The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Third Edition
By Joseph Campbell
Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008
Review by Carl McColman

Ever since New World Library started to bring out beautiful hardcover editions of the complete works of Joseph Campbell a few years back, I (and I suppose countless others) have been waiting for this one. If there’s one Campbell book to own, this is it (although, Joycean that I am, I must confess that for me personally A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake runs a close second). But whereas Skeleton Key, like many of Campbell’s works, is aimed at a very specific readership, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is really about not only all the great heroes of mythology… it’s about all of us, period. Just as the great heroes are for everyone, so is this book.

The book itself really needs no introduction, as it is Campbell’s masterly study of the key themes of world mythology, in the light of twentieth century knowledge including psychology. This is the book that inspired a generation of visionary artists, most notably George Lucas as he created his mythic world in Star Wars; and its influence on the revival of mythic spirituality probably is incalculable. Exploring topics ranging from apotheosis to initiation to quest to vocation, this book belongs in the library of anyone interested in the role that myth plays in art, in human development, and its continued relevance to postmodern spiritual seekers.

This edition, published a year ahead of the book’s sixtieth anniversary, is a feast. Not only is it a reasonably priced hardcover edition, but it has new features including more illustrations than ever before, a comprehensive bibliography and new annotations sprinkled throughout the text. The cover design makes its own statement about the book’s universal message: a montage of photographs of very ordinary looking people from cultures throughout the world that blend to form a hero’s face (it looks like Christ to me, but that could be my own bias).

Donate your old paperback copy (you know, the one with Luke Skywalker on the front cover) to Goodwill, and get a copy of this splendid new edition. And carry on with your heroic quest.

How to Keep a Holy Lent
Following the Ancient Path Today
Sister Joan Chittister and the Way of Paradox
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed


  1. Carl, I’m wondering if I dare attempt a reading of James Joyce. I tried the other day and was quite intimidated by the prose! ;-) Any tips for someone starting to read Joyce? Does one have to get into an altered state to understand what he means? ;-)

  2. Ned, I studied Joyce in college, so I do think it’s helpful to read him in a group or class context. If that’s not possible, then at least read him chronologically: the collection of short stories called Dubliners is easily his most accessible work, but filled with Irish humor and ironic insight. Then move on to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a semi- autobiographical masterpiece in which Joyce unpacks his odyssey from provincially-minded Catholic Irishman to a more universally-inspired acolyte of Art. From there you jump into the deep end of the pool with Ulysses, which is part love song to the city of Dublin, part comical reimagining of the Odyssey in modern form (a literary conceit which the Coen brothers raised to sublime farce in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and part breathtaking tour through the major elements of western knowledge. Whew! Finally, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, try wading through Finnegans Wake. I’ve read the entire thing (and have the book, filled with marginalia and underlining, to prove it) but I doubt if I “got” 1% of it. Filled with puns that hop from language to language in such a multi-layered way that the entire text winds up being dense if not impenetrable, it nevertheless has an almost otherworldly poetic beauty to it that cannot be “understood” so much as merely “experienced.” Kind of like mysticism.

    Incidentally, the name of my archives page — House of Breathings — comes from an image in Finnegans Wake.

    Happy reading!

  3. I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time since my original copy (published in 1968 at $3.95 per copy before there was a Luke Skywalker!) has had such a great impact on my life.

    Let’s hope the new edition brings others into the influence of its roadmap.


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