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I have to say that I was rather disappointed by this classic work on mythology. On the plus side, it is indeed fascinating to put myths from very different points in time and space beside each other to note the similarities; Campbell is consistent and clinical in subjecting the Bible to the same scrutiny as any other culture; and for myself, I learned a thing or two about Cuchulain, not just a local hero and contributor to Ulster geography but in fact an exemplar of several different widely found characters in folklore.

But I found the structure rather confusing, both at macro and at micro level. I couldn't quite be sure what Campbell's basic thesis is, whether he thinks that there is a single archetypal hero myth in which all hero stories (maybe even all stories) are rooted (which is what he seems to say in the introduction) or whether he thinks it's impossible to be so concrete (which is what he seems to say in the epilogue). While each individual chapter and section is supposed to illustrate a certain element of the "monomyth", in fact the examples given often have little bearing on the point that is being made; Campbell tells us what he is going to say, then actually says something a bit different, and then fails to tell us what he has said. (The chapter on Transformations of the Hero, where Cuchulain comes up, seemed rather better structured than the rest.) Of course, it is the nature of folklore to be rambling and discursive, but one can analyse a thing without taking on too many of that thing's characteristics.

Anyway, I can see why this was an influential book of its time, but I felt that the approach was old-fashioned even for 1948, and hope that there are better introductions to world folklore out there.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 3rd, 2011 12:00 pm (UTC)
and hope that there are better introductions to world folklore out there.

Goodness, YES. Try things that were actually written by folklorists. ;p

Sorry to sound snotty, but I heartily dislike Campbell. His work is vague, inconsistent, and not academic in the least, but somehow everyone reads him and loves him. He got a few things right--such as the fact that the study of folklore is inherently comparative, since folklore travels and varies across time and space--but there so much he got wrong. When he compares works out of their social contexts, he misses the nuances that makes the variations interesting. There are reasons why regional variations of a story vary, and when you say all stories are essentially the same story, you miss a lot of what makes these variations meaningful and worth studying.

I also don't care for Jungian theory, which Campbell relies on heavily. (I was raised by Freudians in the desert, go figure) Oh, and Campbell strikes me as rather misogynist, but I haven't read enough of his work to say that with certainty.

Folklorists have developed our own methods and theories for studying folk narratives over time, which Campbell mostly ignores (which, of course, I also find irksome). You might be interested in a work called Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson, which traces the roots of common (and less common) fairy tales in the classical world, or Fairy Tales From Before Fairy Tales by Jan Ziolkowski, which does much the same thing but with a focus on the middle ages. And then there is always the work of Jack Zipes, one of the most esteemed fairy tale scholars of the century, who deconstructs the bourgeois meanings of fairy tales from the Grimms to the Victorians to our times (for another good scholar on the Grimms, check out Donald Haase; for Freudian approaches to folklore, read Alan Dundes; for feminist approaches to fairy tales, read Cristina Bacchilega, Pauline Greenhill, or me).
Sep. 3rd, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC)
I've never been convinced by Campbell - he seems to have taken the ball from Jung and run with it, so I guess in the history of ideas he has some significance, but I always feel the tail is wagging the dog, and the evidence is shoehorned in to fit the grand master theory.
Sep. 3rd, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
There are people out there who are making a career out of applying the Monomyth to sf - and I feel unconvinced because of the lack of historicity (plus Hollywood embraced a simplified Campbell paradigm as a standardised plot, so it becomes a circular argument). It usually doesn't pass my "So what?" test.

The narratives follow Campbell except when they don't and this doesn't invalidate the idea because we shouldn't expect it to follow every detail...

I think it was Michael Serres who calculated that there were 100,000 plots (calculated from number of character functions multiplied by something) and that Shakespeare's play cannot be described by any of them.

This in fact proves that the theorist was right, because Shakespeare is such a good writer he transcends the system.
Sep. 3rd, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Nicholas, that was a very timely posting. I came across the book about one month ago in a dsicussion thread about the "monomyth" on LibraryThing.

Following that thread I put "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" on my wish list in TheBookDepository. I was thinking of placing an order for it this week. Thanks to your review I will hold off on placing that order.

Thank you!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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