When Star Wars debuted in theaters in 1977, no one expected it to become the worldwide phenomenon it is today. The film not only revolutionized the industry in terms of how visual and special effects were being used, but it also brought a lost form of storytelling back onto the silver screen. While there have been plenty of pieces dedicated to the impact Star Wars made on the filmmaking process, very few acknowledge the role Star Wars played in returning mythology to film. On the forty second anniversary of one of the greatest films of all time, we explore how this fantasy epic in space heralded in a new era of films that revolve around Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
For those unfamiliar with the hero’s journey, it is a template in narratology in which a hero goes on an adventure and wins in a decisive crisis, then returns home changed. There are many more steps in-between, but those three points are a great overview. In order to understand how Star Wars created a new generation of heroes, we must first understand the context of the hero’s journey and how Star Wars uses the literary device.
The origins of the hero’s journey date back to the late 1800s when anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor found patterns of plots in heroes’ journeys. This was later expanded on by Joseph Campbell to the version many know and love today. His belief behind the journey was that anyone can be a hero, contrary to common literary practice at the time and throughout history. Literary heroes had always been born a hero, or had something within them that made them a hero. Campbell thought of heroes in a different way. He wanted anyone and everyone to think of themselves as a hero and to view their own lives through the lens of the hero’s journey.
Campbell wrote about his theory in a comparative mythology book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he cites many world myths from history that have a connection to the monomyth (another term for the journey). Stories mentioned in the book include the tales of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus. Campbell’s full journey consists of seventeen steps broken down into three sections: Departure, Initiation, and Return.
When George Lucas created American Graffiti in the early 1970s, it seemed that his career would follow in the footsteps his fellow USC graduates Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Randal Kleiser (Grease), directing mob films and period pieces of the times. However, while working on the future best picture winner, Lucas realized that there was a lack of modern mythology in film. In a biography about the late Joseph Campbell, Lucas said this about his thought process when creating what would become Star Wars:
“…it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…so that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books… It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with A Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs…”
Looking at A New Hope, it is clear how Lucas used each of Campbell’s seventeen steps to completely tell Luke Skywalker’s story, making him a compelling and relatable character while simultaneously creating a powerful and timeless hero.
The departure sets the stage for our hero or protagonist, who lives in what they or the audience would consider an ordinary world. In the case of Luke Skywalker, he is a moisture farmer on the planet Tatooine, but longs for adventure and escape. The hero gets a call to adventure, although is reluctant at first to leave their ordinary world behind. With the help of a mentor figure however, the hero accepts the call. The first stage is split into these five parts:
I. The Call to Adventure: The hero begins in a situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.
Luke receives his call to action in the form of Princess Leia, desperately requesting help from Obi-Wan Kenobi to deliver R2-D2 to Alderaan.
II. Refusal of the Call: Often when the call is given, the future hero first refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his current circumstances.
In the case of Luke, he feels obligated to work on the farm with his aunt and uncle, despite his true need to escape his ordinary world. However, when the Empire slaughters the only family he has ever known, Luke accepts his mission.
III. Meeting the Mentor: Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his guide and magical helper appears or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid him later in his quest. Meeting the person that can help them in their journey.
Luke has already met his mentor before his refusal of the call, but the teachings of Obi-Wan become clear once Luke receives his lightsaber.
IV. Crossing the First Threshold: This is the point where the hero actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are unknown.
For Luke, to cross the first threshold is to enter the Mos Eisley Cantina, a place full of scum and villainy. As Campbell suggests, the cantina is unknown and presents danger when Luke gets tangled with the wrong two thugs. Luckily, Obi-Wan and new allies Han Solo and Chewbacca bail him out.
V. Belly of the Whale: The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a metamorphosis. When first entering the stage the hero may encounter a minor danger or set back.
While minor, Luke’s journey into the “belly of the whale” is his departure in the Millennium Falcon in Docking Bay 94. As far as Luke and the audience know, he has never left his home, much less the planet. By embarking on the ship, Luke is willing to leave his home behind. The new team also encounters stormtroopers on their departure, thus fulfilling the minor danger of this step.
Some also believe the trash compactor sequence later in the film is Luke’s “belly of the whale” moment because it is a literal representation of that concept. However when looking at the film and the hero’s journey in chronological order, the departure at Docking Bay 94 is far more fitting.
The initiation section begins with the hero then traversing the threshold to the unknown or “special world”, where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers. The hero eventually reaches “the innermost cave” or the central crisis of his adventure, where he must undergo “the ordeal” where he overcomes the main obstacle or enemy, undergoing “apotheosis” and gaining his reward (a treasure or “elixir”). The hero must then return to the ordinary world with his reward. He may be pursued by the guardians of the special world, or he may be reluctant to return, and may be rescued or forced to return by intervention from the outside. The second stage is split into six parts:
VI. The Road of Trials: The road of trials is a series of tests that the hero must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the hero fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes. Eventually the hero will overcome these trials and move on to the next step.
Luke Skywalker’s trials come from his training aboard the Millennium Falcon. Luke attempts to track the laser bolts from the droid with his eyes, yet fails. He focuses too heavily on the physical, yet when he puts on the visor and blocks his vision, he is able to use the Force and deflect the shots.
VII. The Meeting with the Goddess: This is where the hero gains items given to him that will help him in the future.
The character of Princess Leia plays a pivotal role in all three of the original Star Wars films, but George Lucas always wanted to ensure her powerful female presence was clear through the camera lens. However, Lucas also wanted to make it visibly clear how powerful Leia was, thus her bright and clean white attire that is associated with royalty. That did not mean that she could not handle herself though, because as the audience sees, Leia is no one to mess with. It was Leia that got our heroes out of danger in the detention block, it was Leia who led the Rebellion to victory, and it was Leia who would later save Han Solo from carbonite on her own. The “item” that our hero Luke Skywalker receives is no item at all, but a valuable and powerful friend, hero and as we later learn, sister, in the form of Princess Leia herself.
