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Reading Campbell: Where to Begin

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    After Joseph Campbell’s death, there wasn’t a broad selection of his work in print, so for the many who were turned on to his mythological perspective through the Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers (which aired posthumously on PBS), the question was where to go next to further explore his ideas.

    Of course, The Hero with a Thousand Faces has long been recognized as Joseph Campbell’s masterpiece, though that just focuses on the hero’s journey arc in myth – there is so much more to Campbell’s mythological perspective than just that one recurring motif. And both that work, and the four volumes in his Masks of God tetralogy are, in many ways, akin to reading Jung: deep, profound, but a sometimes intense challenge in this short-attention-span soundbite era.

    I often recommended Myths to Live By (eleven lectures delivered at the Coopers Union in the sixties that Joe edited for publication) to provide a broad overview of Campbell’s perspective.

    But today, thanks to JCF’s efforts, several works out-of-print in Campbell’s lifetime are available once more, as well as multiple works created from materials the mythologist left behind.

    Of course, even today, nearly 35 years after Campbell’s passing, many still start with The Power of Myth television interviews. And then there are so many other options now as well – particularly the over 70 hours in the Joseph Campbell audio collection – and, for those looking for “free” Campbell, there are the previously unreleased talks in the Joseph Campbell: Pathways podcasts (which, with bonus episodes, add up to about 15 hours so far), so theoretically it’s possible to develop a relatively broad grasp of Campbell’s themes without ever opening a book.

    But, for the readers among us, where would you recommend someone new to Campbell’s work begin?


      Hey Stephen; of course, thanks to the intense efforts of the foundation there is now quite a large selection of various works to choose from; but several that have helped me, and indeed continue to do so, would be Diane Osbon’s: “Reflections on the Art of Living – A Joseph Campbell Companion”; David Kudler’s wonderful edited series of lectures: “Pathways to Bliss”;  Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox’s: “Your Mythic Journey”, (taken from Joseph’s, Keen’s, and Fox’s Esalen seminars); Michael Tom’s great collection of recorded conversations with Joseph over the years: “An Open Life”, available in printed book form. As well as the important documentary: “The Hero’s Journey” By Phil Cousineau, available as both a DVD and in printed hardback.

      All of these are treasure troves of Joseph personally sharing his thoughts on a variety of subjects not necessarily covered in the Power of Myth. These are targeted especially for people who may be interested in further explorations of Joseph’s ideas; and have been indispensable to me in my own journey over the years. I constantly refer to them for direct quotations and they also give great overviews and insights into his huge body of work.


      As an addendum I should mention that although the book “Your Mythic Journey” is not a specific foundation work and does not include Joseph actually participating in the suggested topics for exploration, it’s focus was forged out of Keen’s, Fox’s, and Joseph’s ideas that were actually used in helping people to find and utilize their own personal myth. Joseph held these seminars on his birthday and until recently the foundation continued to hold this event there annually. (Hopefully when this Covid pandemic is over, they will resume.)


      Along with this list of where to begin with Joseph Campbell (James suggests some great titles), I am curious if anyone would care to share the title of a Campbell work that just did not speak to them? Don’t worry if it’s everybody else’s favorite – we all have our preferences, which need not invalidate anyone else’s likes or dislikes.

      For me, it’s Tarot Revelations, by Joseph Campbell and Richard Roberts. Campbell’s contribution strikes me as singularly uninspired. (In fairness, this is book is really by Richard Roberts; he tacks on some commentary by Campbell on the Marseille deck at the beginning of the book, material which Joe covers better elsewhere, and added Campbell as posthumous co-author, within months of JC’s death, riding the wild success of the Power of Myth interviews on PBS – but in general, the book strikes me as dry; there is so much better work available on Tarot from a mythic perspective, even where Campbell isn’t mentioned).

      Anyone else care to share?


        I would agree with you Stephen. That is to say, I came to JC through his lectures. I listened to many of them many times. I then started to read, and found Myths to Live by to be great. I have read it several times. I need to revisit Hero with a Thousand Faces, it was not what I needed at the time I read it. Recently, I was impressed with the book Myths of Light. It recycles much of what I have read and heard but I think that David Kudler masterfully edits together various threads from JC’s musings to provide clarity. So, my two cents to people looking for an entry point would be to listen to a lecture or two and then read or listen to Myths of Light. After that, if you are not hooked, then it is not your time. No offense meant, there is nothing that resonates with everyone. As an aside, I live in Japan, so I may be biased. Nevertheless, despite the focus on “Eastern Metaphors,” the book makes comparisons to other myths and metaphors so it is accessible to a broad audience.


        Intriguing choice, Mars. Several of the essays in The Flight of the Wild Gander (particularly the two papers he presented two different years at the Eranos Roundtable in Ascona) are considered Joseph Campbell’s most rigorous academic work.



        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).



          …Intriguing choice, Mars…

          I’m about to start with Maria Tatar’s “The Heroine with 1001 faces” (ISBN 978-1-63149-881-7, 2021), in the very introduction already the answer spoken to Joseph Campbell: ” ‘I want to be the hero’, she announced”.

          The other perspective, so much appreciated obviously.

          (the quotes are fuzzing the formatting here, and impossible to correct)

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