Joseph Campbell’s Woman Problem

In the writer’s classic study of world myths, women were in the background. A new book aims to change that.

Black-and-white image from a painting of Philomela clutching a lyre on a red background with a curving, white illustrated arrow wrapping around her
Illustration by Katie Martin; image by Heritage Images / Getty

This article was published online on August 4, 2021.

It’s one of the darkest and bloodiest episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King Tereus of Thrace, having lusted after his sister-in-law, Philomela, inveigles her away from her father’s protection, takes her to a forest dungeon, and rapes her. Philomela, towering in eloquence, vows to tell the world what Tereus has done; her raised voice, she promises him in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation, will “make the stones to understand.” So Tereus cuts her tongue out. Ovid, characteristically, zooms in: The wound pours; the severed tongue bounces and mutely spasms—“as an adder’s tail cut off doth skip a while,” in Golding’s version. More modern retellers of The Metamorphoses have been similarly transfixed. From Ted Hughes’s Tales From Ovid (1997): “The tongue squirmed in the dust, babbling on—Shaping words that were now soundless.” From Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren (2019): “Please imagine how it continues to wriggle, how it twitches and moves on the dirt floor.”

It barely qualifies as mythic, the story of Philomela. A sexual assault, a silencing, a mutilated testimony—there is nothing supernatural about any of this. The germ of hope in the tale is that Philomela is not silenced; still trapped by her abductor, the speechless princess secretly weaves her denunciation of Tereus into the imagery of a tapestry, which she then sends to her sister.

For the distinguished folklorist Maria Tatar, Philomela’s resourcefulness—literally, her craftiness—places her in a secret lineage of truth-telling women. “Silenced women are not without tools,” Tatar writes in her new book, The Heroine With 1001 Faces, “and Philomela reminds us that so-called women’s work—weaving, sewing, and working with coverings—provides an opportunity not just to create but also to communicate.” Female telling, however hopeless or subterranean, is a fairy-tale motif, as Tatar shows us: There’s the Goose Girl in the Brothers Grimm, who opens her heart to an iron stove, and the Armenian tale of Nourie Hadig, mistreated and betrayed, who confides in the sympathetic Stone of Patience. (This stone really does understand; hearing Nourie’s story, it swells with pity.) Dimensions converge in Tatar’s book: deep, shimmering, archetypal time and the urgency of the present moment. “From Myth to #MeToo” is the subtitle of one of her chapters. “Telling your story,” she writes—“revealing injuries inflicted and harm done—has come to be invested with unprecedented weight.”

The Heroine With 1001 Faces is not exactly a rebuttal to Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic, The Hero With a Thousand Faces—but it is a counter-book. Campbell famously and rather rapturously identified the “monomyth”: the single great life-giving story that expresses itself in endless variations through the legendarium of every tribe and culture. The Call to Adventure, the Ordeal/Initiation, the Trouble in the Third Act, the Return—this is the Hero’s Journey, schematized by Campbell and unblinkingly cloned in a zillion Hollywood screenplays. We all use it, to a degree, writers and nonwriters. The voyage, the pilgrimage, the vision quest are part of our mental circuitry. “It’s difficult to avoid the sensation,” wrote Christopher Vogler in his best-selling The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, “that the Hero’s Journey exists somewhere, somehow, as an eternal reality, a Platonic ideal form, a divine model.” But what if the divine model excludes women? Tatar is decisive: “Driven by conflict and conquest, this narrative arc utterly fails as a model of women’s experience.”

It’s not like there are no women in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Look, there she is in the index: woman, right between wolf image and womb-image. The problem is, of the hero’s 1,000 faces, 999 are male. Aeneas, the Buddha, Taliesin, Cuchulainn … Campbell’s prose, often wonderful, never less than sonorous, actually goes a bit demented when he writes about “woman”: “Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure.” She may be the muse, the grail, or the goddess. She may be the source of being, or she may be bottomless death. But the adventure itself, with its conquering of monsters and quelling of demons—that’s for the blokes. It’s linear, phallic, acquisitive. “The woman is life, the hero its knower and master.”

Tatar has had enough of this. “Suddenly,” she writes in the introduction to her book, “I understood the rage of one of my undergraduate students, who described her journey into the world of folklore and mythology as a crusade against Campbell.” The genial Campbell might have been surprised to discover himself, in this particular heroic journey, playing the role of dragon/ogre. Then again, he was all for transfiguration. Things change; it’s a precondition for the great quest. “The familiar life horizon,” as he wrote in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.”

I had hopes that Tatar would do for the Hero’s Journey and its tropes what Hannah Gadsby did for stand-up comedy in her special Nanette—lay bare its essentially male mechanism and then, with great precision, blow it up. What gorgeous organic form might the Heroine’s Journey take? A wave, a spiral, a magnetic field?

But The Heroine With 1001 Faces is not that kind of book. Not a guide to gynocentric plot-building—more of a roaming miscellany of heroines across the ages. Tatar sent me on a superb binge of reading and rereading: Angela Carter’s daredevil retellings and renewals of Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots in The Bloody Chamber, her language running wild over the material; Anne Sexton’s Transformations, whose jolting, funny/horrific poems are a kind of biological absorption and mutation of the cruel old tales. “It’s not the prince at all, / but my father / drunkenly bent over my bed, / circling the abyss like a shark …” As Marina Warner observes in her indispensable Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction, in these poems, “you can glimpse the broken trust in families, as well as the suffocating limits on women’s horizons. You can hear the desperation that drove women mad.”

And when, primed by Tatar and her heroines, I picked up Sinéad O’Connor’s new memoir, Rememberings, my head—in a manner of speaking—exploded. O’Connor has left a unique imprint on pop-cultural memory: the unnervingly transparent gaze, the hyperborean wail, the songs. And of course, the trouble. In October 1992, as a protest against the Catholic Church’s culture of child abuse, O’Connor went on Saturday Night Live, performed—in a voice as keen as the stroke of an ax—an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” and then ripped into pieces a photograph of Pope John Paul II. The vilification was instantaneous; her sanity was questioned; her career was generally assumed to be over. Thirteen days later, she took the stage at Madison Square Garden to perform in a Bob Dylan tribute concert. She was met by a noise she had never heard before, deafening, undifferentiated crowd-roar—half love, half hate, with hate in the ascendant. “Like a sonic riot,” she writes in Rememberings, “as if the sky is ripping apart.” We pass here into the mythic. The Church, classic rock, American manhood—all arrayed howling against her, like terraces of burning angels. Was this the Ordeal/Initiation, or the battle with the dragon itself? Looking back, we know she was right. In the moment, she faced the storm alone. Transformations and metamorphoses have been undergone since then; reckonings and vindications have occurred. But the wages of heroism, real heroism—they don’t change.

This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “The Heroine’s Journey.”

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