The Heroine with 1001 Faces

Heroine with 1001 Faces coverThe Heroine with 1001 Faces
by Maria Tatar
Liveright (September 14, 2021), 361 pages
Kindle edition $14.16, Amazon hardcover $25.49

Maria Tatar is not a big fan of Joseph Campbell. As the title suggests, the current volume is a response to Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. In an interview Tatar stated the book was not a refutation of Campbell’s work, but an extension of it. Reading the book does not bear that out. She is unhappy with Campbell, and rightly so. Tatar states, “Campbell’s confidence about what it takes to be a hero is daunting, matched only by his conviction that women have no place in his pantheon of heroes.”

Tatar covers more than a millennium of material in her discussion of how mythology, folklore, and writing across the centuries portrayed women in relation to the hero’s journey (to use Campbell’s term). She discusses fairy tales and recounts some of the highly brutal stories that were originally part of the collections of the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and others, but which vanished as editors began to compile books of fairy tales for children. She writes about how writers and storytellers portrayed women as being responsible for the ills of the world, whether it be Pandora or Eve. Tatar discusses folklore which sent the message that it was a bad thing for women to be curious, while at the same time the stories portrayed intelligent, strong women as responsible for revenge against the men who perpetuated violence against women.

There is a long history of women engaged in successful quests, Campbell notwithstanding. Tatar writes about Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew. She discusses Wonder Woman, both as a comic book that emerged during World War II and in the form of the recent movies. Tatar has high praise for the recent trend of female authors retelling the stories of the Trojan War. She very much likes both Madeline Miller’s Circe and Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships. I have read both and agree that the authors craft these stories well and that they are engaging novels focused on women.

Joseph Campbell has fallen into disfavor. As popular as his PBS series with Bill Moyers was, many saw his “follow your bliss” mantra as trite. The facts that came out about his anti-Semitism and other prejudices did not help. Tatar says that she never saw Campbell’s work on any syllabus in her program at Harvard. When I was at Pitzer College in the seventies Campbell did not necessarily appear on course syllabi as required reading, but professors regularly mentioned his work as supplemental reading.

As much as Campbell has contributed to the study of the study of mythology, and he has contributed a lot, Tatar does a great service in calling to our attention to the women he has overlooked or ignored.

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