VIII. The Woman as a Temptress: In this step, the hero faces those temptations, often of a physical or pleasurable nature, that may lead him to abandon or stray from his quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.
While some aspects of the hero’s journey are not addressed directly in A New Hope, Lucas never forgot where his story came from and filled in the rest when finishing his original trilogy of Star Wars films. Luke’s temptation comes from the dark side of the Force and comes in many moments throughout The Empire Strikes Back as well as Return of the Jedi. The most notable was during his duel with Darth Vader in the presence of Emperor Palpatine, as seen in the image above.
IX. Atonement with the Father/Abyss: In this step the hero must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving into this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.
Just like step eight, Luke’s journey could not entirely be complete in one film. The center point of his journey, fittingly at the end of the second film, is when Darth Vader reveals himself to be Luke’s father. As Campbell suggests, all the steps have led to this moment, and all the steps after move from this point. While not every step is in chronological order of the films, these are the greatest steps Luke must take in order to fulfill his journey.
X. Apotheosis: This is the point of realization in which a greater understanding is achieved. Armed with this new knowledge and perception, the hero is resolved and ready for the more difficult part of the adventure.
For Luke, his greater understanding is achieved when presented with danger at all corners, relies on his new training and faith and swings Leia to safety across the Death Star abyss. Luke trusts the Force and himself, which ultimately saves not only his life, but Leia’s as well.
XI. The Ultimate Boon: The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the hero went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the hero for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.
The Death Star’s destruction may be the ultimate boon, but that does not mean the story is done. For this step, the boon is R2-D2 and getting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Base on Yavin IV. With the tractor beam disabled and the enemy distracted, it is time for our heroes to make their journey back to the Rebellion and to destroy the Death Star.
In the return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with the treasure or elixir he gained, which he may now use for the benefit of his fellow man. The hero himself is transformed by the adventure and gains wisdom or spiritual power over both worlds. The final stage is broken up into another six parts:
XII. Refusal of the Return: Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.
Luke, finding his bliss and enlightenment within the guidance of Obi-Wan, a man who offered him more information about his father and a new way of life within the teachings of the Force, is struck with horror as he watches his mentor get struck down. He refuses to return without him, and is willing to die to avenge him. Had it not been for Leia, someone Luke would rely on heavily throughout the rest of the saga, Luke may have rushed into danger and cost himself or others their lives.
XIII. The Magic Flight: Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it.
The Magic Flight of the Falcon from the Death Star to Yavin IV is a key moment in the film and in the journey. It gives time for loss, but also reminds the heroes that danger is ever-present. Luke must put aside his loss and fight TIE Fighters from the gunner’s station aboard the Millennium Falcon. The task of protecting R2-D2 and saving the Galaxy falls upon him now.
XIV. Rescue from Without: Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often he must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.
The rescue from without in Star Wars comes from an unlikely ally, Han Solo. After seemingly departing from the journey in order to pay off his debts, Han returns to rescue Luke and to save the Galaxy, despite knowing what will happen to him as a result. Because of his efforts, Luke is able to destroy the Death Star.
XV. The Crossing of the Return Threshold: The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world.
Now that the ultimate task has been completed, Luke must return to his ordinary world. However, his ordinary world is no longer Tatooine, but rather a world without the dangers of the Empire or the Death Star. He must learn how to live in a world where he is now a hero of the Rebellion and has abilities in the Force while questioning if he can begin to share those gifts with others.
XVI. Master of Two Worlds: This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Gautama Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.
Luke, now recognized for his brave and valiant efforts, has found a comfortable balance between his new life as a hero of the Rebellion and his new life as one of the last Force users in the Galaxy.
XVII. Freedom to Live: Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.
This is merely summarized through the Rebellion victory over the Empire and the conclusion of the story.
Now that it is understood how A New Hope uses the hero’s journey to its fullest extent, it can begin to be understood how Star Wars kickstarted this new form of storytelling on the big screen. After Campbell’s ideology of the hero was showcased on the grandest scale, many altered versions of the hero’s journey began to appear, and were used in films such as The Lion King, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. One version of the journey was coined by Christopher Vogler, who worked on The Lion King for Disney. In this version, there are only twelve steps, all of which are hit in The Lion King. These steps are:
I. Ordinary world
II. Call to adventure
III. Refusal of the call
IV. Meeting with the mentor
V. Crossing the first threshold
VI. Tests, allies and enemies
VII. Approach to the inmost cave
VIII. The ordeal
X. The road back
XI. The resurrection
XII. Return with the elixir
You can see how these twelve steps were used in all of these modern classics, as well as Star Wars, in the graphic below:
A New Hope offered filmmakers and other storytellers a new way to tell their tales, and inspired generations into becoming their own heroes. Part of the reason that Star Wars has lasted as long as it has is because the story is timeless, and it continues to captivate audiences with its realism within a fantasy world while simultaneously inspiring those who watch it. When George Lucas sat down and used Campbell’s work to inspire his story I believe he understood exactly what he was doing, and later used the same material as a source to show how a hero who strays from the journey can fall, as in the case of Darth Vader.
Perhaps now as you, the reader, return to a Galaxy Far Far Away you too will look at the story of Luke Skywalker in a new light, just as I did after discovering the hero’s journey a few years ago. And perhaps when you sit down to watch another film you will see the similarities and references to a hero’s journey, because it is a prime example of what it means to find our inner hero and what it means to be human.
Graphic Source: Venngage