The Journey of the Reader Hero

Seymour Joseph Guy, "Young Girl Reading" (1877)

Seymour Joseph Guy, “Young Girl Reading” (1877)

Last week I promised to explore further how reading great literature can be a hero’s quest, a journey across a magical threshold such as that described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here’s what I came up with.

First, a note on why I find Campbell and his mentor Carl Jung so powerful. Both men believe that each of us has the inner potential to fulfill some special destiny. (“Follow your bliss,” Campbell famously advised.) It doesn’t matter whether this destiny is great or small. Maybe we are called upon to be president, maybe an English teacher in a small country school, maybe something that doesn’t have a label. The important thing is that we put the best of ourselves into play.

Our initial job is to identify our destiny and to develop the special powers we possess that are needed to achieve it. I see literature as a particularly powerful aid, a resource that can connect us with deep energies. Therefore, my job as a literature teacher is to guide students in the use this resource. I can’t tell ahead of time exactly which works will reach which students so I present them with a variety. Once I see a work catch hold, I encourage the student to write about it and insist that he or she make the essay meaningful.

Invoking Campbell, then, we can see a work of literature as a call to the reader hero. In a classroom setting, the teacher functions as a threshold guardian, guiding the student into the work. If students reject the call–which is to say, refuse to engage with a work that could change their lives–then they risk remaining stuck in their narrowness, experiencing all the anger and frustration that this involves. To them, the threshold guardian will seem a forbidding figure rather than a friend.

Even willing students will find the hero’s journey difficult. There are various challenges that they will encounter—say, understanding Shakespearean English or deciphering the long, difficult sentences of Faulkner. They may want to abandon the journey altogether (what Campbell describes as being trapped within the belly of the whale). Fortunately, they have access to various spirit guides, the teacher being the most obvious. (I offer up this blog as another.) Once they obtain the special awareness that literature provides—what Campbell calls the “elixir”–they are halfway through the journey.

Now they must act upon that wisdom, becoming the person that the work reveals them to be. This may be difficult, especially if their new understanding goes against parental or social expectations. They may feel tempted to pretend that the journey never occurred and return to their previous state (the temptress symbolizes this impulse). Maybe they will see literature as having nothing to do with real life. Acting upon the newly acquired knowledge is the hardest part of the journey, calling upon them to be heroes.

The same journey can occur for those who are no longer in the classroom. It occurs when you pick up a challenging work that you instinctively know you should read but that you’ve been avoiding. You may go through the same approach-avoidance dance that students engage in. Have courage, knowing that the rewards outweigh the hardships.

By invoking Campbell’s “monomyth,” I have, of necessity, been vague. It’s up to each of us to give body to his symbols. For concrete examples, feel free to peruse the archives of Better Living through Beowulf, which turns six today. Exploring literature’s special call is my life’s work.

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  • Rachel Kranz

    I love the idea of the reader hero, and the book being the vehicle that demands the hero’s journey. I think we go on those journeys even with minor books–I, for example, read a lot of chick lit, and I was once really caught up in the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch.And I certainly go on them with TV shows, sometimes across the season’s arc and sometimes within a single episode. You can want the book to take you on a hero’s journey, where the best of you gets called forth…or maybe you can want the book to take you, as for Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” back to the most comforting version of home, which seems unchanged by the journey except insofar as you appreciate it more. So maybe the general point is that stories of all types (literary, dramatic, even within a song) take you on a journey–and then we can ask further what type of journey it is?

  • heteroclitejumble

    I dislike Campbell. I feel this impulse to subsume stories under the monomyth is reductionist: that literature is rooted in the particular and different, and moreover needs be allowed total freedom to range far off into undiscovered space, entering where new myths have not yet been dreamt of, and binding them in new forms. I think a worthy creation probably contains many things that not even the author understands, having been dredged from those new spaces. I think something like the monomyth can obscure what is really significant about any story. I also suspect these kinds of reductionisms are related to fascism in a lineage from Thomas Carlyle.

    But what you describe here sounds like a way to use Campbell more usefully. Personal growth — he did always seem to have an application for self-help. Maybe he is most applicable to the genre of travel.

    – Nick

  • Robin Bates

    I agree with you entirely that Campbell’s monomyth is reductionist, Nick, bleeding out particularity and minimizing important distinctions between myth systems. I’ll add that it is sexist as well. In a way, of course, any theory is reductionist and I’m not sure I’d go so far as to see it as fascistic. Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in 1949, and liberal projects from that era, say Carl Sandburg’s and Edward Steichen’s Family of Man project also sought to find commonality across vast differences. The world was responding to the beginning of what we now regard as our global village and was hoping that such synthesizing could move us beyond the differences that had led to two world wars.

    With regard to the personal growth as a journey, my women students have been amending Campbell’s framework to accommodate female heroes. So now I’m seeing reconceptualizations where seductors rather than seductresses threaten to derail the growth journey (sometimes they offer the heroines premature marriage) and where the final atonement is with the mother rather than the father. The imaginative force of the journey’s stages, which benefit from the allusions to mythology in the same way that, say, The Waste Land benefits from such allusions, means that I think Campbell’s framework is worth keeping. But that being said, I agree with a number of your objections and have even stopped teaching the whole of Hero with a Thousand Faces as almost unreadable.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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