By Attack of the Books!
If you’ve ever wondered why Star Wars continues to resonate with viewers young and old decades after its special effects have been eclipsed by new technology, look no further than Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Star Wars did not spring from George Lucas’ pen like Athena from Zeus’s head, fully grown and with a shout. Before Lucas wrote Luke Skywalker, a farm boy from Tatooine, into his screenplay, Lucas drew on The Hero with a Thousand Faces for inspiration, guidance and structure.
First published in 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces draws on the idea that we are all born with a subconscious idea about what a “hero” is, or a “mentor” or a “quest” – a theory developed by psychiatrist Carl Jung and anthropologist Adolph Bastian, among others. This “collective unconsciousness” finds its way into the myths of humanity worldwide to create common stories with similar elements.
As Star Wars Origins explains, Campbell’s contribution was to tease out these elements and categorize them. He proposed this idea in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which provides examples from cultures throughout history and all over the world. Campbell eloquently demonstrates that all stories are expressions of the same story-pattern, which he named the “Hero’s Journey,” or the “monomyth.” This sounds like a simple idea, but it suggests an incredible ramification, which Campbell summed up with this adage: “All religions are true, but none are literal.”
In 1975, Lucas was struggling through the creation of a whole new universe when he rediscovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book he had read while in college. According to Brian Robb’s A Brief Guide to Star Wars, Lucas began to rely heavily upon Campbell’s book for structure, especially “the saga of Arthurian legend, with its chivalrous knights and heroic quests[.]”
The effect was powerful. Drawing on the shared myths and beliefs of worldwide cultures, Lucas was able to build a story that transcended cultures by building on commonalities to all of them. All stories are really the same, the monomyth purports, so Lucas would draw on those elements to create a story that resonated with everyone.
“Star Wars came along and it revalidated a core mythology,” said Newt Gingrich, speaking about Star Wars’ ability to resonate. “…That there is good and evil; that evil has to be defeated.”
Star Wars has all of the elements of a modern myth. From the call of adventure (“You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan,” says Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke) to the supreme ordeal (when Luke faces death in the trash compactor, at the hands of Darth Vader, and later the Emperor) to apotheosis (Luke becomes a Jedi), Star Wars very deliberately builds upon what Campbell described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and that is why it continues to resonate today, almost 40 years after it first hit theaters in 1977.
In some ways, reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces feels like cheating, like surreptitiously discovering the secret to Star Wars’ magic – and maybe it is. But at the same time, it reveals that the seeming effortlessness with which the films present themselves is deceptive.
And that just adds more magic to the myth that Star Wars has become and what it will continue to be: a modern retelling of a myth as old as time – and just as timeless.
Attack of the Books! is an Official Salt Lake Comic Con Blogger.