Revisiting Joseph Campbell

In a few weeks I’ll be teaching a workshop about story-telling, designed for the executive directors and communication directors at non-profit organizations in New Jersey. Asking a screenwriter about story-telling isn’t a bad idea, but as I prepare I realize that it’s the first time I have ever been asked for my own comprehensive theorization about what a story is.

Which means: it’s time to get re-acquainted with Joseph Campbell.

When I first read him, shortly after college, I loved every word of it. Bill Moyers’ fascination with him had rubbed off on lots of people at the time,  and we eagerly tried to wrap our heads around every concept. His ability to break myths from around the world down into their component parts was sheer genius:

The Call to Adventure

The Refusal of the Call

Supernatural Aid

Crossing the Threshold

The Road of Trials

The Meeting With the Goddess


In the years I was writing screenplays since then, these concepts were always an extra, shadow vocabulary we had at our sides – the writers and producers I’ve worked with and me. The road map was always Syd Field or Save the Cat or someone’s notion of the three act structure, but if you could stand up and champion a point in a narrative by using the structure du jour and then punctuate it by pointing out that it roughly corresponds to one of Campbell’s elements of myth, then you won that point handily.

Reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces again, I am two thirds thrilled. One thing I deeply appreciate about Campbell is how he often skips the obvious example and goes for something on the B list of Greco-Roman myths and then offers a second and third example from other mythologies. The chapter on The Road of Trials is a prime example. This stage, Campbell writes, “has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.”

Psyche paying the boatman Charon to take her to the Underworld.

Psyche paying the boatman Charon to take her to the Underworld.

“Oh, like Hercules, or Jason,” I thought. But no. Instead he tells the story of Psyche, who was so in love with Cupid she would do anything to please Cupid’s mother Venus. Venus forced her to do a series of trials, including going to the underworld.

Then Campbell thrills us with with an anthropologist’s account of how shamans among the Lapps heal patients by taking their own out-of-body journeys to the  underworld, while two women and a girl guess by watching his every twitch what part of the underworld he is in. “The women may be unable to locate the shaman’s position in the yonder world, in which case his spirit may fail to return to the body.”

You get the sense that  you are witnessing a grand theory of all stories for all time when you read Campbell. Then he lapses into Freudian jargon. In this case he quotes a Dr. Géza Róheim: “Human groups are actuated by group ideals, and these are always actuated by the infantile situation.” Suddenly he has put you off. You wonder, do you have to buy into these Freudian notions to accept Campbell’s ideas about the universality of myths? And the more he insists on making his points by listing examples from dreams recorded by psychoanalysts, you start to wonder about his initial examples. Did Campbell really figure out “one composite adventure” (his phrase) of world story-telling, or was he  just cherry-picking anecdotes from his knowledge of world mythology to illustrate “ten common things that stories often have” (my phrase), the way a screenwriter might pick a nugget of theory from, oh say, a Jungian professor of mythology? I don’t know. He’s useful to reread, and enchanting enough two thirds of the time.


  1. Campbell was famously (and posthumously) accused of being anti-semitic and racist in an article by Brendan Gill in the New York Review of Books ( (It should be pointed out that lots of people came to Campbell’s defense). I often find a tension when using or admiring the work of someone who’s worldview I hate (I’m talking to you T.S. Eliot). Any concern with that here?

  2. Thanks, Adam! I found a more succinct roundup of the argument here too:

    …which quotes a philosophy professor named Roy Finch, who knew Campbell and calls him a “crypto-fascist” and then puts his own comments about Campbell’s possible prejudices into perspective: “If Bill Moyers, who is an intelligent person, just sits there awestruck and gives the impression that what we’re listening to is of great spiritual significance when it is just mishmash, this is the most serious problem.”

    Which kind of summarizes my feelings. Maybe it’s my Catholic roots, but I figure most deeply spiritual people are probably either crypto-fascists or charlatans, especially those whose formula is grafting a reverence for paganism onto the philosophy of a GGWHATTEE – a German Guy Who Has A Theory That Explains Everything – in the case of Hitler, Marx, and in the case of Campbell, Jung. I’m only pleasantly surprised once in a while when they aren’t.

    I didn’t see any hatred at all from reading his book, I should add. And what Finch calls “mishmash” is compelling and often entertaining mashmash.


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