Ouch, My Head (Hero with a Thousand Faces)

Author: Matthew I. Wanner

Welcome back, once again, to the series I am tentatively calling "Layman Reads." We're revisiting and completing the Prologue of The Hero with a Thousand Faces this week.

We left off after the first part titled "Myth and Dream", where Campbell talked about personal and social dreams and dreams as myth. The somewhat difficult to follow nature of the first part continues throughout the rest of the prologue, and much of it reads like Campbell just waxing lyrical about myth, but if there's any place for that, I suppose it would have to be the prologue.

As we move into part two, “Tragedy and Comedy”, Campbell talks at some length about the importance of both in relating to life and life's eventual end. He uses Anna Karenina to argue that tragedy has greater depth because it parallels life more closely. He then makes a case for comedy that is difficult to follow.

What I find, as I read this book, is that I am not always reading it correctly. That is to say that I'm looking for the wrong things. In particular in the subchapter "The Hero and The God", Campbell compares a variety of religious mythology, that of Buddha, Christ, Prometheus, and Aeneas and I keep automatically looking at the text as though it were religious apologetics, one of the flavors that tries to say that every religion is really just a mistelling of the apologists religion of choice. What Campbell is trying to show isn't that all religion stems from the same source, but that all stories follow the same patterns. These myths simply serve as a very effective tool for doing that since they are widely known and there’s no authors to offend.

It's in the subchapter "The Hero and The God" where Campbell starts to put his earlier ramblings into some form of context and begins to lay out how the book is organized and why. He organizes the Hero's cycle, or the cycle of myth, into three parts, "separation", "initiation", and "return". He refers to these three broad parts of the cycle as the "nuclear unit of the monomyth". These call back to his talk of rites of passage in the first subchapter, where a male is separated from the boys, initiated into manhood, and returns to the group as a man. He also talks at length about Buddha's journey, leaving his father's palace, travelling, attaining enlightenment, then returning to share the path to enlightenment. Both examples are essentially the same story played out on a different scale, and indeed, he applies this nuclear unit to myth to stories of both the small and the cosmic scale, whether it's a fairy tale where a young sibling is unwanted, undergoes a trial for, or steals, some form of power, and returns to some victory over their domestic life, or Christ’s sacrifice for all mankind. Included in this subchapter is the fact that the hero can fail in their return, either by being unable to share their "enlightenment", by refusing or failing to share it in someway, or, in the case of Prometheus, facing backlash from the powers they robbed even when they are able to pass their boon on.

Finally, we are getting to some meat. I suppose I am getting frustrated with how slowly this book is getting from one place to another, Campbell really seems infatuated with hearing himself talk, but I have to admit that he is beginning to pull it all together and my earlier frustrations may have been somewhat hasty.

The final part of the prologue, titled "The World Navel" , which I'm not even going to pretend I can take seriously as a title, discusses places of spiritual importance that tie the world together. Yggdrasil, Christ's cross, The Immovable Spot. He talks about how temples and ancient cities were built as almost a replica of these places because these spots are part of the All, and the All is everywhere. It's in the name. This is honestly some pretty hippy shit, but I'm going to roll with it. I've begun to trust that he's going to take this apply it to something more concrete. I say that about a book that literally deals specifically with the abstract.

He does, somewhat pull it back around to the hero and myth. To there usually being some sort of spiritual center, a place or a deity, to myth that is surrounded by chaotic forces, as much because of the center as despite it.

That concludes the Prologue, and I'm not sure if I'm more or less confused. I think, because I type this as I read it usually, that the last week of the month, instead of or in addition to a new chapter discussion, I'm going to revisit the months reading, summarize it, and explore it in greater, more thought out detail. We're also going to be moving into the meat of the book and there should be more to discuss moving forward. Right now I am pretty much summarizing a summary.

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