The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

July 4, 2012 at 19:25 (Book Reviews, English Language, Historical, Literature, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , )

5/10

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been somewhat misrepresented of late, not least due to its immense impact upon so many authors and storytellers. But it is not a manual of story structure, nor an analysis of such; nor even is Campbell’s monomyth a blueprint for fictional writing. Campbell’s promise to distill and analyse the stories told across the world and through history is neither a scientific survey nor even a chronological view of the progression of literary heroes. Far too specific (and occasionally frustratingly myopic) to be very scientific, Campbell appears mostly as a somewhat slavish echo of Freud, and obsesses over a narrow selection of stories that apparently support his conclusions most convincingly.

His chapters (and the stages of the heroic journey that they describe) are peculiar things: vague and elusive enough to apply readily to the handful of stories he uses as examples, but strict enough to bear out some stern conclusions, and some strangely ubiquitous and overwhelming ideas about the universal human psyche.

“…the way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man…”

-The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In spite of its popularity, it is not an easy book to read. It consists of three types of writing: firstly, there are lofty and grandiloquent rhapsodies about the transcendent universal mind, and the evolution of the dream world, all of it very Freudian and fuzzy. Secondly, there are immense recapitulations and quotations of ancient and classical and modern stories, cleverly and neatly clipped and trimmed into the shape Campbell wishes for them to appear. Finally, there are occasional gems of insight, and throwaway lines nested within the reams of clunky, unattractive scholarly mess; not axioms, necessarily, nor even well-developed enough to be theories. These flickers of interpretation are often interesting, but seldom revelatory and never poignant enough to make up for the waffling that goes on all around them.

This book is as much a comparison of world religions as it is a survey of myth and mythology. It frequently feels like Campbell is ill-informed about everything except his incredibly bold assertions, and that he is simply making things up. It would be hoped that if he was, then he would write something a little more interesting. Largely uninformative, needlessly esoteric, and depressingly reliant upon early twentieth century psychology, this book does not deserve its reputation, although it might deserve a few hours’ attention from patient readers.

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Never Odd or Even, by O. V. Michaelsen (ed.)

February 21, 2011 at 12:14 (Book Reviews, English Language, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

2/10

Unfortunately, this book was rather poorly edited. It promised so much! Perhaps a compendium of palindromes and anagrams. Maybe the history of such words, or a history of word puzzles. Could it be significant ways in which the English language has developed, or notable ways in which language puzzles have affected global events? Well, sort of. Because this book does not really stick at any of the above. There are lists, of course, if you like that sort of thing. But they’re incomplete and rather scattered, random lists. There are tidbits of information sprinkled liberally throughout, with useful facts and amusing statistics. The problem is, none of these are arranged in a well-indexed fashion. They are mixed up together in a bedlam of half-finished did-you-knows. Just as you might find a meaty paragraph to get into, you’ll have a five-page list thrown your way. In fact, it’s not even a good coffee table book, because it manages to be just about wordy enough to scare off the casual page flipper. One for the bookshelf, then, but it’ll gather dust.

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