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Reply To: Reading Campbell: Where to Begin



Myths of Light is an excellent work. Joseph Campbell goes into much greater detail in his lengthy, exhaustively footnoted Oriental Mythology (the 2nd volume in The Masks of God series); however, Myths of Light is much more accessible to contemporary readers.

I suspect this is because Myths of Light is an example of what I call “spoken Campbell” – works edited from interviews or lectures. “Written Campbell” – The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all four volumes of The Masks of God tetralogy, the essays in The Flight of the Wild Gander, etc. – contain dense, detailed, lengthy, loping, multi-layered paragraphs. These are rich reads, but, like reading Jung, require focus and concentration. When first reading them, sometimes I’d have to stop at the end of a paragraph – or even a compelling sentence – and simmer a moment, letting the thoughts and images that stirred up sink in; sometimes, I’d have to read a paragraph a few times to plumb the fullness of what Campbell is saying.

But these exhaustive works are also ripe for re-reading. Every time I open one of the volumes Campbell wrote during his lifetime, I get more out of it; reading Joe, like reading Jung, is akin to peeling an onion – layer after layer is revealed every time one returns to the text.

“Spoken Campbell” begins with Myths To Live By (Campbell’s own edit of the lectures he delivered in the 1960s at The Cooper Union), and includes the book version of the Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers, An Open Life (a slender volume containing highlights of interviews with the late Michael Toms from his New Dimensions radio program), and many of Campbell’s posthumous compilations (e.g. Mythic Worlds, Modern Words; Thou Art That; Myths of Light; Pathways to Bliss; Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine; Romance of the Grail). Though these cover the same themes as the written works and are just as profound, they are generally less detailed, absent exhaustive endnotes, and more conversational in tone – conveying Joe’s wit and personal charm.

That’s generally why I begin by recommending Myths To Live By to those new to Joseph Campbell – both because it illustrates Campbell’s focus on far more than just the hero-quest motif, and because it captures his voice. From there, one can’t go wrong reading other “spoken Campbell” works cited above – and those who wish to research further can take a deep dive into “written Campbell,” and then consult his sources.

Definitely something for everyone – just have to poke around and find the works that resonate best (which you have clearly done).