For me, Joseph Campbell was such a person.
A little background is in order—
The summer of '64 I sprained my ankle playing basketball and the doctor ordered me to stay off my feet for a week, the equivalent of solitary confinement for a boy of twelve.
To help me pass the time a friend loaned me Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi Martian trilogy, and I escaped my sofa prison for the world of John Carter, a Civil War veteran who was inexplicably transported to Mars where he became a renowned warrior and fell in love with the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris.
It was the best week of my young life.
From then on I couldn't get enough of hero stories. I devoured sci-fi and fantasy novels and comic books — The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Superman, Spiderman, Flash, Green Lantern.
By this time it was the sixties and early seventies, a time of anti-heroes, and my friends in high school were reading Catcher in the Rye and watching movies like Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Graduate. Heroes were out of vogue.
Besides, I was of the age when young men were supposed to put away childish things, so I trashed my comic books and sci-fi novels. But the craving to walk with heroes never went away.
Then, in my early twenties, to get my hero story fixes I turned to literature. Don Quixote. King Arthur and the knights of the round table romances. Parzival. The Green Knight. But even then, reading about quests and holy grails and courtly love wasn’t something a young man who was just starting a family could talk about openly without people saying, “O, grow up.”
In 1977 Star Wars premiered and going to the movies was fun again. It was while reading an article on the making of Star Wars that I first heard of Joseph Campbell. Director George Lucas credited Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, with shaping the Star Wars storyline.
The basis of the book is that for thousands of years mankind has been telling and retelling virtually the same hero story and that the telling has shaped nearly every culture in the world.
Here’s what I heard: “Hero stories aren’t just for kids.”
I became a self-enrolled student of Joseph Campbell, reading his books, listening to his lecture videos. And while figuratively sitting at the feet of this respected academic mythologist, not only did Joseph Campbell teach me about the world’s need for mythical heroes, he became my hero.
It happened while watching the PBS production, The Power of Myth, a series of interviews with Bill Moyers. Not only were the interviews informative, but Campbell’s passion for his subject and his spirituality burst from the screen. I went from wanting to learn what Joseph Campbell taught to wanting to be the kind of man Joseph Campbell embodied.
Now, I’m approaching my sixth decade on this earth and I tell hero stories for a living. I’m following my bliss because Joseph Campbell taught me that walking with heroes is a time-honored and noble lifestyle.