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The Star Wars monomyth


George Lucas's space opera is an excellent example of Joseph Campbell's theory; interestingly enough, the latest instalment breaks from this narrative

“Rather than confine his subject matter to myth and the human mind, Campbell found in myth, the key to the cosmos as a whole."

—Robert Segal

Three decades after The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars franchise picks up the story once again. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, take us on a new journey featuring Rey, Kylo Ren and many other new characters. However, whether it’s Rey’s call to adventure, as she’s shaken out of her ordinary life on Jakku, disrupting the workings of a lavish casino city or the fight against the First Order, what is it about Star Wars that keeps us coming back for more?

The answer: Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. 

Campbell, an American scholar, wove together the theory that would influence innumerable people for years to come. A deeply spiritual man, he was not bound by an ideology or theology. Instead he approached mythology as “the song of the universe." He studied myths and patterns across cultures and died the foremost authority on mythology. His theory of the "monomyth" is posited in his most famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

Campbell’s theory drew from a German Indologist—Heinrich Zimmer—who stated that myth itself could be viewed as “psychological road map for the finding of oneself in the labyrinth of the complex modern world". As a result, the hero in Campbell’s theory is any man or woman who has faced the challenges of their personal and historical position in life. They have emerged from their battles and instead of disintegration, they represent a society which shall be reborn as a higher, more evolved version of itself. The individual thus dies a metaphorical death; they are then transformed and reborn as the figure of a ‘true hero.’ 

It is this very crucial aspect that makes Joseph Campbell’s monomyth so endearing to each individual—the relatability of the hero’s arc. The journey resonates with every individual’s psyche as it represents the figure everyone may desire to be. Consequently, his theory began to impact the film industry around the world; filmmakers used the theory to create magic on screen and provide a journey their audience could relate to. 

An iconic example of the use of the monomyth comes from the Star Wars saga. There has been exhaustive research on the influence of the theory on George Lucas’s space adventure. Interviews with both the director and Campbell discuss, in length, the appeal of the movie and its depiction of nearly all the stages of the hero’s journey.

Lucas, a student of Campbell, himself states that he was strongly influenced by the appeal of the theory. He drew on a core theme of good versus evil to provide a story, of not one but many heroes, through the now eight, instalments. The evidence of its appeal lays in the vast fan base the saga commands.

Lucas combines the use of archetypes and various mythical narrative elements from fairytales, ancient lore and even modern themes (such as science fiction), to weave together his own mythology for our modern world. The theory itself, proposes 17 stages to the hero’s journey, which are broadly divided into three phases—separation, initiation and return.

The separation arc consists of the first stages of the journey: from the hero’s call to adventure and the refusal of it till he crosses the threshold separating his ordinary life and the adventure that lies ahead. This begins the second phase of his journey—the initiation. Here the hero passes through stages such as a road of trials, temptation, atonement and receiving the ultimate boon. These stages detail the obstacles and growth the hero must undergo in order to achieve his goal in the form of the boon. After this, the return begins. This phase consists of the stages the hero passes through after achieving the journey’s goal, which include a refusal to return¸ or the need for help to do so (rescue from without). The stages end once he returns to his original ‘world’ as a master of two worlds, i.e., a changed person.

Each of the stages is expressed by a portion of the Star Wars storyline. The pattern even applies in varying amounts to different characters. While the order of the stages may not completely follow Campbell’s original arc, they are indeed present. Luke Skywalker’s story portrays the complete hero’s journey. Episode IV - A New Hope begins with Luke’s call to adventure while on Tatooine, his initial refusal of it and his crossing of the threshold with Obi-Wan Kenobi (who serves as a supernatural aid). His meeting with Princess Leia Organa, his feelings for her and the revelation of their familial relationship—signifying his meeting the goddess—is portrayed early on in the same movie. 

As a result, his road of trials and periods of isolation (in the belly of the whale) form the basis of The Empire Strikes Back, with numerous instances of each. A few examples of the hurdles Luke faces include escaping from a creature called a wampa, nearly succumbing to severe cold, rescuing Han Solo and Leia Organa, and even losing his hand. Amid these trials, he also experiences a period of isolation, as he trains with Yoda on a faraway planet. It becomes a symbol of going beyond the superficial, and of a journey to one’s inner being as Luke finds himself “in the belly of the whale". 

The monomyth also finds its way into the prequels, as it follows Anakin Skywalker’s journey, and his failure to avoid temptation. However, the monomyth’s stages do not apply as easily, or completely to him. Despite this, Anakin and Luke find themselves achieving the second half of the hero’s journey in the sixth instalment, Return of the Jedi.

Luke rejects the temptation of the dark side of the Force that symbolizes the temptress. The phase of atonement with the father—becomes about Luke’s journey as well as Anakin’s redemption. Luke is able to bring Anakin back from the Dark Side, and in his return, Anakin is able to kill the emperor. Lucas uses this movie as a way to complete both journeys, where Anakin’s apotheosis comes in the form of sacrificing himself to save his son Luke; who moves through this stage by completing his mission and rejecting the Dark Side.

They both attain their boons in a symbolic manner (Anakin’s redemption and chance to see Luke) and physical (the destruction of the Death Star and Empire). Here, Anakin’s journey moves into the return arc—as he crosses the threshold of death, only to return as a master of two worlds in the form of a Force ghost, and with, in a sense, the freedom to live. 

Luke’s path through the return arc of his journey is both portrayed in his magic flight, from the Death Star moments before its destruction. The movie also implies that he returns from this adventure, no longer the simple farmhand, but wizened and mature; a master of two worlds. With the threat of the Empire and Death Star eliminated, he can begin to experience his freedom to live.

The newest episodes also feature stages such as the call to adventure (Rey’s), supernatural aid (Luke Skywalker), and road of trials (the battle against the First Order and Kylo Ren ). Although the original trilogies are ideal portrayals of Campbell’s stages, do J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, directors of Episode VII and VIII, respectively, incorporate different sides of the monomyth? 

While The Force Awakens clearly presents the audience with Rey and Kylo Ren’s classic hero arcs, is the hero with a thousand faces undone in Episode VIII? The Last Jedi appears to deconstruct the monomyth instead of continuing the purport the traditional narrative. The latest instalment presents us with a cynical Luke Skywalker—once the original hero of humble origin—space battles that can fail and other devices that tumble the fairytale like nature of the monomyth.

Johnson’s approach appears to add a helping of balance and reality to the action, by picking at the flaws of the archetypes in Campbell’s theory as well. Characters such as DJ, who remains a scoundrel throughout, too help propagate the realism the director chose to channel into the movie.

Does this indicate a shift in the story that resonates with a crowd in modern society? Or does it merely indicate a director’s approach to understanding the hero’s journey itself? Does the modern movie-goer now prefer a more realistic portrayal of one’s heroes, or is there still room for the hero with a thousand faces? Perhaps Episode IX, once again directed by Abrams, will shed light on the modern relevance of the monomyth. 

Mallika Desai is research intern at the department of psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit academic research organization based in Mumbai.

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