What About the Heroine’s Journey?

The Harvard scholar Maria Tatar has made a career of studying fairy tales and folklore. Now she is taking aim at Joseph Campbell and showing us the women he left out of the story.

By Gal Beckerman

In Hollywood, not that long ago, it was something of an insider’s tip that to achieve success as a screenwriter, you needed a working knowledge of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

In that 1949 book, Campbell laid out the ideas and symbols that undergird myths all over the world, including the hero’s journey, the basic plot that propels the stories of Jesus, the Buddha, Moses and Odysseus. In the hands of George Lucas, who looked to Campbell as a guide for what made a hero, Luke Skywalker was added to this pantheon.

When it came to women, though, Campbell, who died in 1987, was a little more limited. There were no adventures or battles or triumphant returns for them. Women’s place in these foundational myths, he once insisted, while writing about muses, was threefold: “one, to give us life; two, to be the one who receives us in death; and three, to inspire our spiritual, poetic realization.”

Campbell’s ideas have rippled out in the culture for decades — especially after a popular series hosted by Bill Moyers in 1988 — but he has long demanded a feminist response. It would be hard to conjure up a more suitable person to provide one than Maria Tatar, the Harvard professor who is one of the world’s leading scholars on folklore.

Her new book, “The Heroine With 1,001 Faces,” out this month from Liveright, is an answer to Campbell, though she is careful not to frame it as an assault. “Even though my title suggests that I’m writing a counternarrative, or maybe an attack on him, I think of it as more of a sequel,” Tatar said in a video interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

She is stirring what J.R.R. Tolkien once called the “cauldron of story” in search of the girls and women, some silenced and some forgotten, some from the Iliad and some from Netflix, who live in Campbell’s blind spot. The reader jumps from Arachne’s battle with Athena to the escape of Bluebeard’s trickster wife to Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew and even to Carrie Bradshaw typing away on her laptop.

It was a book, Tatar said, that she had been writing all her life, but it took the uniquely isolating first year of Covid-19 to provide the focus to put it all together.

“It was such an adventure for me at a time that was so dark for everybody,” she said. “It was also during the long winter nights at the height of the pandemic. It kept me alive. This is what stories do, after all.”

The first woman at Harvard to rise through the ranks from assistant professor to a full tenured position in 1978, Tatar, trained as a German literature specialist, fell into the study of children’s books and fairy tales almost by accident. As a mother in the 1980s reading these stories to her own children, and discovering their strangeness and violence, she came upon the idea of writing about and eventually teaching them. The first course where she tried it out was a hit, and she had her new specialization. She has since annotated many volumes of folklore, including ones by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

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