October 2023: A Thousand Heroes With A Thousand Faces

Folklore & Fiction

The October 2020 Folklore & Fiction dispatch has been recorded as a podcast, and you can both read and listen to it here. In it, I'm writing about child lore with help from scholars Gary Alan Fine and others, author Philip Pullman, and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin. I'm also exploring the use of child lore in storycraft and providing you with an exercise on the topic.

A Thousand Heroes With A Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell was not a folklorist. Let me write that again for the folks in the back. Joseph Campbell was not a folklorist. However, I do understand why his work is so beloved. I first encountered Campbell's writing as a young woman watching The Power of Myth documentary series on PBS. It was a revelatory experience for me; a newly-minted Pagan seeking the pre-Christian roots of my spirituality. When Campbell claimed there was a universal pattern underpinning global mythology and offered a plausible description of this pattern, I believed him. When he said there were no suitable rites of passage for modern young people, I agreed with him. When George Lucas discussed the relationship between Campbell's work and Star Wars, I wanted to write like them both. So however problematic Joseph Campbell's work is from a folkloristic perspective, and at the risk of alienating my fellow scholars, I owe a debt of gratitude to that documentary and to The Hero With a Thousand Faces for instilling in me a desire to become a folklorist and storyteller. Unfortunately (for my younger self, anyway) in learning the discipline of folklore and the craft of storytelling, I came to see his work in a less flattering light.

Folklorists take particular umbrage at having Joseph Campbell counted among us because he was not trained in the discipline, and many of his ideas about folk narrative are troubling. I won't discuss them all here, but I do want to address a few issues of relevance to storytellers because The Hero's Journey is such a staple of contemporary plotting. For those who aren't familiar with it, The Hero's Journey is the universal pattern I mentioned above; a single mythical structure called a "monomyth." Campbell argued that a monomythical scaffolding underpinned all the myths of the world, and it was a natural leap from that argument to a story scaffolding that drew upon those principles. Many screenwriters have taken that leap, including the aforementioned George Lucas, and from it we have films like Star Wars, The Lion King, and The Matrix. Many authors have utilized the pattern as well, hoping it would help their stories resonate with readers. I would be remiss in my duty to you if I did not admit that it does sometimes resonate with some readers, but herein lies the problem. The monomyth itself is a flawed idea, so anything we create with it is similarly flawed.

As with my critique of Propp, I'll begin by sharing Joseph Campbell's monomythical structure with you, both as Campbell himself might have offered it and in the form it usually takes as a storytelling device. Here's the monomyth:

The Cycle of Mythology1

If you've read last month's discussion of Vladimir Propp's The Morphology of the Folktale and found similarities between that pattern and this one, you're not entirely off base, though I would hasten to point out that Propp was a folklorist, and Joseph Campbell was - again - not. However, they were both men of the early twentieth century writing during a period of scholarly inquiry characterized by structural and functional approaches that applied the principles of the scientific method to all manner of analytical tasks, even folkloristic ones. So it isn't surprising that both men would come to functional, well-structured conclusions about their respective topics and subsequently declare that they had solved for X. Now let's have a look at the story scaffolding derived from the monomyth:

Illustration of the hero's journey

If Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale has been done to death by contemporary storytellers, Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey has been done to death, reincarnated, and done to death again. For this reason alone, I don't recommend you replicate either one of these patterns whole cloth in your storytelling, but I have additional concerns about Campbell's monomyth. The first two of these are folkloristic, and I'll introduce them with an excerpt of folklorist Alan Dundes' critique of Campbell:

As apparently no folklorist has hitherto made any critique of Campbell, I should like to take this opportunity to do so. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Campbell does not really know what a myth is, and he does not really distinguish from folktale and legend, two genres that provide most of the illustrative examples in his popular Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. His illustrative examples include Little Red Riding Hood and the Porcupine subtype of Star Husband, neither of which any folklorist would dream of classifying as myth.2

Longtime Folklore & Fiction subscribers will remember my "What is a myth?" and "What is a legend?" dispatches. In them, I discuss the ways folklorists characterize myths and legends, which is quite different from Joseph Campbell's application of the genres in his writing. Campbell conflates these folk narrative types and others, and because of this, the conclusions he draws are not grounded in a clear understanding of what they are or how they are utilized in discrete cultural groups. This brings me to another of Dundes' critiques, from the same article:

It has long been a popular fantasy among amateur students of myth that all peoples share the same stories. This is clearly an example of wishful thinking. Campbell referred to the hero pattern as a universal monomyth, borrowing this vacuous portmanteau neologism from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (Campbell [1949] 1956:30n.35). On the universality issue, the empirical facts suggest otherwise. There is not one single myth that is universal, a statement that runs counter to Campbell's view.3

Clever readers might be thinking, "But Ceallaigh, you said folk narratives had many variations! You've been showing them to us for years! You told us to read them!" Well spotted, clever reader. Yes, traditional folk narratives often have many variations, but these are the result of tale transmission and not the presence of a single, ancient source. More importantly, these variations reflect cultural nuances that deserve to be appreciated in their own right and not subsumed into an overarching text. Dundes is right. The discrete cultural groups of the world - past and present - simply have not approached their heroes or their journeys in sufficiently similar ways to suggest the existence of a monomyth, and it is wishful thinking to conclude otherwise.

