Book Review: The Heroine with 1001 Faces by Maria Tatar

Book cover.Over a slightly boozy lunch, on a Mediterranean isle, the topic of Greek mythology reared its head. We segued into how those gods set the template for every modern story and superhero franchise. David, our somewhat taciturn companion, suddenly piped up "Of course, you really want to read Maria Tatar's take on Campbell's work."

A few clicks later and the book was on my eReader waiting for me to sober up. Isn't the future spectacular?

Tatar's book takes issue with Joseph Campbell's monomyth of the hero's journey as described in his classic work "The Hero with a Thousand Faces". Campbell, and most other writers about "heroes", almost completely exclude women from their studies. This deliberate sexism means that only half the story is being told.

Female gods and tricksters abound in classic mythology - but they've slowly been written out of history. Folklore and "old-wives tales" have been deliberately excised from the collection of "literature". As Tatar points out, there seems to be a…

deep need to secure the boundary separating the printed eloquence of educated men from the mere chatter of women

And so we go into a deep dive of the heroines who are ever present - though somewhat obscured - in folk literature. Some you will be familiar with, some you will want to read more about. There is a vast collection of tales which both mirror and subvert the "classic" hero's journey. It isn't quite as lengthy as Scheherazade's 1,001 tales - but it is an excellent overview of those who've been overlooked.

The book ends with this question:

Are our new heroines nothing but a carbon copy of Campbell’s hero, fighting battles in dark places from which they emerge covered in blood but victorious? Are we installing a new model that mimics the old rather than creating an archetype that is in tune with the values we embrace today: empathy, care, and connection?

And that, sadly, is the slight flaw with this book. It never quite lands on whether these heroines are significantly different from their male counterparts. There are certainly different types of heroes, and their journeys deviate widely from the path laid down by Campbell. But they all find the courage, strength, or resourcefulness to change their seemingly-inevitable fate.

We need more diverse myths and stories. The book mostly focuses on the European tradition of folklore - with occasional dips into Native American and African tales. It would have been interesting to read about how the monomyth takes shape in other cultures.

But, over all, it is an excellent look at how those who collect stories can effectively shape the narrative of society - and how we can begin to correct their limitations.

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