Campbell’s Universal Mythology

Among the five most important books I’ve ever read was The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. It was assigned to the other section in my high school English class, but my teacher offered me a copy, somehow sensing that I would love it. This book—in fact it is the transcription of a series of interviews Campbell participated in near the end of his life—was my first real glimpse into the all-important notion of the hero’s journey.

Seriously, you’ve gotta read this book.

Campbell’s main thesis is that all mythologies reflect the same basic storyline, one that is derived from our common evolution and biological life process. This monomyth features familiar tropes such as the call to adventure, the road of trials, the goal, and the return to the ordinary world. At its core, the hero’s journey describes a chosen individual who must face and overcome difficulty, growing in the process. In Campbell’s own words:

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.

Many would argue that the quintessential hero’s journey is of course Homer’s Odyssey. Its derivative works, from Keeley’s Ithaka to Tennyson’s Ulysses, have become classics in their own right. The most important aspect of the common storyline, however, is in realizing that it is a metaphor for the human experience of growth. Campbell speaks of the life stages of childhood, adulthood, and old age that we all experience. Desire, weakness, bravery and triumph are tropes of our literature (both sacred and profane) because they exist within ourselves.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the study of the humanities is that the more you learn, the more your classes seem to overlap, telling the same tale in various ways. This Renaissance value of the enlightened person bettering both themselves and others through broad learning is a tradition you and I are carrying on with our decision to major in or study English in any capacity. While the world no longer operates under the notion that there is one universal morality, the utility of our study is rather found in our ability to commiserate with others’ own stories and use the framework of the universal myth to address whatever unknown problems we and humanity in toto will face. In Campbell’s own words:

On this immediate level of life and structure, myths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today. The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today.

I should note that many will be familiar with Campbell’s actual magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Power of Myth is simply a shorter and more digestible version, in my opinion, and serves as a fine introduction.

Oh—and if you’re already a fan of Campbell, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is your next required reading. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around the idea of the hero’s journey, the next step is to take on factual relativism.


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