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Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey
By Priscilla Hobbs
Last Updated: November 1st, 2008
Joseph Campbell, a noted mythology scholar, devoted a large part of his life
(especially four often-mentioned years during the Great Depression) reading
considerable amounts of world literature: ancient mythology, fairy tales, Arthurian
romance, modernist fiction, and works of religious doctrine and philosophy. He
observed in his reading similarities that seemed to traverse time and culture. In
many stories, for example, a character ventures out on a quest to accomplish
some task and then returns home to benefit his community. This pattern, which
Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” held a prominent place in his writings. He
outlined the essential elements of this pattern in his book The Hero with a
Thousand Faces, emphasizing the pervasiveness of this one pattern in stories from
around the world.
Campbell detailed many steps in the hero’s journey, but he often summarized the
pattern in three fundamental stages: separation, ordeal, and return. Separation
pulls the hero away from his or her comfortable living area and throws him or her
into a new realm full of fantasy, metaphor, and surreal experience — an Other
Place. To enter this new realm, the hero must cross a threshold separating the
known from the unknown. The hero can be completely willing to face the quest
regardless of consequence, like Lancelot going to save Guinevere or Theseus
volunteering to slay the Minotaur. Sometimes, the hero is curious about the Other
Place and unknowingly crosses the threshold, like Pinocchio voyaging into the
Land of Play or Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
Occasionally, the hero is reluctant and must be pushed, pulled, or otherwise
forced across the threshold: Arjuna in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata is at first
unwilling to fight his kinsmen, and Hamlet refuses to avenge the death of his
Once over the threshold, the hero undergoes a series of ordeals that shapes his or
her ability, such as making friends, sparring against minor enemies, and receiving
magical items and tools needed to complete the journey. All this is in preparation
for the ultimate test against the Guardian. This character, often found near the end
of the hero’s adventure, is the ultimate trial for the hero, standing in the way of
the hero’s quested object or return, which Campbell called “the boon” — an elixir
for the hero’s village, a damsel in distress, or a piece of knowledge needed to
accomplish the mission. If the Guardian is fully defeated, the hero can easily return
home; if not, then the return is a fight or flight for the hero’s life. Once home, the
hero then must reintegrate with his or her society and share the boon.
To best understand the importance Campbell placed on the hero’s journey, it is
necessary to understand his four functions of myth. As Randy mentioned in his
previous article titled “Myth: A Definition,” Campbell believed that myths
historically served four functions: a mystical function, a cosmological function, a
sociological function, and a psychological function. This fourth function, the
psychological, Campbell described in these words: “The myth must carry the
individual through the stages of life, from birth through maturity through senility
Ms. Smith 2014 – 2015
to death […] in accord with the social order of his group” (Bliss 9). This
psychological function is the realm of the hero’s journey.
In ancient or traditional mythology, these stories often emphasized the
community. These cultures taught that the individual had a specific and often
unchangeable role in society, and the myths served as instruction and initiation for
the individual to take on that role. The journey in these myths often originated
outside the hero, initiated by the gods or by some threat to the hero’s
community: Rama submits to exile to ensure peace in the kingdom, the gods
order Aeneas to establish a settlement in Italy, and Beowulf aims to rid his people
of the threat of the dragon. With the romances of the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries, however, Campbell saw an important shift in emphasis in the hero’s
journey stories to the individual (often in the name of love for a forbidden lady).
Lancelot’s quest to rescue Guinevere, for example, in Chretian de Troyes’s
“Lancelot” or “The Knight of the Cart,” is motivated entirely by personal love and
not by any heroic duty owed to the community to rescue its queen.
This emphasis in the hero’s journey pattern has only increased in the wake of the
psychoanalytic revolution, when scholars began to seriously focus on
psychological interpretations of myth and literature. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung
identified the mythic realm with the collective unconscious, a level of the psyche
in which he thought all humans share and participate. Jung spoke often of
archetypes, primordial images that appear in all world mythologies and that he
argued originate in this collective unconscious. Drawing on the emphasis on the
individual in Arthurian romance and in Jung’s work, Campbell identified the
hero’s journey as one such archetype pointing to the psychological process by
which an individual integrates the conscious with the unconscious:
The fourth function of mythology is [now] to initiate the individual into the order
of realities of his own psyche, guiding him towards his own spiritual enrichment
and realization. […] The adventure of the Grail […]has become today for each
the unavoidable task. (Occidental 521-522)
The popular hero’s journey stories of the twentieth century focus on the
psychological aspects of the struggles of the hero. While these heroes still often
benefit their communities in some ways, the emphasis is internal: Frodo struggles
against his own inner demons induced by the power of the Ring; Luke Skywalker
resists fear, anger, and the seductive power of the Dark Side; and Harry Potter
overcomes the dark magic Voldemort has left inside his head.
Joseph Campbell may have over-emphasized the similarities in these hero’s
journey stories, going so far as labeling this pattern the monomyth and thereby
implying that all myths follow this pattern (Hero 30). Other writers have
expanded on this notion, presenting this pattern as a formula upon which all
successful stories must be written. I would object that not all myths fit perfectly
into the model Campbell outlines, and I would insist that good stories can be
written that do not follow this pattern. Even so, I agree with Campbell that the
existence of such similarities in many ancient and modern stories may tell us
something about human psychology and may provide us direction and inspiration
for finding our own place in this world.