Star Wars. Those two words alone are enough to conjure up visions of an epic space opera in all of our heads. And you need look no further than all the backlash that George Lucas receives every time he makes changes to any of the films to understand just how many people this franchise has had an immense impact on. While the appeal of a breathtakingly beautiful futuristic vision, coupled with dazzling special effects and compelling characters are the most apparent reasons for the staggering success of Star Wars, there’s something else much deeper at work here. And, like most things in cinema, it all comes back to story.
Some of you are probably familiar with the hero’s journey, but for those of you who aren’t I’ll give a quick rundown of it now. Writer Joseph Campbell postulated that stories from around the world follow a similar narrative pattern that he called monomyth. He borrowed the term from James Joyce’s famed Finnegans Wake and described it in detail in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here’s a quick description of monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, in Campbell’s own words:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Sound familiar? George Lucas himself has cited monomyth as a key inspiration for Star Wars. Campbell argues that classical myths, fables, and religious beliefs of most cultures fit into this structure. For that reason, Lucas truly believes the timeless nature of this type of storytelling was one of the biggest reasons behind the monumental success of the films. Let’s take a closer look at monomyth to see just how Star Wars fits in.
Campbell’s monomyth is broken up into three sections; departure (or separation), initiation, and return. These can be further broken down into 17 stages. Very few myths actually contain all 17 stages, but you can find many of them throughout most stories. Here’s a nice chart that breaks it all down for you:
A quick glance at the diagram reveals just how much Star Wars adheres to the overall arc of the hero’s journey. But let’s take an even closer look.
The first step is the call to adventure and Star Wars provides one of the most classic example in all of film. Luke Skywalker lives a rather mundane life on a moisture farm on Tatooine. All of this changes, however, once Luke accidently triggers the holographic message Princess Leia stored inside R2-D2. It’s the old damsel in distress archetype and is what sets Luke’s entire journey in motion. It’s his call to adventure. The message also serves in pushing him along to the next stage of monomyth… the refusal of the call.
When Obi-Wan first asks Luke to join him on his journey to Alderaan and to learn the ways of the Force, young Skywalker declines the offer. It isn’t until his aunt and uncle are murdered by stormtroopers that Luke finally makes the decision to leave everything he has known behind. Obi-Wan himself actually fits into all of this on a much deeper level as well, as he represents the supernatural aid… a magical helper of sorts that helps our hero on his or her quest. In most myths, the aid only reveals themselves after the journey begins, whether on a conscious or subconscious level. You can argue that Luke’s journey really begins with the purchase of R2-D2 and C-3PO, so that holds true here as well.
Another aspect of the supernatural aid is the idea of a talisman; an object given to the hero what will aid them later in their quest. Of course, in Star Wars the talisman is Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. Stepping back and looking at the entire mythos of the Star Wars universe as a whole makes you realize just how symbolic of an action this really is. Again, it’s pretty clear that Lucas was crafting his story to fall right in line with Campbell's ideas.
The next step of the journey is the crossing of the first threshold. Star Wars does an absolutely beautiful job with this one. The crossing of the threshold involves the hero leaving behind their known world to venture out into the unknown as they set off on their journey. Luke literally leaves his home world of Tatooine for the vastness of space, which is pretty much the biggest unknown you can set out for. But crossing the threshold is not without its obstacles. Usually there are “guardians” that block the way in some shape or form. You need look no further than Mos Eisley to see how this plays out in Star Wars. My favorite example is in the clip below:
The final stage of the separation of the hero from what he knows about not only his or her self, but also the world is known as the belly of the whale. Here’s a long quote from Campbell that breaks down this extremely important moment:
The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple—where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.
With all that in mind, it’s pretty easy to see how Lucas used that imagery to shape this very important beat in his story. In this case, the belly of the whale is the Death Star and the stage is set in motion when its tractor beam pulls in the Millennium Falcon. Once inside the Death Star, Luke ends up doing things he never would have even dreamed of on Tatooine, thus showing his willingness to accept the final metamorphosis that awaits him. This all also sets up him meeting the goddess, in this case Princess Leia, soon after.
For time's sake, I won't break down the rest of the film, I'll leave that up to you. But, it should be readily apparent by now just how influential Campbell's philosophy was in shaping Star Wars. Lucas was extremely wise to base his story off of monomyth. Doing so taps into a storytelling language that is universal. Things like race, social standing, and religion all go out the window, because you're communicating on a level that transcends the normal barriers that separate us. It's why so many of our most famed narratives follow such a similar story path. Monomyth appeals to us on some sort of a subconscious level. Our inherent connection as humans to the hero's journey is even more apparent when you realize that, unlike Lucas, most storytellers (especially the early ones) don't really give it much thought when they're piecing together their narratives. When their stories end up falling in line with this structure it just goes to prove that the hero's journey lives inside all of us.