Joseph Campbell wrote an excellent book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  His work is a treasure trove of insights into the way myth functions in conveying the human condition.  Campbell’s overarching thesis is that the mythical journey of the hero depicts the psychological and spiritual maturation necessary for human existence.  I characterize his worldview as some form of gnosticism, definitely not biblical Christianity; although, he might take issue with that statement if he were still alive.  Campbell died in 1987 after establishing himself as the leading expert on myth and the hero’s journey.  His work has been consulted by countless artists and storytellers of all stripes most notably George Lucas, who based his Star Wars universe on Campbell’s ideas in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  The following quote is a perfect example of Campbell’s brilliance in pointing out the importance of fairy tales, tragedies, and comedies.

“The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man.  The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift in emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed.  Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest–as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as to the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars.  Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.  Thus the two are the terms of a single mythological theme and experience which includes them both and which they bound: the down-going and the up-coming (kathodos and anodos), which together constitute the totality of the revelation that is life, and which the individual must know and love if he is to be purged (katharsis = purgatorio) of the contagion of sin (disobedience to the divine will) and death (identification with the mortal form).

“It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy.  Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs.  Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds of victory are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and-such could be done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams.  The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward–into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.  This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power.  Something of the light that blazes invisible within the abysses of its normally opaque materiality breaks forth with an increasing uproar.  The dreadful mutilations are then seen as shadows, only, of an immanent, imperishable eternity…”

(Joseph Campbell, “Tragedy and Comedy,” The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp 28-29, 1968, 2nd ed.)

Joseph Campbell on Fairy Tales, Comedies, and Tragedies

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