By emphasizing the existence of the monomyth and downplaying the relevance of those differenes, Campbell seems to me to be stripping individual myths (and distinctive mythologies produced by different cultures) of their unique character and cultural relevance simply in order to fit them into his (reductionist?) theoretical framework.
Readers should also be aware that the study of mythology has moved in many new directions since this book was first published and that, in many ways, it isgetting increasingly dated. The structuralist approach to myth pioneered by Levi-Strauss and the more semiotic understandings advanced by Barthes (and others) offer compelling interpretations of what myths are and how they work... ones that have nothing to do with psychoanalysis. That's not to say that it's unimportant, irrelevant, outdated, or any of that. Quite the contrary, this book remains a classic. Still, it's hardly the be-all and end-all of myth-scholarship these days, and I would encourage readers who like this to *also* explore other theories and interpretations of myth than Cambell's.