Everyone has probably heard of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, but most people misunderstand it and I doubt many people have actually read his writing except in summary. After reading this book, I can understand why; the man was brilliant, but he was an academic and this book was written for academics, even if George Lucas's being famously inspired by it (and the popular PBS miniseries) has propelled it somewhat into pop consciousness. His prose is dense and full of psychobabble. Okay, that's not really a fair label; Campbell knows what he's talking about and he knows what he intends to say, and sometimes he's almost poetic, but being uninterested either in Freudianism or understanding my place in the universe on some abstract theological level, I was more interested in his analysis of world mythology and how it relates to storytelling. Where he compares and contrasts all the world's myths (into which category he includes religion, though he makes a distinction between classical religion and contemporary religion in what he calls the modern, secular world), he presents broad support for his thesis that all myths are telling the same basic set of stories, based on universal needs humans have, personally and in relationship to their communities and nature. But boy was he into Freud and Jung, which means one gets the impression from this book that every single element in every myth is highly symbolic and has some relationship to our deep-seated mommy/daddy issues.The Hero with a Thousand Faces
first defines what Campbell calls the "monomyth," then goes on to describe all the stages of the Hero's Journey, of which (according to Campbell) every myth is another retelling. He points out that not every one of the stages appears in every myth, and many can be altered/mutated and even subverted. (For example, the hero can be a heroine, though in general Campbell is very fixed on gender binaries, male and female "energy" and symbolism being very specific and pretty much universal, according to him.) With examples drawn from every mythical tradition in the world, from the Abrahamic religions to Buddhism and Hinduism to Greek and Roman and Egyptian mythology, as well as Australian, Japanese, Maori, Polynesian, Native American, Aztec, and African, just to name a few (obviously several of those are large categories), Campbell is comprehensive and does a good job of showing how his stages in the Hero's Journey, and the phases of his "Cosmogenic Cycle" (which he describes after the Hero's Journey) can be mapped to every mythical tradition. Sometimes one suspects he's reaching a little, so a skeptic could poke holes in some of his parallels and question how "universal" all these elements really are, but certainly there is a compelling degree of commonality in myths from diverse cultures greatly separated in time and geographical location. This might be more meaningful if you actually believe in some sort of "universal subconscious" or a spiritual universe which is actually reflected in our myths, but if you don't, it's still interesting to compare how all these different societies used myths to place themselves in the universe, often in very similar ways.
This book is an excellent overview of dozens of different mythical traditions. Even if you're broadly familiar with a lot of classical mythology and religion, Campbell goes into details and traces back origins you probably are not familiar with, and you almost certainly aren't familiar with as many different folklores as he talks about. Also, if you have an interest in the so-called Hero's Journey, this is the book that lays it all out in deep detail. If you are of a spiritual bent, you will probably also appreciate his philosophizing. But this isn't light reading and it's not particularly entertaining (not as entertaining as, say, just reading a few volumes of myths). If you don't have a high tolerance for academic jargon, critical theory, and Freudian and Jungian psychology, you might want to just stick with watching the Bill Moyers specials.