Who was Joseph Campbell?
Joseph Campbell was a leading 20th Century world religion and mythology scholar. He revolutionised the way that stories and myths are understood, and has had a great impact on movies, novels, the Arts and storytelling of all kinds since his classic works were published.
Campbell was born in 1904 and died in 1987. He was raised by a family of traditional practicing Irish Catholics, and the young Campbell adopted their faith, practicing well up until his late 20’s. After this, Campbell never really lost his faith, it just changed form.
The most significant event of his youth was perhaps the fire that wrecked the family home in 1919 and killed his grandmother.
After graduating High School he attended Dartmouth College, where he initially read Biology and Maths. After a while, he decided that he preferred the humanities. It was to be a seismic shift.
After gaining an MA in Medieval Literature, he proceeded to study at various universities around the world.
In 1934 Campbell accepted a job as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught for the next 38 years until retirement in 1972.
What was his Magnum Opus (Great Work)?
Over his career, Campbell wrote extensively on myth, legend, and religion with many works attributed to his name. What he is most famous for, though, is the great work of comparative mythology, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.
This book, considered one of the great works of the 20th Century by many reviewers, was written by Campbell in 1949.
Influenced by the great depth psychologist Carl Jung, Campbell’s main thesis was that despite having a multitude of different locations, characters and stories, many of the world’s myths contain a central thread.
Campbell called it the “monomyth” (after Irish writer James Joyce’s coining of the term).
The “monomyth” is also known as the Hero’s journey.
What is the Hero’s Journey?
Campbell put it best:
“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.”
With this marvellous passage Campbell explains how the Hero is the building block for all myth, the narrative template for mythic consciousness.
In all myths and religions, you see this one story, this one narrative arc, shining out from behind the masks of the individual religions.
The arc of the Hero’s journey is laid out by Campbell in his book; he divided it into three parts:
- Separation (The Hero leaves the world of common day)
- Initiation (The Hero goes under intense trials)
- Return (The Hero returns to the common day world with boons to bestow on his fellow man)
The Hero’s journey actually has many parts to it and can get quite detailed; however this pattern above is always the same.
A fascinating fact about Joseph Campbell
During the Great Depression (1929) Campbell decided that job opportunities were not going to be plentiful, so for the next five years, till !934, he took to living in a shack in the woods in New York State.
There, he basically lived the life of a hermit, surviving on meagre rations, and reading 8 hours a day.
He later said that he “would divide the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them … I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight.”
He also commented that this period was one of the most intellectually most productive of his life.
What was Campbell’s relationship with George Lucas and Star Wars?
George Lucas, the director of and creative genius behind Star Wars, was one of the first Hollywood directors to credit Campbell’s work as a direct influence.
In fact you could say that the original Star Wars film is a direct take on A Hero With a Thousand Faces, with Luke Skywalker as the archetypal hero. You can see other archetypes in the film such as Yoda as the Wise Old Man, plus Darth Vader as representing the Jungian Shadow, the dark side.
Now obviously stories of good fighting evil have been around for millennia. It is just these characters in this formation, with this plot, that gives a big nod to Campbell’s seminal work.
What is Campbell’s legacy?
Since his death in 1987, Joseph Campbell’ star has grown even brighter. In the 20th and 21st Century, many figures have claimed to have been influenced by him:
- Novelist Dan Brown said Campbell’s work had inspired him to create the Robert Langdon character.
- As mentioned above, George Lucas and Star Wars, bringing “The Hero…” to a new audience.
- Many modern filmmakers’ work – Indiana Jones, The Matrix, Batman, The Lion King – all these have Campbellian themes.
- Many novelists, songwriters, video game creators and writers of all kinds have taken inspiration from Campbell’s work.
- Novelist Richard Adams said that novel Watership Down was heavily influenced by “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”.
However, despite “The Hero…”’s phenomenal success, many people will have heard of Campbell for a different reason, for the saying, “Follow your bliss”. Rather than being a hedonistic call to arms, the phrase was often used by Campbell to mean something higher, more spiritual.
Indeed, During his later years, when some students took him to be encouraging hedonism, Campbell is reported to have grumbled, “I should have said, ‘Follow your blisters’!
Typical of Campbell’s wit and humanity, even when being taken out of context!
Anyone who has seen a modern film or read a modern novel is dipping into Campbell’s legacy.
He lives on today, and for is all times and places.