The Book: Joseph Campbell, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Bollingen Series/Princeton trade paperback, third printing, 1973. Good condition; book's spine is badly creased, book itself is heavily marked with pencil underlining and highlighting. Previous owner's name and address stamp ("Virginia Grace Baskett") inside front cover, subsequent owner's signature ("Ellen Clair Lamb") on front flyleaf.
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1981
As the description suggests, this was a textbook, for Mrs. Masterson's sixth-form (senior year) English class, which was more of an introduction to sociology and psychology. Bill Moyers made Joseph Campbell famous with a series of television interviews that became the bestselling coffee-table book The Power of Myth. The Hero with a Thousand Faces stands as his essential work, although it is much less accessible to the casual reader.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a survey of world spiritual beliefs, philosophies, literature and psychological theories that demonstrates the universality of the stories -- Story, really, one story -- humans tell ourselves. "Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan," Campbell writes, and beyond that, "The cosmogonic cycle is presented with astonishing consistency in the sacred writing of all the continents ... the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life."
Heavy stuff to be giving high school seniors. It baffled us at first, not only in its arguments but also in its place in the curriculum -- what did this have to do with literature? Other books we read in that class included introductory texts on Freud and Jung, Robert Ardrey's African Genesis, Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression, Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, and Existentialism 101: A Primer.
Mrs. Masterson passed away several years ago. I'm sorry that I never got a chance to know her as an adult, or to thank her for this odd and life-changing class. What she was trying to tell us was that all of literature concerns itself, or should, with these basic questions: What are we? What do we want? Where are we going? What should we do? The hero's journey is a universal story that offers infinite variations, and the backbone for every meaningful tale we tell each other.
And it's a great and necessary thing to say to high school seniors, or college students, or anyone: Who is the hero? You are the hero. I am the hero. We are all heroes.
Five Random Songs
"Lil' King Kong," Simple Kid. No idea where this track came from; might have been a download from my brother-in-law, Scott, or it might have been an MPFree from the New York Post. It's bouncy, straight-ahead rock with a little bluegrass thrown in, and I like it.
"No Substitute," Jeff Trott. A cut off the excellent indie compilation Trampoline Records Greatest Hits Vol. 1, which was a gift from my sister Susan.
"I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers. This song's been stuck in my head for the last week or so. Maybe listening to it will shut it off. Probably not.
"Requiem for Evita/Oh What a Circus," Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone and the cast of Evita. "Don't cry for me, Argentina/For I am ordinary, unimportant/And not deserving of such attention/Unless we all are/I think we all are."
"Twisting the Night Away," Sam Cooke. My friend Gary gave me Sam Cooke's 30 Greatest Hits to cheer me up in the middle of last winter, and I recommend it to anyone who needs reminding of what's good in this world. Watusi!