In his 1949 book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” the literary scholar Joseph Campbell laid out a blueprint for a classic journey, one that has influenced stories from “Star Wars” to “The Da Vinci Code.” The protagonist heeds a call to adventure, goes through an ordeal, and then returns home a hero. In Campbell’s eyes, the character was almost exclusively male.
In her new book, “The Heroine with 1,001 Faces,” Maria Tatar looks beyond the warmongers, vengeful gods, and lone wolves of ancient mythology, fairy tales, and contemporary film and literature to shed light on women whose heroic feats have been ridiculed or ignored for centuries.
The Gazette spoke to Tatar, the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology Emerita and a senior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, about the book and her own quest to bring tales of unsung heroines to light. Interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: What is the story behind the book’s title?
TATAR: My goal was to capture an infinite number of possibilities for female heroism. I wanted to challenge the male-centric premise of Campbell’s book and contrast his model with what is found in Scheherazade’s heroic storytelling project in “The Thousand and One Nights.” In most cultures from times past, women lacked the mobility of their male counterparts and were confined to interior spaces, where they engaged in domestic crafts: weaving, spinning, sewing, and, most importantly, storytelling. We can detect art, craft, and beauty in the work of designing women from ancient times (Arachne and Penelope) to more recent times (Celie in “The Color Purple” or the spider in “Charlotte’s Web”).