There are three general ideas I found in the fourth chapter of The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
- The hero has to return to the physical world, while the deities and spirits he met and who helped him have to stay behind.
- Myth, the monomyth, Stories with a capital S – those change as time moves forward and the stories move outward from their origin location. It’s necessary, but isn’t always beneficial.
- Myth cannot be examined through a strictly historical or scientific lens.
They seem kind of disjointed – not all that connected – and maybe Campbell didn’t mean them to be connected at all. Maybe he was recapping the previous chapters, hitting some of the major points. But I feel like there’s a good way to connect the three.
If you take points 1. and 2., you get one general feeling: disappointment. It’s like entropy in literary/storytelling form. Not only does the hero’s life in the story get noticeably less amazing, the story itself gets less amazing. Campbell does admit that some adjustments due to time or place changes can be done “with considerable skill” (247), but it’s never going to be quite as awesome as it was when someone sat down at the fireside and told the very first story. (Imagine being in the first audience to hear the first story ever told. I know. I had to take a minute, too.) There are dozens of fairytale rewrites in which changes were made to fit things to a different context or culture, and you could bet money that there are at least ten reviews of every book that go, to some effect, “The changes just didn’t jive with the story.” The problem now is that every story has that issue.
It’s even more depressing if you see myth through a purely analytical lens. A story with the Return element to it would probably have only been told because of physical-world reasons, which doesn’t put the physical world in such a great light. And it’s not like that’s even so unbelievable. It’s a pretty crappy physical world, with relatively few heroes and prophets and saints. It’s obvious that one of our favorite types of stories would be the one where divinity is in our grasp and we have to ditch it. I mean, the Garden of Eden.
But you just can’t look at a myth from a strictly historical, scientific point of view. Not if you want it to mean anything more than “it’s a nice distraction from the fact that reality ends with what we see, which could potentially be a bomb or a knife or even an innocent but inauspicious pit.”
Taken at face value, as mere products of human existence, mythology is just a record of humans dressing up day-to-day life because day-to-day life kind of sucks. Believed in – not factually or in themselves, but as ways of communicating that a deeper spiritual reality exists, beyond the bomb and the knife and the innocent but inauspicious pit – myths offer redemption and a second chance.
Believed in – the way that some people believe in Christmas and Halloween having a magic to them, or in the idea their dogs or cats can really understand what they say; believed in because it makes life truer and better, even if there’s no quantifiable fact to measure and prove – believed in, myths and fairytales and folk songs can make us truer and better humans, open to truer and better ideas: the bravery to start a journey, the humility to finish it, and the compassion to come back home to tell other potential heroes and heroines.