My third concern about Joseph Campbell's monomyth would have upset the young Ceallaigh who loved his work, since according to Campbell, I am not suited to making the hero's journey at all because I am a woman. Folklorist Maria Tatar discusses this in her excellent book The Heroine With 1001 Faces:

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His classes on comparative mythology at the then all-women’s school were in such high demand that he was soon obliged to limit enrollment to seniors. During his last year of teaching there, one of those seniors walked into his office, sat down, and said: “Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the women?” The startled professor raised his eyebrows and replied, “The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?” “I want to be the hero,” she announced.4

According to Campbell, I could be a hero's mother, his goal, his protectress, his this, or his that. What more could I want? Certainly not a measure of heroic self-actualization that did not include standing in the shadow of a dude. Tell that to the young woman who drove a transport truck all over the US to earn enough money for university, who was an international student thereafter, and who travelled to Ireland on scholarship to learn Gaeilge. Tell that to the middle-aged woman who moved into graduate housing in pursuit of a folklore PhD, is earning her sailing qualifications through Sail Canada, and will soon graduate with that PhD. Tell that to any woman who wants her own name spoken in the world and not that of her father, husband, or son.

There is another problem with Joseph Campbell's response to his student, this one equally insidious. As I've written above, Campbell asserts the existence of a monomyth when in reality, there is a great plurality of heroic narrative in myth. He also asserts that only those narratives featuring male heroes are worthy of attention. This devalues traditional narratives about women, which are often thematically different from those about men and show us different paths to heroism. Tatar explores many of these in her book, but I am especially captivated by her discussion of the relationship between domestic crafts, storytelling, and justice. Here is part of the introduction to it:

What did Philomela do after being brutally raped and having her tongue cut out but weave a tapestry revealing the crimes of her brother-in-law, Tereus? Arachne bravely worked the sexual assaults of Zeus and other gods into the tapestry she wove in competition with Athena. And in the old wives’ tales from times past, women in witness stories—the British “Mr. Fox,” the Armenian “Nourie Hadig,” and the German “The Robber Bridegroom” come to mind—rescue themselves by exposing, often at a wedding feast, misdeeds and injuries. They escape domestic abuse and violence through storytelling. Rarely wielding the sword and often deprived of the pen, women have relied on the domestic crafts and their verbal analogues—spinning tales, weaving plots, and telling yarns—to make things right, not just getting even but also securing social justice.5

The journeys of heroines are often structurally different as well. Author Gail Carriger presents a brilliant case for narrative structures in which a primary character succeeds not on the solitary journey of the hero but on the cooperative journey of the heroine. While heroes undertake voluntary journeys toward self-realization and slay monsters along the path to personal achievement, heroines undertake involuntary journeys away from broken familial networks and find allies along the path to new community. She also writes, and this is important:

Please understand that, while a character may present biologically as male, he may be gendered feminine by the overarching journey. Harry Potter, for example, is a heroine. And while a character may present biologically as female, she may be gendered masculine by her journey. Wonder Woman (in the 2017 film by the same name) is a hero. I’m going to put this another way, because, oh jeez, this is so flipping important. A female presenting person can undertake a Hero’s Journey. A male presenting person can undertake a Heroine’s Journey.6

Wonderful news for my young, masculine self with a fire in her belly, but try telling that to Joseph Campbell! Still, I really do think that in offering us the structure of a heroine's journey, Carriger redeems the hero's journey as a storytelling tool. In her hands, it's simply a plotting device that leads to a specific kind of story and not the great mythic structure we ought to be building our stories upon.

So, as a folklorist, I think it's important to contextualize Joseph Campbell's work outside the discipline I practice. He didn't have a folklorist's training, he didn't understand folk narrative in a way that reflects its discrete genres and cultural nuances, and he excluded the agency of women and traditional narratives about women from the hero's journey. As a writer, I think it's important to point out that in the same way Vladimir Propp can help you write a Russian fairy tale, Joseph Campbell can help you write a masculine monomyth. Both structures may be useful, but both are flawed, so handle them with care, storytellers.

Meanwhile, and I write this in all seriousness, follow your bliss.

Dispatches from the Word Mines

Folklore News

I was interviewed for The Folklore Podcast some months ago, and I'm delighted to report that this interview has now been published. You can listen to it here.

Also of note, I'll be offering an online lecture as part of The Folklore Podcast lecture series titled, "Folk Narrative for Writers." The lecture will be held on November 4, 2023 at 8:00 PM GMT. You can learn more and sign up to attend it here.


Ηφαιστος was first published in 2006 in Illumen and later reprinted in 2013 in The Ruin of Beltany Ring: A Collection of Pagan Poems and Tales. I recorded the poem in 2015 as part of a learning exercise in audio production, and patrons at the Myth level and above received access to a remastered version of the recording last week. If you're keen to give it a listen, join me at the Myth level or above on Patreon!


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  • 1. Tamlorn Chase. 2016. The Cycle of Mythology. https://odyssey.antiochsb.edu/literary/joseph-campbell-the-heros-journey.
  • 2. Dundes, Alan. 2005. “Folkloristics in the Twenty-First Century (AFS Invited Presidential Plenary Address, 2004).” The Journal of American Folklore 118, no. 470: 394.
  • 3. Dundes, Alan. 2005. “Folkloristics in the Twenty-First Century (AFS Invited Presidential Plenary Address, 2004).” The Journal of American Folklore 118, no. 470: 395.
  • 4. Tatar, Maria. 2021. The Heroine with 1001 Faces. Kindle. Liveright Publishing Corporation, chap. 1.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Carriger, Gail. 2020. The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture. 1st Edition. Gail Carriger LLC, chap.2.