What if every story about heroes was actually your own?
I’ve always thought it's impossible to feel like a hero since they're portrayed as outstanding people far from normal. No matter the culture, time period, or if it comes from fiction or history, heroes are always seen as superior beings that perform extremely impressive deeds. Somehow it’s become a contradictory speech in which we’re encouraged to act like heroes since we’re children, but at the same time heroes are put in an almost unattainable pedestal, so is it even possible for us to become that? What’s the path we must follow to become these glorious figures? Actually, without knowing it, we’re heading towards that goal, since, at the end of the day, all these stories about amazing and unique heroes are just a reflection of ourselves, our history, and our reality.
I know this might sound contradictory, but there’s a reason behind it, and there wasn’t anyone better to put it into words than the great mythologist Joseph Campbell in his masterpiece The Hero with the Thousand Faces. Published for the first time in 1949, this study has been revised so many times, not only because of the impressive and complete study he makes of these characters throughout history, but also because, while doing so, he makes something no one had done before: he demystifies the figure and brings it to a more approachable level. So, what’s the book about and how does Campbell deliver his study?
At the beginning of the twentieth century, many critics and scholars started making use of diverse anthropological and psychological theories to adapt them into the study of literature and the arts. Two decades before Campbell, Vladimir Propp, a Russian linguist and anthropologist, made a study of folktales and short stories he called Morphology of the Folktale, where he shreds and names all the components of these stories to explain how all of them actually come from a shared foundation and follow the same schemes and patterns. In a similar fashion and inspired by Carl Jung’s archetypal theory, as well as Freud’s studies of dreams, Campbell presents us with a study of the hero and the path he (yes, in Campbell’s story heroes are mainly men) must follow to achieve his deeds or a task he was given by a superior being.
The book is divided into two parts, one devoted to the journey of the hero, and the other to the cosmogony or origins of this character. But before reaching the core of his study, he introduces us to a term he coined: the monomyth. Here he explains how each culture in the world developed symbols, based on their myths, to represent all the different episodes we live as individual beings and as societies. In that way, all myths share the same foundations, and heroes only represent our own ways to face different obstacles in life. We become the heroes dealing with terrible and fearsome monsters, our fears, and in that way, life itself is our journey to become heroes.
With that in mind, he goes to the first part of the book, “The Adventure of the Hero.” Through different chapters, he goes step by step into all the process the hero undergoes until he achieves his tasks. All heroes start with a call that pushes them to leave their normal life and pursue something special only they can achieve. So, the journey isn’t only literal, but a psychological process of growth this particular individual goes through to achieve the special status of being called a hero.
The second part of the book focuses on the origins and the cosmogony of the hero in the monomyth and how it spread and got introduced into the different mythologies in the world. He delves into the different archetypal origins of different heroes, from their birth to their upbringing, how this determines or not their later development as moral leaders, as well as how the many transformations and variations from story to story can be traced to that first prototype of the figure. This culminates with the universal understanding of heroes as saint-like, morally superior, and incorruptible figures.
All in all this study, besides shedding light on the different literary, religious, and folk traditions, is a guideline to understanding ourselves as a society. Even though most of us don’t abandon everything to achieve great deeds and save the world, we share with these characters the strong spirit of humanity. Despite not exploring other possibilities like female heroes or non-heteronormative scenarios, this book has helped many storytellers create their own characters. Perhaps the most famous one is George Lucas, who has stated he was inspired by Campbell's journey to create the Star Wars universe.
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